140418 – Sharing Presence

(part 3 of a 3-part series called “The Presence Project”)

Surely God is in this place! Help me notice!
Surely God is in this place! Help me savour!

Those are the affirmations and prayers we’ve explored over the past two weeks. Before I go on to the third and final part of the series, let’s review how we got here.anam-cara-pray-friend

My first and foundational step in this whole spirituality or religion thing is to come to an awareness that there is Something More than just this. There is an awesome, holy, sacred Mystery that permeates everyone and everything I encounter.

My problem is that I don’t always notice it. I’m oblivious. I’m distracted. I’m busy. I’m too into my own stuff. But no matter how cluttered my life is the Sacred seems to keep poking through – relentlessly trying to get my attention – as Bruce Cockburn might say “kicking at my darkness until it bleeds daylight” – seeking me out despite myself. And once I catch a glimpse of it I want more!

It’s funny that we go through so much of our lives blind to God’s presence and then when we have an awakening we wonder how we could have missed it all that time. Like Jacob in Genesis 28:16 we have a spiritual experience that profoundly touches us and we snap out of our zombie-like fog and shout out, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

But now I know it! Now I KNOW it!Now I want to dedicate my life to looking for it everywhere I go – because God’s presence surely isn’t just in sacred places like churches, it’s also in sacred places like nature, and in sacred places like your office, and in sacred places like your linen closet. God isn’t just in this place; the presence of God is EVERY place! Help me notice! Help me notice! I want to develop what Brother Lawrence calls “the loving gaze that finds God everywhere.”

And then what? What should we do after we start to develop the kinds of eyes that Jesus said we need – eyes to see! What do we do after these wonderful windows open up and we see God’s presence revealed? What do we do with that Sacred moment?

We savour it!

We enjoy it. We glow in it. We revel in it. We bask in it. We allow it to wash over us, flow through us, fill us up, light us up, and enliven us.

And we strive to become really intentional about committing and investing ourselves to practicing that Presence, to be more and more mindful about savouring the Presence that surrounds us.

Our affirmation is that “Surely God is in this place!”
Our first prayer response is “Help me notice!”
Upon noticing our second prayer response is “Help me savour!”

And then what? Are we done? If we stop here we get all sorts of inner glow but for what purpose? Tuned-in through noticing, filled up through savouring, but what next?

If we tightly hold onto it for ourselves we get to feel all grounded and connected and good inside for a while, but soon the glow fades away – like trying to hold water in your hands.

The Presence of God cannot be caged, controlled, or contained – it can only be tapped into. It is never yours alone; it is always ours together. So being a solo spiritual person is an oxymoron. Yes, aspects of your spirituality must be entirely personal, private, and just about you and the Mystery, but if it stays only private and personal you aren’t experiencing the reality of God, you’re just delusional.

Sensing and savouring God’s Presence fills you with spiritual energy and spiritual power, and like those first disciples of Jesus in the upper room on the day of Pentecost (which we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks) that Spirit moves you, it animates you, it draws you out of yourself and into the world to share that Spirit and Presence with others.

And here’s the greatest thing about this. When you share your experience of the Presence of God it’s not like having 4 chocolate chip cookies and giving away 2 of them leaving you with fewer cookies – which is clearly not God’s plan! (LOL). When you share your Spiritual Energy which filled you up as you sensed and savoured God’s Presence you don’t spend your Spirit and have less, rather it amplifies your Spirit and you get more, and more!

So if you open yourself to sensing Presence, and become more intentional about savouring Presence, the next step is about sharing Presence!
How might you do this? I’m going to suggest three ways.

The first is the most obvious. Look around you. Look where you are. You’re sharing God’s Presence with others right now. Unless you were dragged here today you’ve come because at some level a window opened and you awakened to and sensed the Presence of God in your life, and hopefully you savoured it when it happened and it nudged you to make your way here today.

Sharing our spiritual experiences through participation in group activities is what we do best in the United Church! We have all sorts of wonderful ministry opportunities, and groups like United Church Women, and our youth group, and our Men’s coffee and work group, and our program calendar learning events, and the countless times you all stand shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen or pitching in at the church. All these and more are how we share our spiritual experience of God’s presence in groups.

A second way we should share our spiritual experiences is in a guidance relationship. For most of our church members that means being in dialogue with me, or a wise lay person, about questions or confusions or just describing things that have happened in your life.

