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Communion with God
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Gospel of Luke chapter 18 and follow along as I read verses 9-14. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." (RV2:29).
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks Be to God.
Last week, I talked about the spiritual life, maintaining that such a life is not a peculiar or extreme form of piety. On the contrary, a spiritual life is the kind of life we were made for. It is full and real and free, yet with its own standards and laws. Physical life is founded upon constant interaction with our physical environment, we breath the atmosphere that surrounds us, we eat the plants and animals. We interact with other people. We touch and see and hear all that is going on around us. Spiritual life is constant interaction with our spiritual environment. To be fully human, we need both interactions, both physical and spiritual. But for most people, the presence and action of the great spiritual universe surrounding them is no more noticed than the pressure of air on their bodies. They work so hard developing their interaction with the visible world, that their power of interacting with the invisible is hardly developed at all.
But when, for one reason or another, a person begins to wake up, to lift the nose from the ground and notice the spiritual atmosphere that surrounds them; then the whole situation is changed. Horizons are widened, Experience is enriched, and at the same time responsibilities are enlarged. For now we get an entirely new idea of what human beings are for, and what they can achieve: and as a result, our notions about life begin to change, and when that happens, we begin to change.
Here the creative action of God on a human creature enters a new phase. The word "creation" does not mean a routine product, neatly finished off and put on a shelf. That is mass-production; not creation. Thus we do not speak of the creation of a car; though we may speak of the creation of a salad, for in the making of a salad freedom and choice play a major part. No two salads are ever quite alike. Creation is the activity of an artist possessed by a vision; who, by means of the raw material with which she works, tries to give a more perfect expression to her idea. From this point of view, each human spirit is an unfinished product, on which the Creative Spirit is always at work.
The moment we become aware of this creative action of God is the moment we begin to make progress in the things of God. We live in a society that is almost mesmerized by the word "progress." We expect progress in science and technology, in business and economics, almost on a daily basis. We expect new discoveries and new inventions to be coming almost always off the assembly lines of human knowledge. Yet seldom do we hear any talk of spiritual progress, which is strange because spiritual progress is the most important kind of progress that a human being can make. Spiritual progress takes us beyond self-interest, and connects us with our real home.
The first steps along the road of spiritual progress may be, from the ordinary human point of view, almost imperceptible: because, they are going on inside us not necessarily outside us. Bit by bit spiritual pressure is applied, and bit by bit the soul responds; until a moment comes when the soul realizes that the landscape has been transformed, that things are now seen in a new way, by a new light. The new way of looking at things can be simply stated. It is God only, God always, God everything. An over-whelming conviction of the reality of God enlightens our minds, attracts our hearts and gives power to our will. Our lives are jolted and dislocated by this new perception, which we recognize to be a revelation of the true meaning and direction of life.
Conversion experiences can be strange and vivid things. An old and limited state of consciousness is suddenly, even violently, broken up and another takes its place. The conversion experience of Saint Augustine is a classic in Christian history. He heard the voice of a child saying "Take, read." It was that voice that at last made St. Augustine cross the spiritual frontier on which he had been lingering, and turned a brilliant and selfish young English teacher into a giant of the Christian Church. St. Ignatius sat by a stream and watched the running water, and the strange old cobbler Jacob Boehme was looking at the pewter dish, when each of them had a revelation of the mystery of the Nature of God. All these, and many others, had glimpses of one living Perfection; and woke up to the love and desire for that living perfection. Every human being has the potential toperceive and receive the living perfection that is God.
Conversion is like a door that is opened. We realize how real the spiritual is, how majestic it is, how near it is, and that realization becomes the ruling fact of our existence. Thus, we get such an astonishing scene as that of the young Francis of Assisi, little more than a boy, asking all night long the one question which so many mature people never ask: "My God and All, what art Thou and what am I?" And we realize with amazement what a human being really is--a finite center of consciousness, which is able to apprehend, and long for, Infinity.
In all real conversion experiences, the believer senses that he is not so much moving toward as being moved toward God. While it is true that something in a human being longs for God and can move towards God, what matters most is the fact of a living God over and above all, who stoops toward us, and first incites and then supports and responds to our seeking. Through this communion between the finite and the Infinite, the seeker and the sought, the spiritual life develops in depth and power.
In all this, we are trying to speak of things that lie at the outer fringe of our consciousness, and of which, at best, our perception is dim, and our language inadequate. No words in human language can properly convey spiritual realities. It is the saints and not the skeptics who have most insisted on this. "No knowledge of God which we get in this life is true knowledge," says St. John of the Cross. It is always confused, imperfect, clouded. Were it otherwise, it would not be knowledge of God. But we are helped by the fact that all the responses of people to the prompting of this hidden God follow much the same road; even though they may call its various stages by different names. All mean on one hand, renunciation of the self, and on the other hand a response to God. This response deepens into a conscious communion that gradually becomes the ruling fact of life.
The old Puritans spoke of our response to the call of God in terms of Mortification and Prayer. These are formidable words, and modern folks, even modern Christians, tend to recoil from them. Yet they only mean that the development of the spiritual life involves both dealing with ourselves, and God. They would put it the other way around. First we turn to God, then we can begin to untangle our lives, and bring ourselves into harmony with the great movement of God. Mortification means killing the very roots of self-love; it means the destruction of pride and possessiveness, , ambition and greed in all their disguises, however respectable those disguises may be. Mortification means the entire transformation of our lives into something more consistent with our real situation. Our real situation is both humbling and inspiring. We are animals, with a long animal past, living on a small planet in the corner of the galaxy of the Milky Way. But that is only part of our situation. We are also spiritual beings, creatures of the light, sons and daughters of God.
