Our faith tradition stops educating us too soon. We learn bible stories, we learn a few classic prayers like the Our Father, we memorize the Ten Commandments, we’re taught some basics about the creed, we help out in the Sunday nursery, then we’re urged to be of service to others, to “be good” and we’re sent out into the wide, wide world. Having trouble? We’re urged to turn to Scripture and keep saying those prayers. Great advice, but there’s no index to the Bible that points you to the page with the answer of how to deal with a frightening test result. Mumbling the Lord’s Prayer may not reveal the answer either. What’s missing?
It’s not just us, I think all congregations and denominations struggle with this. We’re solid with the ABCs but we don’t know how to lead young people - or anyone - toward greater spiritual maturity. Yet the Letter to Hebrews exhorts us to move beyond elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity. Today’s reading from Thessalonians tells us “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” That’s more than Sunday school. I want to say this gently: God wants to teach us directly. God did not stop speaking with us when the Bible was closed. We, like Moses and the prophets can hear the voice of God. Each of us. More than just hearing God’s voice, God wants us to talk things over with him. This is a magnificent gift of Christianity. It’s also more than a little bit scary. And threatening too. Maybe that’s why Christian Ed gets stuck. Won’t people just follow their own desires? Their own drives? How do we know whether it's God speaking or the Evil One? Christian Ed actually does lay the groundwork for protecting us as we open up our own relationship with God through prayer. Discernment. Conscience. Is the conversation we’re having consistent with the ABCs we’re taught in Sunday school? Am I being led toward myself? or toward a more-Christ-like way of life? So the guardrails are in place. We can step forward into new ways to pray, listen and talk to God.
Moses, in our scripture today, sets out an example for us. God may speak with us in a voice undetectable by eardrum, but heard in our understanding. God may attract our attention in various ways. God may send human angels or spiritual angels. But in any case, we have to cooperate. We have to agree to listen.
Moses noticed a burning bush. Even though he was busy tending his father-in-law’s flock, Moses decided not to pass it by. As he approached this curious sight, he experienced the voice of God calling him. And he responded. As we heard in our readings, Moses asked to see God, to see the one who had called him. God told him it is not possible for a living human being to see the face of God. Yet, throughout scripture we read, “God commanded, God spoke, God said to me.” In our reading from Exodus, Moses saw the sign from God and Moses heard the voice of God, and God and Moses had a conversation. Did God speak to Moses by vibrating air to stimulate Moses’ eardrums? Did Moses speak to God by vibrating air with his vocal cords? Would the sheep have heard the voice of God or Moses? I don’t think so. I believe Moses heard the voice of God in his innermost mind, in his understanding. And as Moses heard the words of God in his understanding, Moses spoke to God through his innermost mind. The conversation was silent.
Even when speaking with God, immersed in his presence as Moses was, we cannot comprehend God. We cannot see his face and we cannot know his plans. Christian mystics speak of the Cloud of Unknowing. They teach us it is impossible to know God through human effort or human means. Only by accepting a suspension of our mental faculties, accepting a Cloud of Unknowing between us and the Lord, can we hope to experience the presence of God. Seeing the face of God has always been known to be impossible, never mind just a bad idea. But we are encouraged to hear God’s voice. To listen and respond.
Another medieval mystic, a woman known to us only as Julian of Norwich has much to teach us about conversation with God - and God’s nature. Julian recounts sixteen experiences and conversations with The Lord. The experience of God in intimate conversation is very different from the loftiness of Church language. This is our loving, friendly Creator God, not a human Emperor. Yes, God is overwhelming in scale and wisdom and power and goodness and graciousness and mercy. But in conversation, he’s friendly and even witty.
Julian’s showings knocked me over. In one, Julian saw a tiny hazelnut nestled in the palm of her hand. She looked at it with the eyes of her understanding, and thought, “What can this be?” And the answer came to her; “It is all that is created.” Then God taught her more.
I have had similar experiences. Julian saw the whole creation in a hazelnut. God showed me his entire created universe in a snowflake. And He gave me what I needed most at the time, but hadn’t known how to ask. At the risk of sounding kooky, I’ll tell you about my experience, because I think it's important to realize this can be part of the ordinary Christian life. Not just for Moses or Julian of Norwich.
