Gifts of the Living Presence – Written in preparation for the June Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference
Reflection Paper by Amber Joplin “This is my story and I am sticking by it!”
Note: I am attempting to use gender neutral terms for God in this reflection as God is neither male nor female, however referring to God as “he” diminishes the image of god that women carry as well as men. Where I need to use a pronoun, I alternate between using he and she.
For some time after my husband died, I wondered where God was, and where he had been through those devastating loss filled days. At that time I was a self-identified Evangelical Christian attending a Pentecostal – type independent church. The God that was taught there was a daddy who wanted to give his children gifts. “Just ask!” the preacher said. But the preacher wouldn’t ask to raise my husband from the dead, and my impassioned pleas were denied. All I was capable of doing for weeks was to lay in the hammock on my front porch and watch the changing patterns of leaves against the sky.
After I exhausted thinking about where I had gone wrong, and the events I had not been able to forestall. I thought about God and why He didn’t help me this time. He had seemed to help so many times before. Why hadn’t God intervened? Warned me? God knew what loss felt like, after all it must have been awful standing back and letting Jesus get killed. None of this fit with the loving daddy version of God. And I thought about prophesies that Jesus would be a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Then one day in my grief, I had an insight. I comprehended that God was in fact right there with me in my grief, sharing it as only someone who understands can.
This was a huge comfort to me as I badly needed to know that I was not being punished for a mistake or being abandoned by a capricious deity. However, it was much more than a comfort because it began to redirect my understanding of how God was interacting with me. God and I were not locked into merely a father/ child relationship of discipline and dependence. We were actually in a relationship of togetherness. I could see at that point that the loss of my husband was not the result of my failures – or of God’s failures. Rather David’s death was a life shattering event that God understood and share with me.
I don’t know how it was that in the preceding fifty plus years I had not experienced the Presence. I had certainly heard of the concept – and read entire books of the Bible that celebrated it! Perhaps I was too busy working hard to do and be good. Perhaps I had given up on being good. Perhaps I was satisfied with deep human friendships. Perhaps I just didn’t think to ask for more. But after having the experience of the Presence, I continued to sense this Presence and began to look for a spiritual home that was safer for my shattered self. I could not relax again in a place that saw suffering as failure and lack of faith.
What I like about the Presence is that I feel safely attached to Spirit. I don’t have to worry about making a mistake or sinning and losing my way. I cannot lose my salvation. I cannot miss God’s Plan for my life. God is with me. Sure, I had to give up the Sugar Daddy in the Sky, but that god had broken too many big promises. The God of Presence was a totally different sort of character.
Presence is with me. Presence enfolds me. Presence waits for me, not running ahead. Presence doesn’t take over when I try something new. Presence goes to bed and keeps me company when I can’t sleep. Is waiting calmly when I wake up. Presence doesn’t judge what I eat or drink – or wear. Presence is willing to stay home or go out. Presence sticks by me when I fall apart and doesn’t point out how silly my reaction was. Presence will hang around if I chose to just lay on the couch for a few hours. Presence comes along when I go out to have fun and isn’t jealous if I enjoy the company of others. Actually, Presence gives me some of her patience and kindness to share with others.
And Presence calls me. “Let’s be close,” he says. “Be still and feel me with you.” “Let’s see how close we can be now.” And then a promise that “we will be closer yet.”
Sometimes Presence seems to nudge me to sit quietly for others. Maybe like another sort of presence for them. I get the idea that I should just listen to the little neighbor girl across the street who is telling me how afraid she used to be and how she now has self-confidence. Listen to the needy person at the food bank telling me why they cannot pay their water bill. Listen again to a meaningful story. Listen for the apology cleverly concealed behind banter. Listen and attend, listen for the connection.
When I moved to Spokane I was free to find a new Faith Community. I knew I needed the community for spiritual support and I also wanted to learn more about the God of Presence. I had only been taught about Angry, Jealous God and Sugar Daddy God, although I had briefly been exposed to a Forgiving, Inclusive God, whom I found very confusing. At Spokane Friends, experiencing God was described as experiencing the Inner Light. We sought Light and held one another in the Light.
I was challenged at Spokane Friends by what felt like sleight of hand Bible teaching, where familiar texts were re-analyzed and common interpretations side stepped. Tiny story elements were investigated and intents were re-framed. This questioning was intriguing and somewhat alarming as it raised questions about foundational theological concepts I had been taught. Outside of church I was also being challenged to adopt a more rigorous approach to knowledge. In my graduate program I learned how finite the limits of human knowledge were. I studied, read, and researched a tiny segment of a topic for seven years, and became a leading expert on that fragment of knowledge for possibly as long as one year. And no one knew better than I did how much I still hadn’t learned about the subject.