Prayer means turning to this spiritual reality. Prayer is really our whole life toward God. Prayer is the interaction of the human spirit with the Sum of all Perfection. We are small, half-real creatures of sense and spirit, hopelessly involved in an imperfect world, yet we desire to know the sum of all perfection, and our hearts will never rest with less. This longing, this need of God, however dimly and vaguely we feel it, is the seed from which grows the plant of prayer. Prayer is the recognition that God has made us for Himself, and that we shall not know the meaning of peace until our communion with God is at the center of our lives.
And when prayer puts God at the center of our lives, we are eager to do God's will. Psalm 40:7-8 "In the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God." I delight to do God's will not in some mysterious spiritual world that I know nothing about; but here and now, in this world, in this time, for God is here just as much as he is anywhere else. By seeking the will of God, we acknowledge God's presence. We recognize that as we must act toward and through things that are seen, even so we act for those things that are not seen.
Pierre De Berulle (1575-1629) was a French cardinal and statesman and part of the Counterreformation that swept through the Catholic church in the late 16th century. We Protestants often focus on the Reformation, we usually say little of the Catholic counterreformation that reformed Catholicism and corrected many of the abuses for which the Protestants had rightly criticized Catholics. Berulle as a member of this counterreformation did much to reform clerical education in France. He had great interest in prayer and meditation. He summed up the relationship of a human being to God in three words: Adoration, adherance, and association. We do not come to God striving only to get something from God, we come to God rather with an admiring delight. And we adher to God. Take a piece of tape. Smooth it out on your palm. How close is that tape to your skin. That is how closely we are supposed to cling to God. Lastly, we associate and cooperate with God's vast plan and purpose; whatever God wants that is what we want, whatever God wills that is what we will. That is the formula for the spiritual life.
We live in a world completely penetrated by the Living God. We are citizens of that world now; and our whole life is or should be an acknowledgment of this. Psalm 139 8-10 reads, "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." That is the attitude of a person who is conscious of the living God, and who willingly cooperates with God's will.
The word "Adoration" implies awe-struck delight in the splendor and beauty of God, It implies that God is the very color of life: giving an unearthly beauty to the harshest and dreariest stretches of experience. Adoration is not some difficult religious exercise, but an attitude of the soul. As we learn more of this attitude, it begins to purify us of the sin of self-centeredness. We lift up our eyes not to ourselves, but to that which is the source and center of all.
We pray, "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name." That tremendous declaration, with its unlimited confidence and unlimited awe, governs everything else. O Lord, may thy name be not described or analyzed or theologized but blessed and hallowed. Before thy Name, let the most soaring intellects cover their eyes with their wings like the cherubim before the throne, and adore.
We are apt to think that adoration is difficult, and that it is easier to pray for so-called practical things, but we should remember that in making this great act of adoration we are praying for extremely practical things. We are praying that our habits, homes, work, conversation, amusements and politics, may be cleansed from imperfection, and sanctified for the work of God. For all these are part of God's Universe; and God's Name must be hallowed in and through them.
What really matters the most to you? God's purpose, or your own purpose? If we think of God as conducting a mighty symphony in the universe, and ourselves as playing a small, infinitesimally small, bit part in the symphony, then which is more important our clever little note on our violin or the whole symphony? Or put it this way, if the symphony of God requires our silence, how do we feel about that? Are we lost in the mystery and beauty of God's orchestration, or we offended because we have been snubbed? Adoration widens our horizons, and drowns our limited interests in the total interests of God.
Thus, every aspect of our lives should be part of an adoring response to God. Psalm 66:4 "All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing to thy name." The Psalm means what it says. The life, beauty and meaning of the whole created order, from the firefly to the Milky Way, refers back to the Absolute Life and Beauty of its Creator. When we perceive this, then we perceive that everything that is and everything we do has spiritual significance.
God pours out His love on all of His creatures, and calls each into an ever deepening communion with Him. God's love pours down upon us like a flood. It is because of our own limitations that we seem to receive God in the trickles. Thus an attitude of humble and grateful acceptance is part of our adoration in a life offered to God.
In the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee from Luke 18, the publican has perceived this at least to some degree. The Pharisee has not. Understand that the Pharisee's society would have agreed with his statement of things. Outwardly he performed the duties that his society called righteous. He said, "I thank thee, Lord, that I am a good churchman, a good patriot, a good neighbor." His society would have said, You are a good man and patted him on the back, and the Pharisee would have smiled with pride at their approval--None of which has anything to do with God. The Pharisee's problem is that he has no real sense of God. He is so dressed in his own self-esteem; that that self-esteem acts like a bulletproof vest and the dew of grace can not get through. He has no contact with the reality of Spirit and no communion with God. There is no connection, no adherance. Nothing is happening. The Pharisee is in effect praying to himself.
But in the Publican, the tax collector, we see a man desperately aware of his imperfections and desperately wanting contact with the ultimate perfection. The publican stood afar off, saying "God be merciful, be generous, to me a sinner! " Here is a man who has already sensed spiritual reality, and he knows how far short of that reality he is. We need not suppose that the publican is an especially wicked man; but he knows he is an imperfect, dependent, needy man, without any claims or any rights. He is a realist. And that realism opens a channel to God so that Jesus said, "I tell you this man went down to his house justified." He went down to his house with his communion with God restored. He went down to his house free to live the kind of life God made him to live. Amen.
Source: The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill Part II, The Spiritual Life as Communion With God.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 03/12/01