Some twenty years ago I was on a contemplative retreat at St. Benedicts, a Catholic monastery in the mountains of Colorado. We mixed contemplative silent “sits” at the retreat center with worship with the monks. I had just been to early Eucharist in the monastery chapel. Here are some of my notes from that time:
I remember the wonderful sense of God's presence during the early morning sits. His presence was immediate. I "remember" the sense of well-being, and mirth. He told me that the morning after my arriving at St. Benedict's he had taken away my unhappiness, and let me feel the mirth and hilarity which I have now. This morning he asked if I also wanted him to take away my fear. I said yes. He took it away and in its place gave me the ability to sleep well. He also reminded me how light his burden was. He said, “Take it easy. Have fun.”
I left the meditation room. Glanced at my watch. 9:15. But our next "sits" were to start at 9:15. And it was a mile away at the retreat house. I began the most important walk of my life. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. I pulled my hood way over and looked down at the road. I started to walk and immediately slowed to a "meditative" pace. One foot, wait, then slowly the other foot. Wait. Slowly the next step. My feet found the natural line of the road. Like the rhythm of a hill when skiing. I didn't need to look. I thought of my circle of friends sitting at silent prayer, and somehow joined them. Immediately the Lord was there. It was as if he continued on the road with me after Emmaus. We had a talk. He spoke in my mind. I spoke in my mind. Every once in a while I laughed out loud. He is a very, very good friend.
Occasionally I stopped and looked around. My ski parka hood was up. It felt below 10°. My gloves were not quite warm enough. The walk was very slow. I was outside of time and space. Yet there as well. Towards the end of the walk on the long upward slope, I looked down at the snow on the road. I saw a single snowflake and inside that one snowflake I saw all the stars, all the atoms, all of creation, and I saw God without seeing Him — all inside that one snowflake. Then He laid a good one-liner on me:
"I don't get tired, I have all the energy in the world." I laughed out loud at that one. I asked when the end of the world would come. He shrugged and said, "I don't know." Another great one-liner. As Julian says, He doesn’t laugh, but likes to entertain. Not what we’ve been taught.
As I neared the retreat house, I knew it was time to stop. In my understanding I said, “So long for now.” He said, "Talk to you later." I looked at my watch. Both hands on 12:00. Almost three hours had passed.
Friends, I wasn’t trying to understand God with my reason or hear with my senses. I wasn’t trying to see His face. I surrendered to the Cloud of Unknowing and received the great gift of understanding. I had only a glimpse in the cloud, but it was enough.
The cloud accompanied Israel from Abraham, out of Egypt and to Christ. God still speaks with us in this cloud of unknowing, in silence. Though we can’t see God’s face, we know his presence. He wants to speak with us intimately as a friend. He is a friend. Julian tells us to seek him willingly and diligently, seek him patiently, and seek him with complete faith. She assures us of this great truth... . He really is simple, friendly, and utterly gracious.
Julian stressed how nothing she saw or heard was in contradiction to the teachings of the church. It was MORE AND DEEPER, NOT DIFFERENT. God wants us to stay on the rails even as we travel more widely.
Julian was supported by her Christian faith tradition. Scripture, ritual and prayer are critical for spiritual growth. Religion teaches us both moral discernment and spiritual discernment. The training and continuing practice in the basics of our faith, prepares us to understand and be transformed by the advanced teaching God wants for us.
So I encourage you to add contemplation to your religious practice. Find time and space to shut down your minds and mouths — and sit down, sit consenting to the presence and action of God within you. Give the Lord space to grace you with what he knows you need at the moment.
As Jesus’ teaches in Matthew, we have learned to discriminate between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s —and behave accordingly. Religious training and practice should help us let go of our attraction to the incessant tweets of Caesar and respond to the quiet Voice in the Cloud.
Let me conclude with a few word from Julian on college level Christianity:
"With his grace, and bolstered by the moral discernment taught by our faith tradition, every soul has a right to both seek and behold the Beloved. So, to sum up these teachings, it is God's will that we strive for three things: “The first is willingness. We must seek with diligence, without laziness, and, as much as possible and by his grace, gladly and joyfully, unencumbered by unreasonable sadness or useless depression. The second is patience. We should be steadfast as we wait for him, secure in his love, without grumbling or pushing against him, even if it takes a whole lifetime, because the truth is this life is much shorter than we think. Finally, complete faith. We need to actively trust him, knowing that he is likely to appear suddenly and without warning, raining blessings upon all his lovers. Although he works in secret, he desires to be perceived. And although he appears when we least expect it, he wants to be trusted. He really is simple, friendly, and utterly gracious. May he be forever blessed.”
That’s quite a statement of Faith.
Let me end with the best known teaching from Julian: Whatever the current circumstances of life, Julian wants us to be sure to keep in mind that God is more present and more in control than you can possibly imagine. She concludes, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Thanks be to God.