Do you remember the moment when you first knew you were feeling the presence of God? Maybe it came to you as a sense of hush or a feeling of peace in a Quaker meeting. Perhaps you felt comfort in a difficult time, or a warming of your heart during a conversation or a prayer. Maybe a light went on in your mind when you had a new idea that brought some clarity to something you’d been struggling with.
Some of us get introduced to God on a blind date. We go to dinner with someone and hear a story of grace that stirs our own heart. We go home, feeling tender, looking up, wondering about it. Some of us get touched suddenly by the kindness of strangers, the forgiveness of friends, or the belief someone had in us when we didn’t particularly feel we deserved it. God knows the perfect path into each and every life, and God reaches out at the perfect time and in the perfect way to make real contact with “that of God” that is already present in each of us.
For the prophet Jeremiah, God showed up in a powerful and direct way, not by dropping hints or leaving things open to Jeremiah’s interpretation. God said directly to Jeremiah, when he was very young, “I knew you before you were born and had your story already mapped out for you. You will have an important role in my work—you will be a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah protests, understandably, thinking surely God has chosen the wrong boy. Any one of us probably would have done something similar if we were faced with such a huge and divinely important assignment. But God is resolute: “Just go where I send you and speak what I give you to say. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” God is with him—that’s the comfort and the promise. That’s what will give him the strength and courage for the days ahead. And then God literally puts words in Jeremiah’s mouth and his ministry begins.
Jeremiah is an interesting, eccentric, and powerful prophet and his story and message has earned him an important place in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions. In Jewish rabbinic literature, Jeremiah’s adventures are often paralleled with Moses’. In Islamic writings, Jeremiah’s story is retold and expanded, filling in gaps in the Hebrew narrative. In the Christian tradition, Jeremiah offers us something new and very tenderly hopeful about our relationships with God. God has had a change of heart, he says, and now offers us a new covenant: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” This remarkable change opens the way for Jesus and lays the groundwork for George Fox’s discovery two millennia later: “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” Jeremiah tells us God is no longer interested in relating only through the priests and prophets. God wants a place in each of our hearts, from the least of us to the greatest, unconditionally, always and forever.
As I read through scripture, first the Old Testament and then the New, what I hear echoing across centuries, across cultures, across cosmic realms is how much, how unrelentingly, how faithfully God wants to be in relationship with us. Think about that for a moment, how profound that is. Not just God in relationship to the whole of us, all of us together. But God with each of us, in our small and singular lives, every moment of every day. Can it be possible that this whole unfolding story of God—from gardens and floods to kings and prophets, past armies and empires, through the love and light of Jesus into disciples and acts of compassion and justice across time—this whole unfolding story is about God’s light reaching each of our hearts and loving them into opening, right here, and right now?
It’s enough to leave us sitting in silence for a while, isn’t it?
If God’s first intention is not to make us, as wayward children, behave, but rather to invite us into a trusting, loving relationship, then this unfolding story of faith doesn’t depend on things like how good we are or how hard we try. It’s about being able to allow a single moment of connection with the God who loves us. And that single moment can lead to a simple practice, maybe a few moments of silence at a time, which can expand into a new, more peaceful way of being in the world, one that never wanders too far from that central connection with God.
In the New Testament reading we heard the colorful story of Jesus interrupting Paul—who was then called by his Hebrew name, Saul—on the road to Damascus. Saul was an example of someone who was living under God’s old covenant. A self-described Pharisee (and the son of a Pharisee) he’d had been born into a devout Jewish family and educated at a renowned rabbinical school in Jerusalem. As an adult, Paul was making a career of persecuting the early followers of Christ. In his own words, he said he’d persecuted them “without measure.” He was present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Of all people, why would God desire relationship with this man, so venomously acting to stamp out who were living this new covenant Jesus taught?
This divine introduction—like the one Jeremiah experienced 700 years before—was dramatic and unmistakable. The opening verse tells us how toxic Saul’s behavior had become: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” He sounds like a man caught up in a fanatical zeal. His intention was to round up anyone following this new heretical teaching of love and grace and bring them back for judgment—and most likely, imprisonment and death.
