Sacred Journeys - the Experience Stream

Last week I introduced our Term Two preaching theme based on the image of a braided river.  As we get to know each other in a faith community, and share about our different journeys in following Christ, we discover that there are multiple pathways or channels through which we human beings connect with God. Like the braided rivers we see in Canterbury, Christian faith has many streams that may seem separate at times, though we are actually all in the same river. This month we are exploring the different channels; I wrote first about my own, the 'thinking' or intellectual stream. Its good to share about what we have in common but also to identify where we differ. And perhaps to stretch ourselves by experimenting with another stream.  

The second stream we explored was the faith channel that focusses on experiencing the presence of God. For many, it was a tangible encounter with God that drew them to Jesus. Of course, Jesus has promised that He is with us always, but it seems that environmental factors can contribute to our ability to experience that presence. Prayer, special places, an offering of worship,  or an experience of beauty through art, music, architecture, or nature can lead to us feeling God's touch in a personal way, to "seeing God's face." (like Moses in Exodus 33:11).  These contributing factors don't cause God to "turn up", His spirit is always present with us, but like glasses that enable us to see more clearly, some dynamics in our environment enable us  to experience the reality of God's presence in a clear way.  Some of us seem to be wired to respond to that tangible presence more than others. I view them as "feeling" people, whereas the group we looked at last week are "thinkers".  

One of our leaders illustrated this stream by sharing a personal story of experiencing God's touch in a manifest way, a way that convinced him of the reality of God. He and some of our young people have had what some might call weird experiences - shaking, laughing, falling, weeping, and praying in a  language never learned. Weird but Biblical. Various Old Testament characters  met God in encounters that changed their lives - Samuel heard God speak, Isaiah saw him lifted up, and Daniel was thrown to the ground.  The apostle Paul - or Saul as he was then - was dazzled by  a light and fell down.  He heard a voice and saw a vision, dramatic manifestations that convinced him that the Jesus he had so vehemently opposed was real and personal. (see Acts 9: 1 - 9). Later believers were transformed by God's touch too. The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas stopped writing and speaking after he saw something of the holy God at Mass one day. Mathematician Blaise Pascal described an experience of God's presence as Fire and Joy, and David Brainerd was touched by 'unspeakable glory'.  Revivals like those led by George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were marked by physical demonstrations of fear, sorrow, love and joy, of tears, trembling, groans, loud cries... (even) fits, jerks and convulsions (from The Works of Jonathan Edwards). Ordinary Christians, church members for years, found their doubts removed in a vital new discovery of God's love.  These manifestations are echoed today in the stories of Toronto Blessing, Alpha churches and our own Baptist  Easter Camps. 

Our preacher John made the point that different people will have differing experiences in the same meeting, and that some manifestations may be dramatic or weird   but they are nonetheless real. (At this point I recalled what John said after dramatic events at Easter Camp last year, which he helped explain by using the example of asking two young adults in his house how their week at uni had gone. One was buoyed up by good marks and inspiring teachers, the other was depressed about being behind in assignments. Same question, different reactions. It can be like that with God). This year John made a little aside about the human input into these experiences, especially where extroverts are involved. He notes that there is always human element, this is God’s strategy. Every time a preacher teaches, there is plenty of his humanity in what they say. Don’t be scared of it, welcome it, he said. God chooses to work through our humanity, not apart from it. 

The takeaway of this sermon was a series of points about what God might be up to in this stream or channel of his connection with people: 
a) Experience of the presence of God corrects our human impulse to be able to control everything. Part of our fallen nature is that we want to be God, to choose, to control, to define everything.  To domesticate him! The living God won’t let that happen. Just when we think we have everything sorted,  he will act freely and differently.   ("He is not safe but he is good" - C S Lewis.)
b) Experience of the presence of God brings life and vitality back into faith. Faith can become just so many words. Ask our young people how they feel about God after their Easter camp experience - they will tell you “Fired up!” The touch of God's spirit often comes when we least expect it; God surprises us by acting in dramatic and unexpected ways. These experiences wake us up to the reality that Jesus is alive and well and at work in our daily lives and our community.
c) Such experiences of the reality of God challenge us to continuing growth in Christlikeness, in the spiritual fruit which reflect the character of Jesus. These grow in us not by our own efforts so much as by our remaining close to Jesus - the vine of which we are the branches.
d) And fourthly, the Holy Spirit adds real gifting and power to what we do for God. He can convict others by what we say or do. We are asked to continue Jesus' mission, to carry on God’s work on earth. But not on our own. 

We shared some more testimonies that day, stories of Gods healing touch, his overwhelming joy, his heart for a world that does not know God’s love. Of totally unexpected, real, corrective and at times scary experiences of God in our lives. And we noted how Paul's description of the Corinthian church clearly signals what is most important - Love.The essential gift that make everything else work in harmony. 1 Corinthians 12 tells about the differing parts of the body we have been celebrating this term. Chapter 14 warns of division and judgmentalism about how God's presence is experienced, conflict  that is just as real in today's church as it was in the first century.  In between comes 1 Corinthians 13, often read at weddings but not actually about marriage. Paul writes about love as the key to an experience of God’s presence that leads to transformation. 

In the end worship is a means to encounter God. He promises he will be in the midst when we meet together. Sunday services can be just a good habit, a faithful duty, words and more words. But we should expect to experience him. Expect to be changed. Expect the unexpected. That's what this stream of Faith has to teach us. 

To Chew Over: Here are two of the exercises we suggested for experiencing the presence of God :  
 Spend 30 minutes in a special place praying that the Holy Spirit might be a more significant part of your everyday life.  Go over your plans for the week and invite the Spirit to be part of those things with you and through you.
 At church next week, invite the Holy Spirit to lead you into ministry during the service. It might be a prompt to sit with a particular person, or a prayer to pray, or a word of encouragement for someone, or a small helping task, or a story to share, or a loving attitude to silently offer God. Look for what the Spirit nudges you to do. 
Take a risk!         

Something great is going to happen to you, 
Happen to you, this very day, 
Something great is going to happen to you, 
Jesus of Nazareth is passing this way.
Song sung at church in 1978.