Once upon a time, Jesus was so real to us. We called that moment, born again. Our theology about permanent and once-for-all salvation made us think that the born again experience was the main and permanent encounter. This is in contrast to the orthodox church (Anglican and Roman Catholics) who believe it is only a part of the total encounter. For us being born again was the entry but for them, the entry is baptism with or without the epiphany or supernatural encounter.
I knew it was the real thing because I saw my life turn around 180 degrees with no effort on my part. It was a total encounter also. I saw my vision, purpose, outlook and lifestyle changed radically. For the first time also, the Bible began to have meaning and not just meaning, it became literally alive – inflamed and personal.
I used to smoke two packs a day. A week or two after that encounter, I saw a man lighting a cigarette in a store and I got really angry. I said, does he not know that his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? Why is he destroying his body? Then suddenly it dawned on me that I had not smoked a single cigarette since I encountered Jesus. I was totally cleansed, not just forgiven of my sins but also set free from the power of sin. I now had a choice. Each day to follow Him or to follow Satan. I did nto have that choice before I was born again. I was totally a slave to sin.
Jesus became very real to me that day. I talked with him each day and in everything, I sought his will, in order to conform myself totally to Him. The reality of Christ was firmly set in my life. This is important because the reality of Christ is what is supposed to keep us going in our Christian life.
By seeking the experiential Christ, it is not as though we are now addicted to supernatural highs like we are with caffeine or those in bungee jumping, to adrenaline (or worse, for those really addicted, to shabu). Spirituality has long had this seduction leering at the side, this addiction to excitement, to something new, to something profound and to so many other things, what Thomas Merton criticized as our inability to embrace the boring, the ordinary and the repetitious things in life.
We have to be constantly entertained. We cannot wait. We are unable to sit in silence. They say, Americans will revolt in mass if they are made to queue in the ATM machine or the grocery counter for more than 5 minutes. This is the agitated and restless Christianity that pines for novelty and action or else they will die.
The reality of Christ must be contextualized in other than our need for excitement and must arise not from our restlessness but from a deep longing (as the deer panteth for the waters so my soul longeth after you).
The large en masse born again experience of millions of people in many countries make it obvious that once upon a time, Jesus was so real to us in ways that was not just life transforming, but cosmic in revelation – we are now sons of God (or daughters). No matter what people say, it was clearly the climax and will be the climax of our entire spiritual life. I say this because for the orthodox church, the spiritual life is a journey and for us it is not.
The son of the famous Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Frank Schaeffer, left the evangelical church to join a Greek orthodox church all because he felt evangelicals have no sense of journey. We think we have found Jesus and so we no longer look for Jesus everyday. Our born again experience led to our being spoiled. Everyday after that, we cuddled and crawled and nurse like infants before Christ. All our prayers seem to be answered instantaneously. We were pampered and spoiled.
When we compare mission perspective, this is what we have. The evangelicals go to the mission field believing they are bringing Jesus to people who have never known Jesus. The orthodox (like the Roman Catholics) go to mission to find Jesus.
Years later, the excitement of our born again experience begins to fade. The passionate dialogue grows into silent soliloquys. Now, many of those born-again people, after thirty years, after forty, feel, God is no longer there. God is silent. God is distant. Many are leaving evangelical churches but not because they have lost faith in Jesus. On the contrary, as the studies, show, they have left because the church where they are no longer experience the epiphany they long for.
Studies show that most evangelical churches are designed to help new believers. Churches where old believers can find a more mature engagement with Jesus are rare.
For many evangelicals however, this lack of epiphany is not a problem. They do not look for an experiential spirituality for they have (they even oppose it), having been seduced by secularism (Descarte), and exchanged experiential spirituality with cognitive spirituality (as though we can live with reason only or their minds, without their emotions, without their bodies, and without their souls). This people know the reality of Christ only in their mind (Jesus has been reduced to a idea). Of course, we don’t want this.
Knowing this, we in our mission group have instead pursued solitude and contemplative spirituality as a counter measure against the modernism that makes people very cognitive. Modernism dehumanizes by fragmenting the person – disconnected from himself, from his heart, from his body and made to exist only in his brain. The church must be counter-cultural also in this sense. It must not be conformed to this world, especially the growing tide of secularism and materialism. This dehumanization must be resisted. Our urgent task is to humanize, in order to put man together again, to become more human. For the more human we are the holier we get.