But as he was traveling along the road, suddenly a brilliant, blinding light from heaven flashed around him. It was powerful and frightening enough that he fell to the ground and then he heard a voice, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asked who was speaking, the answer was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The men with Saul were terrified and speechless, having heard the words but seen no person speaking them. Paul’s eyes were open but he’d been blinded and had to be led to the city, where he would follow Jesus’ instruction, and his life—and ours, as a result—would be changed forever.
I doubt that many of us have had “come to Jesus” moments that are quite so dramatic. I attended a workshop a dozen years ago with a spiritual counselor who told a powerful story of a personal divine encounter he’d had. He’d been a college professor for many years and was quite good at it, when he went through a difficult time and started to drink. His drinking got out of control and soon it cost him his marriage, his job, and his home. He described sleeping on a bench on campus one night and in the early morning, he awakened to the sound of a bus stopping. To his great shock—because at the time, he didn’t believe in God–Jesus got off the bus. He said Jesus didn’t say anything but held his hands out at his sides, palms up, and looked at him with so much love he’d never seen anything like it before or since. He asked us what we thought Jesus’ gesture might have meant and then he let us talk about it for a little while. Most people thought it meant, “You have a choice—you can choose alcohol or you can choose to be with Me. It’s up to you.”
Finally, he said, “In my heart, I knew immediately what his gesture meant—I didn’t need any explanation. It meant, “I love you either way.” Alcohol or not. Right living or not. God loves us either way. God’s love, God’s gift, God’s promise to us is about relationship, about God being with us. We’ll figure the rest of it out together as we go along.
Night before last, Ruby and Henry and I were playing a game of Life at the dining room table when suddenly the power went out. We had been spinning the wheel and moving our cars around the board, talking happily and piling up play money when without warning we were plunged into darkness. After a stunned moment of silence, I lit several candles and we continued the game by candlelight. Henry is not a big fan of the dark and so our spins and moves from that point on were punctuated with reassurances. The darkness felt too close and the house seemed somehow like some of its life, its warmth, its energy had gone out. But “being with” each other in the glow of the candles brought a sense of comfort and ease. We continued playing our game, and we still had fun.
In his book, Mind the Light: Learning to See with Spiritual Eyes, Quaker Brent Bill says something about our experience in the dark that night. He writes that when our lights suddenly go off at home, we feel immediate discomfort—like something is wrong—and we fuss and fume and whine until they come back on. He goes on to say we feel the same when we realize we are out of touch with our connection to spiritual light. He writes,
“The Bible tells us that ‘God is light; in him is no darkness at all.’ When I think about that, I understand a bit more clearly why my desire for light carries me closer to God. I am hungering for a connection to the divine. God is light. God made light. Light invites me into the presence of the divine. The Light of the divine presence remakes me in ways that are restrained and not so restrained. Sometimes it’s through a gentle stirring of love. At other times it is in a flash of revelation. That may sound mystical and radical. … Maybe we’re not getting enough of our recommended daily allowance of spiritual light.” (p. 8-9)
Every relationship flows and changes over time, like the spiraling strands of DNA we each carry inside. There are times of closeness and times of distance. Our relationship with God is the same. When we recognize the light in our spiritual life has dimmed a little, when our prayers have lost some of their aliveness, when we’re not spending as much time listening to God as we used to, rekindling a sense of God’s presence is literally as easy as breathing. In fact, here’s a little prayer technique to try. Breathing in, we can think, “Welcome, God,” and breathing out, we can name a quality of God we want to share with the world. Let’s try that.
As you breathe in, think, “Welcome, God.”
Breathing out, offer safety.
Breathing in, think, “Welcome, God.”
Breathing out, offer love.
Breathing in, think, “Welcome, God.”
Breathing out, offer beauty.
Breathing in, think, “Welcome, God.”
Breathing out, offer peace.
Living a life of faith—faith that transforms and comforts, that heals and forgives—becomes very simple when we remember that it’s all about relationship with the One who loves, nurtures, sustains, and guides us. God’s story has been unfolding across all time and leads right here to this very moment with God’s loving invitation to our opening hearts. And the best thing, the very best thing, is—no matter where we are along this path, ready or not—God loves us, either way.
- OT Jeremiah 1: 4-10
- NT Acts 9: 1-9
- Bill, Brent. Mind the Light: Learning to See with Spiritual Eyes. (2006) Paraclete Press: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1557254893