But I think for us to really grow spiritually we need to learn to be more intentional about this. We’ve talked about the importance of mentoring before – being in a sharing relationship with someone “more spiritually experienced” or “more spiritually mature” than you is a wonderful idea. A lot more of you are more mature than you probably think. Many of you would make terrific mentors.

Throughout church history there have also been more formal mentoring-style relationships. Usually this gets called “Spiritual Direction” – where a trained person sits with you on an ongoing basis and through prayer and dialogue draws your spiritual experiences into focus and reflection. (The third chair, by the way, represents a chair for the Holy Spirit or Jesus to sit in. The Spirit is the real director.) I actually did the spiritual direction training a couple of years ago, but there aren’t very many of us around. It has mostly been a “Catholic thing” however it’s gaining traction in our circles.

Spiritual direction isn’t just a learned person dispensing wisdom though. It’s a relationship. It’s like Romans 1:12, where Paul said “I’m eager to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours. In this way, each of us will be a blessing to the other.”

Sharing your spiritual sensings and savourings with a guide, or mentor, or director can be a profoundly powerful way to grow deeper.

The third form of sharing spiritual experiences I want to lift up is probably the most powerful, yet paradoxically it’s the least practiced! I’m talking about sharing with a fellow journeyer – what Philippians 2:2 describes as a “deep-spirited friend.”

We do great at sharing our spiritual experiences through groups and ministries. And many people yearn for someone to guide them and find mentors. But we are generally terrified at the prospect of opening ourselves to a deep-spirited friendship! And it’s too bad because we’re really missing something wonderful.

In Celtic Christianity they call deep-spirited friendships being “soul friends.” It was a core part of their spirituality. In their culture it was expected that everyone would have a soul friend (or anam cara in Gaelic). In fact, one of the famous ancient Celts, St. Brigid, said “a Christian without a soul friend is like a body without a head!”

I can imagine Brigid echoing Paul in Hebrews 10:24-25 “Think of ways to encourage (or provoke) one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more!”

A soul friend is a spiritual confidante, a spiritual equivalent to a husband or wife – it’s a very deep and very intimate relationship. It was fascinating at our Monday morning scripture discussion group (“The Porch”) this week as I kept trying to nudge the group to talk about personal one-on-one soul-friend-style relationships that being good United Church folks they kept nudging me back to groups!

Why do you think that is? Why are we so good at group expressions of our spirituality but less so with mentoring and downright bad at personal and intimate expressions of our spirituality? What holds us back? I think it’s a number of things:

– we don’t do trust well – we’re pretty guarded

– we’ve been taught not to talk about politics or religion

– we (mainliners) don’t do emotion well – unlike our more charismatic sister denominations

– we don’t do openness and vulnerability well – we like to be in charge!

– we may think the other person won’t want to talk about the spiritual stuff so we never bring it up – and so it goes unsaid

– we may lack the language to express our feelings and experiences about the things that go beyond language

– we don’t like silence – we tend to fill up potentially sacred moments with noise

We can learn to sense God’s presence, and we can become more and more intentional about savouring that presence – but until we can let down our guard and really share our experiences and ourselves with a trusted soul friend we may never get to the depths of joy and abundant life that sensing and savouring Presence has the potential to open us to.

I pray that you will hear that and pray about it yourself, and take the big risk, and open yourself to finding a soul friend.

So, we sense and savour Presence SO THAT we can share it – in intimate relationships, in loving community, and in the world!

Sensing, savouring, and sharing Presence isn’t the only thing we need to do – but I truly believe it’s the first thing. We can’t let go of worship, or prayer, or contemplation, or fellowship, or service, or evangelism, or outreach, or justice, or any of these very important aspects of our faith journey – but sensing Presence, savouring Presence, and sharing Presence is the foundation, the first step on the journey, the lifeblood that inspires all the rest.

And so I dream of a church:

–       a church filled with people who affirm that “Surely God is in this place!” – every place!

–       a church filled with people whose constant prayer is “Help me notice!”

–       a church filled with people who upon noticing God’s omnipresence set more and more of their time and intention toward savouring that presence

–       a church filled with people who are becoming more and more fully human because they are sharing their experiences of sensing and savouring with deep-spirited friends

–       a church filled with people whose sensing, savouring, and sharing God’s presence so empowers them, and inspires them, and energizes them that they pour themselves into sharing God’s loving presence with everyone they meet, everywhere they go

That would be a church overflowing with the new life that Easter promises!

That would be a church like the very first one – sensing, savouring, and sharing God’s Presence.

Could Faith United be that church?

Amen!