And we are most human in community, another element needed in our being counter-cultural – to resist the fragmentation of society (not just on the individual level). For society as it prospers and modernizes, becomes ever more isolated. Secularism, especially capitalism insists on individualism, competition, independence and self-actualization, all of which undermines and goes against the promotion of community.
But we are not to fall into the trap of secularism, of the either-or mind-set. What we want is both, not either or. This secularism must be balanced by community. Capitalism must be made more human. We do not reject secularism or capitalism, which means we will not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We just want a more humane capitalism, a more just system.
Spirituality, with or without the born again experience, is and must be a journey, of constantly looking for Jesus, of seeking an experiential connection with Jesus, just like when we connect with loved ones. One bright Jesuit spiritual director said it well: the way we relate with people is also the way we relate with God. If we have such a miserable relationship with the people around us, our terrific relationship with Jesus must be suspect, or put in doubt.
The bible says, how can we say we love God whom we cannot see and not love people whom we can see? This is made rhetorical because it is supposed to be obvious but indeed, in our dehumanized state, being so highly secular and cognitive, this is no longer rhetorical, no longer obvious. Today, the evangelical church teach that we can love God even if we have no healthy relationships with people around us, even if we are so terribly isolated in a terribly affluent society like New York.
Mother Teresa made this indictment. The greatest poverty is not the poverty in Mumbai or Calcutta where the greatest number of poor are. The greatest poverty is in the affluent cities where amidst so much wealth and luxuries, people are isolated from each other and where people have to sacrifice their unborn infants to abortion so they can enjoy their affluence, and where divorce is rampant. This is real poverty.
Yes, journey it is. As we grow old, less and less of our prayers get answered (although the more accurate thing is really, less and less of our trivial prayers are answered and less and less of our selfish concerns come in the center and our prayers become more and more about His Kingdom, which is the difference between having a nice day and suffering for Jesus).
We become more centered as we grow older in Christ. So the reality of Jesus also changes. C. S. Lewis thus said, God is the great iconoclast – He is in the business of constantly destroying our idols of Jesus. At every moment, we, small-minded Christians, will build an idol of our God, which is really not God and so, God comes down and tears it apart until maybe after our umpteenth try, we have built an idol a bit close to who God really is.
Journey is all about building this image of God that is no longer an idol to be broken by God, but a picture of God that truly reflect who God is (who does not spoil us, who is not at our beck and call for we have to learn to let God be God, not be our servant or nanny). We have to mature and grow up, and we cannot be little infants forever).
Journeying is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the Road to Emmaus. There, Jesus comes alongside but the disciples do not recognize him. And then Jesus talks to them about the Word and their hearts are passionately inflamed. Jesus because it is late begin to move away as though to depart from them and the disciples invite him to stay because night is coming (very symbolic for us who are old). And it is during the communion, the breaking of the bread (which has been capitalized by the orthodox so much – for whom the center of the mass is the eucharist, the lifting of the Bread while for the evangelicals, the center of their Sunday service or worship is the sermon – a tribute to the secularism of this age, meaning, the sermon is made the center because man has become highly cognitive, disconnected from his larger self) that their eyes are opened and they recognize Jesus.
And then the angst enter in, Jesus disappears. As suddenly as he appeared, so he disappears. This is what our journey is like – Jesus comes to us and we don’t see Him. Our hearts are aflame but we don’t know why. In the sacrament, our eyes are opened (thus the orthodox churches want to make liturgy the key to epiphany) and suddenly, we see Jesus. And then, suddenly also, he disappears. This is the pattern of our journey as we grow older. Jesus will appear only so briefly and disappear so quickly also. He will not allow us to hold him (as He told Mary so). He will not allow us to develop our addiction as well.
My father in law was in the hospital for seven years (good thing it was in the Veterans Hospital, free except for the medicines). When we began, he was already sort of a vegetable – unable to move, could not hear us, could not see us. For the first year, everyone in the family faithfully pilgrimaged to the hospital. Some did their picnics on the lawns of the hospital on Sundays with their small children. In the second year, it was not as frequent. On the third year, everyone I guess were secretly praying God would take grandpa already.
