Down Here in the Valley

Saint Columba's BayMy daughter is quite a simple human being.  If you smile at her, she will smile back.  If you laugh at her or sing to her, usually she will laugh or sing back.  When she is hungry, she cries.  When she is full, she sleeps.  When she thinks she’s alone she gets anxious and when she realizes we are near, she is at peace.  She sees the world as being full of endless possibility and accepts it as it is in all of her, and its, simplicity.

I haven’t asked her, but to the best of my knowledge, she does not lie there and ponder why my wife is feeding her or with what motives we smile at her.  I doubt she calculates the probability and timing of her next feeding and assesses our characters based upon how often she is fed.  Instead, she encounters us and the rest of the world around her in wide-eyed amazement, accepting life as it comes along.

Unfortunately, though, at some point in her life, she will do as the rest of us do.  Somewhere along the way she will lose this ability to appreciate life and to see the world with eyes of simplicity and gratitude.  At some point, we all begin to feel the need to make sense of everything and start to put everything in to its own logical category.  Thinking about this made me realize that rarely ever is theology actually done.

I realized at some point in seminary that I was not actually studying theology, but rather the history of other people’s theology.  We were given the categories and options and asked to choose which one fit us best.  While saying that we were free to choose, the professor would inevitably nudge us ever so gently in a particular direction lest we should go astray.  But rarely if ever were we asked how we encounter God and where.

This may be an overstatement, but I am hard pressed to find any place in the New Testament where Jesus described God.  There are plenty of places where he talks about experiencing God, but none where he gives a theological treatise on the existence of God.  Jesus set an example that was experiential that embraced the closeness of God.

It didn’t take the early church long to start pushing God away.  As human beings we have a great fear and dis-ease around mystery, so we feel compelled to explain everything.  How can Jesus be God, the Holy Spirit be God, and God be God when we are monotheists who only believe in one God?  Oh, well let me tell you about this formula I came up with.  We’ll call it the trinity.  How can God be good, but if God is the creator of all, then doesn’t that mean God also created evil?  Let me figure that one out.  I’m not at all saying that we shouldn’t think.  We should!  There is definitely a time and place for thought and reflection.  But we keep on coming up with ideas (some old and some new) to understand God and make sense of who and what God is.  In doing so, all we do is push God farther and farther away out of the realm of possibility for a genuine encounter.  We make that which is to be experienced at the very depths of our being into a mere cognitive theory.

Recently, one of the regular attendees of The Crossing handed me a book.  She said, “This is for you.  It’s Father Moon’s formula for the Original Principle of the Divine Substance and the existence of God.”  I smiled kindly and told her thank you.  But in my mind I was wondering, “Are we humans really that presumptive to assume that we can reduce the essence of all of existence to a single formula?  Are we so deluded that we think we can build a logical shelter to contain God for the benefit of our own understanding?

Peter tried to do that.  Rather than be astounded and silenced by the fact that he was standing in the presence of God, during the transfiguration he basically says, “This is great that we’re all gathered here!  Let’s build some little tabernacles for you holy folk to memorialize this event. Let’s concretize this so that we can come back and ponder on it later.”

We could sit and try to figure out what happened that day.  We could study the text carefully and consider in its context and judge the validity and facticity of the statements made in it.  Were they really on a mountain or even a hill?  Were Elijah and Moses actually physically standing there with them?  I don’t think it matters.  Elijah had encountered God on a mountain.  Remember that in 2 Kings?  He went up the mountain and there was a wind and fire and God was in neither.  Instead, God was in the sound of sheer silence.  Or what about Moses?  Westyn just read to us that in Exodus Moses climbed a mountain and after encountering God was aglow from the experience.  Now Peter and the others are on the mountain or wherever they are with Jesus and Peter is told “This is the one who knows how to experience me.  Be quiet for a change and just listen.  Don’t talk, don’t conjecture, don’t make up formulas, just be still and aware that you are in the presence of God.”

The next day, when they head back to be with the others they are met with a crowd.  A frantic man who seems to understand more than even the disciples meets Jesus and begs him to heal his son who is having some sort of fit.  A demon?  Epilepsy?  Some mental disorder?  We don’t know.  It’s not important.  What matters is that Jesus heals the boy in some way that we don’t even need to try explaining.  Being so close to God, having encountered the God of creation and been set aglow by the experience, Jesus is able to calm this boy in a way that none other could.

But Jesus is upset.  Not at the man for coming to him, but at the disciples for not doing anything.  “I begged them to cast out the demon, but they couldn’t do it,” the boy’s father said.  In the beginning of chapter nine in Luke, Jesus had commissioned the disciples and told them that they too could heal.  He told them that they too could do the things that he was doing.  But like Peter, they were too busy panicking, too busy trying to figure out what to do, too busy with their ideas to realize that an encounter with God and the amazing effects that come with it were right there at their fingertips.

In Celtic Christianity it is believed that there are places where the veil between this world and the world of the sacred is thin.  Barbara Brown Taylor says that “thin places are those places on this earth where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through.”  Although these thin places can be out in nature with beautiful scenery all around, she says “But thin places aren’t always lovely places, and they’re not always outdoors.  Hospital rooms can be thin places.  So can emergency rooms and jail cells.  A thin place is any place that drops you down to where you know you’re in the presence of the Really Real—the Most Real—God.”

I would imagine that each of us can recall at least one time where we were somewhere or doing something and we suddenly became aware that we were in the presence of the sacred or standing on sacred ground.  I’m sure we have all been to a thin place where the hairs on our neck and arms stand up on end and we just can’t explain, but we take it in and enjoy the presence of God rather than think of it.

When I was in college, I was learning so much about the Bible and what people thought about God that it kind of shook up my faith.  I still remember when my wife was pregnant with Westyn, the professor congratulated me and said, “See?  In those ultra sounds can’t you see proof that God exists?”  I told him no.  The other day my wife said that she couldn’t believe that Selah was nothing before the cells that came together and grew formed her and she was eventually born.  Although I realize that he was using the existence of babies to prove the existence of God, I came to understand what my professor was saying even if he didn’t mean it this way.  Cradling a baby who is so much more aware than we of the simplicity, yet amazing wonder of this creation is to be in a thin place.

The thin places are everywhere.  We don’t have to build a tabernacle on the mountain to commemorate an experience.  We don‘t have to figure out just the right formula to be in the presence of God, but instead, we can find God even right here by merely listening and being aware of the presence of our creator.  We can have an encounter with the divine that will set us aglow and make us feel like we have been to the mountaintop right here – even down here in the valley.

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