spiritual encounters or what happens first
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
It seems many of us were born into religion or came to faith vicariously. I'm one of those people. I grew up Community of Christ. I'm 6th generation (or something like that) in the church. My father made us go to Sunday worship and Wednesday night prayer service every week. When we had Sunday night service, we went to that, too. No choice.
It gets worse. I'm also the third generation in the Grice clan to serve the church fulltime in ministry. (Grice is my paternal grandmother's maiden name.) Some would call this heritage. But, I'm not bragging. Others see it as parochial at best. At worse, I'm trapped. When we simply follow in the footsteps of tradition, in an individualistic age it's fair to be skeptical and ask, "Did you really choose this?"
In our culture, authenticity means we make our own choices - especially with religion.
My late Aunt Ann used to say, "Everyone deserves their own conversion." My dad expressed the same idea. When I was about 12 years old, out of nowhere, he said to me, "It's time to consider developing your own testimony." I didn't know what he meant. I praise the idea of thinking and acting for ourselves. But, the idea that religion or conversion is our choice is only half baked.
Whether we grow up in a church or religion, I agree that we must choose it for ourselves. Religious belief and practice, like any ideology or tradition, requires more than blind belief or obedience. But, the fact is that Christian faith is not based on some individual choice. Something happens to us first. We don't choose faith, spirituality, discipleship, or a relationship with God because we choose it like something off a menu. Christian scripture and tradition convey this story again and again that something happens to us. Some experience claims us or changes us. Often, it's undeniable, but not coercive or oppressing. It just changes us. That's what happens first.
Paul's conversion on the Road to Damascus is one of the most cited examples. What's striking is that Paul (formerly Saul) was already deeply religious. But, an experience knocked him off his feet. I've often noted in preaching and teaching that Paul did not meet Jesus on the roads in Galilee. He met him the same way any of us can. He had a God moment.
I am confident the disciples faced a similar kind of conversion. It may have been a moment of teaching or simply the choice Jesus presented them: Walk away from everything - family, work, and doubts - and follow me.
Most of Jesus' healings and miracles testify of a similar experience with God and personal change. What we, modern folk, miss reading Jesus' miracles and healings is that they are about experiences with God. They are not about Jesus' superpowers. That assumes Jesus' world had some concept of "natural" and "supernatural" things. Not true. Read for yourself. What confounds the Pharisees, chief priests, and the crowd is that Jesus does things only God and the great prophets (like Moses and Elijah) are able to. That's the scandal. When God-things happen around Jesus, they not only change people. They compel a response. They convey the dilemma presented to anyone who has a spiritual experience.
What' to do with it?!
My point is that spiritual experiences are a grounding point for spiritual life. Some encounter or overwhelming experience or undeniable decision is the starting point of a new journey. Only the person they happen to - the individual - is the authority on those experiences. Only the individual is the one with their experience and testimony. Theologians and other believers might have a perspective or critical insight on what those experiences mean or how they fit in the Christian tradition. But, that they happened and how they change us - that is the sole property of the one who experiences them.
We need to record and share those life-changing spiritual experiences. It's time we share those God-moments again. Remember those God-moments that changed you and brought a new sense of life. Write them down. Get in touch with those feelings again. We need to hear each others' stories.
The point is not building evidence for God. That's a theologians debate. We need to share those stories because they tell us who we are. Spiritual experiences shape our self-image and our view of the world. They provide a vision for life's possibilities. They are a source of hope.
God-moments anchor us spiritually when we look at our screens. Consumerism fills us with feelings of want and what we lack. Political messages poison us with distortions of our world, winner-take-all religion (empire religion), and "us-and-them" worldviews. News and infotainment appeal to our base nature, where reactions, fear, and fleeting feel-good moments shape us.
God-moments are those moments that no one can buy or put in your news-feed. We should pray for them, remember them, retell them as our scriptures and traditions do. We should seek them for ourselves. They are evidence of another world, a sacred world in which you are born and live in. We need those stories.