Hospital acquired infection is perhaps the worse infection we can have. We get the most developed bacteria in the hospital and it requires the highest level of antibiotics, which are very expensive. Tatay or grandpa would have his regular share and when he did, it would, at that time, cost us P8,000 pesos a day for antibiotics. At that time, when we came to visit, one time we had an epiphany. Our hearts in turmoil, wanting Tatay and yet wanting God to also take him away, opened the cosmic boundaries to usher us into His presence.
On the bedside, Tatay was all skin and bones, with tubes into the nose, the throat, the mouth, the arm and the stomach. He was just holding on to a tiny thread to survive. But for seven years, he did not die. And suddenly we had our epiphany. We saw it was God holding the thread. And we knew for as long as God holds our life, not matter how flimsy the thread, we will never die.
Eldon Ladd helps us form a good perspective on the supernatural in our daily lives, in his book, the Presence of the Future. The kingdom is both present and future, both here and yet to come. The future Kingdom is easily recognized – it is glorious and triumphant; no more sickness, no more death, no more tears, etc.
The present Kingdom is harder to recognize, not because it is vague but because it is painful. The present Kingdom is the suffering Messiah (the Messiah who suffers in Isaiah 53, who is familiar with our sorrows and pain). The Kingdom is actually Jesus himself, immersed in our filth, sin, guilt, sorrows and all. It is the unique nature of the Present Kingdom that it intentionally and profoundly engages us in our total reality, without the pretensions (wealth and power especially are blinding pretensions so Psalms tell us not to rely on wealth or on the power of kings or princes).
In this way, when we look at the present kingdom today, it is covered with slime and dirt and for us who have long been enamored with a kingdom that is supposed to be divine, we always think it is not possible that the kingdom can be so dirty and confused. We long so much for a kingdom that is clean and uncomplicated. We are therefore not able to distinguish between the present and future kingdom.
But the future kingdom in all its power and glory does interrupt our present reality (invades us) but not as a regular occurrence for that would create addiction. When we pray, thunder and lightning does not appear on command. God does not always nor consistently punish the wicked. Even though the Psalmist says he has never seen the righteous forsaken nor his children begging for bread, it really happens. The righteous are often forsaken and their children often have to beg for bread. When we insist wrongly in this way, the Christ we see will not be the real Christ. It does not mean though that we will not insist in praying so. There is a difference between our reality and what we desire in our prayers.
There are times when God does answer, and does intervene supernaturally but we can not rely on it, instead, we can rely more on the consistency of His suffering (the Messiah as the suffering servant).
This present Kingdom concept also explains the hiddenness of the church. When we despair and long for a church that is uncompromised, not co-opted by power and wealth, we search in vain. We search in vain too for a church that is pure and harmonious (no fighting, no lawsuits against fellow believers). The church in this sense is hidden according to J. I. Packer. And so too, Jesus Christ is hidden.
So now, we come to the hard part. If Christ is thusly hidden, if Christ wants us to mature and no longer make idols of Him (and learn to engage Him as he really is), then what is our experience of Jesus today? The Psalms provide much of the answer. Perhaps as a prelude to the New Testament life of the church (the church replacing Israel), the Psalms illustrate for us the mature life so deeply engaged with God.
Psalms mostly were written in the period of the exile, thus, we have cries that are cries of despair consistent with exile – “O Lord, how long will you be silent?” “Rouse yourself O God and lift up your arms and do justice.” Psalms is the most quoted part of Old Testament, quoted in the New Testament, and for that reason, it is a very powerful teaching tool. Without the Psalms we will not know how to pray and the New Testament will not even make sense.
Only the Psalms in the entire Old Testament is man teaching God or talking to God. What helps us in our spirituality is not so much what we know as that in our lack of knowledge, we can pray like the psalmist.
Henri Nouwen tells about a young man who went to a nun for spiritual direction. He asked specially that God would remove his uncertainty, that he would know for sure. The nun faithfully replied, that perhaps what he needed was not certainty but faith. Faith dwells in our doubts.
The Psalms tells us the same thing. When we enter the Psalms, what is the God we see? How real is God in the Psalms? There are according to Brueggemann more Psalms of disorientation than Psalms of orientation – meaning, the Psalms talk more about the chaos of our spiritual life, the inconstancy of God in saving us, than vice versa.
