In everyday experiences, we can encounter God
God is always present with us, but we may need to change our mindset to be open to the sacred in our midst, writes Jim Brown in the first of two articles on everyday spirituality for the 21st century
By Jim Brown
Christians accept that God sometimes approaches humans in unusual events, like St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. More than 35 years ago, I had an extraordinary experience of God in a conversion I describe in my book Living Well in the Presence of God. Early one cold February morning, God surrounded me with his warmth and told me he loved me, just as I am. He rescued me that day, from my self-created prison of self-loathing and fear. Ever since, I have known his constant loving presence in my life.
Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). However, Jesus didn’t mean to exclude anyone from experiencing the kingdom. He gave us practical advice about how to do this, by listening and seeing like a little child. In this article, I start with the assumption that God equips all Christians to see the kingdom without extraordinary conversion experiences; our lives are filled with small moments of conversion and our practical spirituality in everyday life is the primary way that we relate to God and follow his will.
One of my favourite episodes in the Bible is the turnaround in the faith of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were despondent at Jesus’s death, but after Jesus talked with them for a short time and they recognised him, they were exuberant. They raced back to Jerusalem to tell everyone what had happened. That is what it feels like to encounter God, to experience God’s presence. You can’t stop talking about what you experienced! And you shouldn’t – telling others about what Jesus is doing in our life is one of the joys of being a Christian. Telling our personal story about encountering God is how we grow our faith and the faith of others.
So, do we actually encounter Jesus in our everyday life? Or does God hang back, and patiently wait until we approach him in prayer or in meditation or at Sunday services to give us a gift of seeing him? In my experience, God is lavish with his grace and yearns for us to constantly experience his love and respond. While we can’t summon God like a genie from a bottle, if we are ready to see him, he will come, in his own way. God is not distant; we don’t have to be spiritual Olympic athletes to summon him. God is not only in us; we are in him. If we realise that he is always present, no matter what, then we can begin to experience him constantly and live in close relationship with him.
The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said that “Christians in the future will probably be mystics or they won’t exist at all.” That is a very provocative statement, a call to examine our mindset about God’s real presence. And the mindset of many Christians today arises from the secular/scientific culture in which we live. We are all sceptics now, questioning everything. Our mindsets rarely allow us to see the sacred anymore; we see what the media or the internet or our unbelieving friends describe for us. We live in post-Christendom. So, our first task in everyday spirituality is to change our mindset: to accept that Rahner has a point, and that we probably won’t be Christians much longer unless we adopt the mindset of Jesus who saw God’s kingdom as being very near.
So how do we change our mindset? (If we think we already have Jesus’ mindset about the kingdom, we should test that assumption by asking how and how often we express our gratitude and exuberance about encountering God.) My suggestion is to reflect on your own life story up to now, for the presence of God’s gifts. I think you’ll find like I did that God has been walking beside you for your entire life. What seemed like happy coincidences were probably God’s gifts. Don’t just look for the big turning points in your life. Remember everyday experiences. Noticing a particularly beautiful shade of blue in the sky. A stranger smiling at you in passing. Your spouse unexpectedly volunteering that the dinner you cooked was especially tasty. When you recognise that you are becoming more and more aware of these simple joys, you are receiving a clue that God is at work changing your mindset.
I belong to a Sunday discussion group at my church. We discuss spiritual books, but often we end up telling our own stories about God. Recently, a young man in our group said that he finds it very irritating when people interrupt his concentration at work. But then he experiences a gift of patience – God saying, take time and listen. All of us learned from his simple story. Not only to be more patient, but that God is right next to us in our everyday struggles. It is very important that we share such stories with each other. It is the way that God builds our faith and the faith of the church. We need to seek out opportunities to share our faith stories – and the church needs to encourage us to do this.
Once we have the habit of telling our “Emmaus” stories to one another, we will begin to recognise that God is present in everyone’s life in many diverse ways. And from that recognition, we develop a desire to know and relate to Jesus more deeply, more consistently. We will be able to say to ourselves authentically, I know Jesus Christ. He is present in my life. I want to follow him more closely every day. That is the topic that I will cover next month: the practical process of everyday spirituality.
Jim Brown is a management consultant. He worships at St Anthony’s Fairfield. Living Well in the Presence of God: Everyday Spirituality for the 21st Century is published by Morning Star.