As a child and youth, I knew that there was a place to find God. God was in the passing of the peace, the well preached sermon, and bread and wine prepared for the malnourished. Unfortunately, the whole experience could be ruined with a couple of bad hymns. But give me a good dose of Mac Powell or Chris Tomlin and we’ll have church. What was clear was that there was a gap between God and the world and so we needed set apart spaces and hours for regular habits to conjure Emmanuel, or God with us. Worship was almost like a ouija board; God was present, but only because someone was manipulating the conditions.
This changed over time as I began to sense God’s presence equally outside of manicured experiences and in surprising places such as the stranger, the silence of an abandoned chapel, or the hollow moments that promise to be void of light. I shouldn’t be surprised; these are, after all, places God asks to be found.
Shortly after I took my first pastoral appointment I walked into a room to visit a woman who’s life was slipping away. Her rhythm of breathing escalated, just short bursts grabbing whatever air she could hold. Then, it slowed and her mouth hung open. We pushed a wet sponge in her mouth to keep it from drying out. And Jesus was with us, hanging on the cross as a sponge of wine was hoisted up to his mouth. It turns out that the God-forsaken places—the cancerous cells and the crucifixions and the hearts of the mourners—are also saturated with God’s presence. And the pain is taken into the life of the Triune God, as Jesus cries from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that all might be redeemed.
God is there, but God is also here. God is everywhere and in everything if we develop eyes to see. God is in every towering mountain and the Live Oak Trees draped in Spanish moss. God is also in apparent nothingness like the geographic area between Savannah and Atlanta, or what we call the armpit of South Georgia. And if this is true then God is just as present in the newborn baby as the intensive care unit or all of our acts of love that sustain each others' lives. We don’t have to look at the sky to find God, but look horizontally at the burning bushes— the people we meet and places we find ourselves situated.
There are times when I question this—notably when a truck comes roaring down the street, cuts me off, and proceeds to go slower than my original speed. But God is even there, though maybe buried deep under a mixture of insensitivity and ignorance. There’s no secret combination that has to be unlocked, no permission must be granted from an old white guy wearing a robe, or particular building that must be accessed. God is already present and no incantation will make it more true. It’s what Matthew Fox calls a form of spiritual democracy; we all have equal access to God. A Wesleyan might describe it with God’s prevenient grace, or God’s presence pervades every atom of the world drawing us deeper into God’s own being.
The theological word we use for this kind of theology is panentheism, a word that carries a lot of baggage because of its varied iterations. The word literally means, “all-in-God” but we can also say, “God-in-all.” But it might be more apt to say that God isn’t an isolated being distant from our world who sometimes pulls up a pair of jeans and laces his boots to grace us with supernatural presence. That is, if we’re one of the lucky children who gets visitation hours.
Instead, I say with Paul that God is ‘where we live and move and have our being.’
Panentheism developed out of a response to ‘pantheism’ or the insight that “God is all” or “all is God,” which easily slips into a sentimental, new-age rumination about how God is every flower, drop of rain, every chirping bird. There must be a distinction between God and the world, as God must be more than what we see and experience. And most hope in something more than nature’s cycles of ‘death and resurrection.’ God is not nature, but God is in in nature.
Panentheism is nuanced, though some say it makes no iota of a difference; it’s all heresy. But to me it speaks to the conviction that God is here and God is still, in a sense, out there—transcendent and immanent, silent and as close as the breath in your lungs. This is God who is one-and-three in a dance of love. It’s an outworking of a God who is incarnation, or literally in the meat of our world setting up a tent. “Father,” Jesus prays before he leaves the earth, “May they be one in us.” He ascends and carries the scars born from his time on earth into the core of God’s own self. The Spirit blows into our hearts and, as Saint Francis says, ‘hides in a piece of bread’ and a sip of wine. When Paul tries to describe our existence as the people of God, he calls us ‘Christ’s Body’ and challenges us to remain ‘in Christ.’
If it’s true, then we’re more than merely images of God. God actually resides within us and us in God. Thomas Merton puts it like this: “And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Now, that’s a bit generous—a candle is more fitting. Or for others, a matchstick that takes a half-dozen attempts to strike a flame. But no one is devoid of God. Not the Muslim who moved next door, the Latino who is looking for a better life, the political foe, or the addict who lies, steals, and destroys for one more hit. God’s image is planted in all of us, even if God withdraws to give us the freedom to choose to allow the flame to burn at varying degrees and temperatures.
Christianity, for me, has become chiefly about learning to see and discern the divine as I’m tasked with being a congregation’s chief optometrist. Some experiences need less interpretation. The deep oranges and pinks of a sunset that blend together like a water color speak of God’s creative beauty. The tables brimming with wine and overflowing with laughter speak of a God who is with us in eucharistic-thanksgiving-communion if we have sacramental awareness. But God is also more than puppies and blades of grass.
Richard Rohr tells this story handed down from the rabbis: a student asked the rabbi why no one saw God anymore, the rabbi answered, “Because nowadays no one is willing to stoop so low!” God is also emptied into the world’s worst hells, that there may be no place where God is absent. And if God is even there, then the church is called to be there, too. This is the God who is liberating, restoring, and filling the world with grace and presence. The particularity of this God gives us a particular hope, that at the end of all things, ‘God will be all in all.’