These limits on what I can know lend credence to a mystical/ experiential approach to Spirit. In the past I had been taught that study and beliefs and obedience were key to relating to God. But life and reason have taught me that I can study endlessly and know very little. I can believe what I am told, but those beliefs can be very disappointing and destructive. And I have to be careful in obedience to not obey my culture or what people tell me to do, because my culture and community often approve hurtful behaviors and limit what God is trying to do.
This week, the Journal of George Fox, literally and without provocation, leapt off the book shelf and hit my boyfriend on the head. Consistent with his habit and nature, he did not put it back on the shelf, so the next day I picked it up to see what I would find on the topic of Presence. Henry Cadbury’s introduction to the book frames the religious context of Fox’s spiritual development identifying four different religious movements that were active in England in the early 1600’s. Cadbury suggests that these sects expressed the human search for meaningful connection with God, writing, “…there is something in a man as real as his intellect, which is not satisfied with this clamping of eternal truth into inflexible propositions. Personal soul-hunger and the necessity which many individuals feel for spiritual quest must always be reckoned with.”
Fox, describing his spiritual searching prior to his experience of Jesus being the one who could speak to his condition, describes many unsatisfying interactions with those he identifies as “professors.” Interestingly these professors are not college teachers, but those who profess a religion. Fox distinguishes between those who profess faith and those who experience and live in relation to Spirit. I find it stunning that back in the 1600’s the earliest Friends set themselves on the path of freedom through the experience of God’s presence, yet here we are in 2016 struggling with those who wish to make us “profess” a certain set of beliefs.
Another duck tail. This week six fuzzy, chirpy, little brown ducklings hatched out from under the broody hen. Boyfriend Bob gathered them into the house, provided heat and water, and then brought them to town into my care. The little chirpers have no idea that Bob collected the eggs from those moms that don’t want to set, and gave them to the broody chicken who really wanted to, or that every day he checked the nest and removed competing eggs, or even how hard he had to look for a few of them when he heard the chirping but couldn’t see the sources. They came to town in a cereal box and went into a tub on a heating pad, with lights for added warmth. Every hour or so when I check their food and water, they run away hiding with their fellows as though I present a great danger. As soon as I leave, they run to the dishes eagerly dipping tiny bills.
After a day or so I see a few of them eyeing me, turning little heads sideways for a clear view as I walk through the room. What is that big thing? Now what is it doing? Is it going to get me? I could. After all this morning I took away the warmest light, the glass cover, and the littlest duckling who was soaking wet from a morning bath in the drinking bowl. All of those items were needed by the newest batch of yellow ducklings who had just arrived from the farm and were quite limp and lethargic. These little yellow ducks needed the extra warmth from the lamp, and also the good example of little wet Brownie in learning how to eat and drink. Interestingly it took only a few quick glances for the yellow bunch to allow Brownie to join the fluffy pile under the heat lamp. Somehow these distant cousins were comfortable with each other in moments.
It is not a flaw or failure that these ducklings do not understand who I am. I am not upset at their instinctual fear, but as their caregiver I find it amusing that they are so fearful of me and so instantly trusting of their fellows. (I wonder how often Spirit has to smile at how silly we are in our understanding.) Learning to relate is a developmental process. Part of growing up for some. Some ducks will value interactions and seek out our company. Most only come running when we are bringing out food (just call me sugar daddy). A few seem to seek to be with us as companions. To share our presence. Why so few? What would it take for more of them to do so? Would it be worth it?
It is also not a flaw or failure that humans struggle with relating to Spirit. Although it is the Spirit who gives life, many of us require developmental processes and life events in order to experience the Presence. Actually it is not surprising that it can take many years or extreme events for some of us to experience Presence. Presence is subtle, a still small voice in a very noisy world. And Presence is so unlike what we are taught to expect by well-meaning parents and Sunday School teachers. It does not manifest itself because I am being nice, fitting in, following the rules, memorizing Bible verses, or having excellent manners. Rather, I suspect some folks who discover Presence early are the people who follow their heart rather than their head or cultural norms. And people who come to the end of their strength.
Before I had my experience of God’s Presence in my life I was just as much God’s beloved, and had just as much of her love and light. I have not moved to a higher plain or to greater knowledge or more benefits. I am not a better person. I do have more comfort and less struggle in my relationship with Spirit and more hope for my future. This informs my approach to others who do not share my views. Spirit is equally giving life to each of these individuals, sharing her love and Presence with them. Offering full acceptance. In as much as I am able to share Presence with others, I can do so, by sharing my experience and calling out the best in those I know are committed to Love. I am also challenged to work for the good of all these others who my best friend, Spirit, loves so intensely.