Until then we’re called to remain grafted to the vine, making our home in God as God makes His home in us. This is about practicing the disciplines that attune our attentions and reading the Scriptures that become our anchors. But also by God by recognizing God in the other and in the love that bridges the gaps between us.
And of course to remember God is there, but God is here because God is Trinity—Father, Son, Spirit, who is also Creator, Incarnate, and Breath.
*In response to a series of essays I read "How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere"
I’m given a fresh start every Monday—a white page, a cup of coffee, and strangers sharing a pew. Not everyone is so lucky. A bad sermon usually lives a couple hours until it’s forgotten. Those who do remember usually don’t retain what was said or how I said it, but how it made them feel and want to live their lives. So I till the soil. Again. It’s a moment of limitless potential; what will come, where I’ll be taken or surprised, I cannot say. But there will be a first word, like the first stroke on a canvas or the glob of clay that’s slammed on the wheel. Fragments are joined together, and it’s all seemingly random, until it’s not. There is nothing, then something. It’s ex nihilo, out of nothing—almost.
But I know better. It’s never that romantic. Sometimes it’s a lousy date and the conversation takes a bit of work. I grab the first idea that darts from here to there and pin it down. It’s a starting place. I grab the second and then third until something starts to flow and take shape.
I used to wonder what would happen if nothing showed up, but something always does, even if it means reaching into a tornado (and more often, the stillness before the chaos) and grabbing whatever I can hold on to. Inspiration always has a genesis, a becoming that actualizes from somewhere— a conglomeration of places, like whatever is bringing me life or what happens to be the morning’s news or a Phd who has dedicated her life to one author, one chapter, one verse in this book. This collides with God and a church that is trying to find its way. It’s all chaos until the Spirit of God comes to hover over it.
All of this has been said too many times, in much better ways. What’s more interesting is whether God has the same issues. It reminds me of the very first two verses in Scripture:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
It’s one of my favorite heresies—that God doesn’t create from nothing, but rather in and with the anarchy. And, as far as I can tell, it’s more faithful to the creation poem. Where’s ‘the nothing’? The first couple of lines of Genesis reminds us that God creates from, or with, the deep—the tehom. Darkness covered the ‘wild,’ ’waste’—the ‘chaos.’ And God swept over the face of the deep. Catherine Keller writes beautifully about this, demonstrating that the chaos isn’t necessarily evil, but an opportunity—more like a resting note or a semi-colon. (She also continues to show how creatio ex profundis dismantles Christian imperialism, patriarchy, dominance, the oppression of people of color. Give credit where it’s due). *See footnote*
Creation has its genesis in the midst of chaos.
And doesn’t it always?
Here’s why it matters: creation is still creating, which is something we don’t have to look very far to notice. The universe expands, organisms mutate, creation is renewed out of destruction. That’s good news because some lives are filled with more chaos than order. The loss, anxieties, the hunger, the war. The chaos is not from God’s hands, nor is it necessarily serving a divine plan, but it can still be a catalyst for something else—not back toward the life you had before, but to find the courage to venture into the formlessness where there is great suffering, but maybe also grace.
When we are in the dark waters, or find ourselves wading and hanging on to a life preserver, God creates. Can the church go together, with God, into the deep and see what can be created on the other side?
It speaks into the story of Jesus who self-empties into the world, into the darkness of a womb as the Spirit again hovered over the waters. He makes space in the chaos of a young girl engaged to Joseph. His ministry was about the waste: barrels of water to wine and five leftover loaves feed the people. It’s the people who are pushed into the margins because they don’t fit neatly into the order of the world who are most likely to receive. The chaos of Good Friday as the sky darkens and the earth shakes collides with forgiveness, light, resurrection and something new emerges that was not possible before. It’s messy--even Jesus' body is hard to parse, where the divine begins and the natural ends. And we are held captive by hope that our lives can be the same.
In the Hebrew Bible the only subject for the verb ‘create’ is God and it’s above my pay-grade to know whether it began from nothing or with material. But we, made in God’s image, surely co-operate in God’s endless creativity as God’s love spills over and into every dark crevice of our world. The creation poem helps me to remember that there was disarray and waste before something new emerged. That's true for us, too. Beautiful photographs, the hymns with the greatest thrust, are born in and out of destruction—an act of resistance and a testament to the light.
Each week I embrace creation in the messiness of the quiet, blank screen, the bad sentences, the repetition, the smell of bagels and coffee. I start with disorder and then, there is becoming, a genesis.
*Pump your breaks, orthodoxy police. Could I be anthropomorphizing God? Probably. I have no real theory worked out, and that’s ok. I get it—creation out of nothing helps us maintain the distinction between God and the world, that we are ontologically different, and don’t lapse into pantheism. God is transcendent, with an infinite difference from us, not dependent upon anything for something to become actualized. And God creates, not out of necessity, but out of excess love that spills over…blah, blah, blah.*
Much more can be said, but not for the purposes of this blog or probably 99.9% of the readers.