Psalm 22 is quoted by Jesus as he hanged on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This is perhaps the height or climax of disorientation and yet, it is still the Psalm, a part of the Bible no less. It is a prayer, a song, a poem, a cry of despair. It is one repeated millions of times by the people of God throughout their journey, until now. And yet, commanded as we are in our despair to call out to God (even complain against God), in the end, Psalm 22 sticks us closer to God than ever before: “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has he hidden his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard.” This is the Psalmist, insisting against the reality of God’s absence.
Another Psalm says: “I am weary of my groaning. All night long I wet my pillow with tears.” But then, it resolves in the end: “The Lord has heard my supplication; The Lord will receive my prayer.” Again, the Psalmist is here resisting the pain of the reality of God’s inaction.
As we grow older, Christ will become rarer but we will continue to seek an experiential engagement with Him (and not be tempted to reduce our spirituality to simply a mind matter, and reduce Christ as just an idea). As we mature, Christ will become more difficult to engage because our formula of success will be shattered – we will need to agree with Job: Should we accept only good things from God and not bad things also?
All the more we need to discern His appearing and disappearing (he does not really disappear but simply fall behind into the shadows, as C. S. Lewis said). Our reality must soon give way to the reality of God, a greater and stronger reality. What we deem as the shadow of reality is the true reality and where we are, which we believe is the true reality is actually the shadow. Truth is reversed.
John of the Cross talked about it much. In that reality, the darkness becomes the light and the light we think is the light is actually now the real darkness. In talking about the Dark Nights of the Soul (which is different from a depression or a simple desolation), when we enter our dark nights, what we perceive to be solid is actually not solid and we encounter finally what is really solid – the true reality where God belongs.
In that period or place (Einstein taught us about the blending of time and space), our senses will be of no avail. It’s like adjusting to a dark room. Immediately, the brightness that narrowed out our pupils begins to fade. Our pupils dilate and receive more light. John of the Cross tells us, that in that stage, all our senses become useless. When we used to discern using our senses, our body, our hearts, our minds, now we are disarmed, naked and helpless. Our ascent begins.
What helps is the fortitude we have developed throughout the years of obedience. Fortitude says, no matter what happens, we will be faithful. This is an inner strength that will not succumb to sin once the feeling that God does not exist arises. It is a resolve grown from years of obedience and humility. Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered.
And the prayers do not stop. It goes on. There are many who misunderstood Mother Teresa. Her confessions were published years after her death showing how, for decades, she could not see, feel or hear Jesus. Some thus say that her spirituality was a lie, and she was just pretending all along. J. I. Packer corrected that. Mother Teresa persevered despite the darkness, a darkness of many decades when most of us would simply have fallen away.
Where is Jesus today? It is so hard to say. I think we should all go back to the ancient practice of the daily examen of consciousness. With your spouse, before going to bed, ask each other: “where was God today in your life?” This daily spiritual discipline gradually etches and limns Christ’s image in our spiritual viewfinfder, it is a practice that alerts us to the possibility of epiphany – vigilant and alert to his presence. The examen sharpens our discernment.
Gratefulness is another way, the Ignatian taught us. List down ten things you want to thank God for and lo, God has appeared already even before you have reached the count of ten (the presence of Christ maybe fleeting, maybe suddenly disappearing like in the Road to Emmaus, but nonetheless, present).
Solitude or silent retreat is a form of practicing the presence of God. It is a spiritual discipline that makes us attuned 24/7 to His presence. Often, in solitude, what we sense is not really God but his aura, His peace. Peace surrounds God. It is the opposite of anxiety. But occasionally, deep down in this peace, we can sense Jesus, not just his peace. Occasionally, we can sense his love, that he loves us, that we are loved. This is the ultimate engagement. We love because he first loved us. We know God when we love because God is love.
It is very hard for me to sense his love because before I can sense his love, I can sense first rejection (from years of being parented the wrong way). The first thing I pick up is my fear, the fear of being rejected. What if I accept his love and then he rejects me? Three things stand in the way. For me it is fear and shame, rejection. For others, just shame, or just fear or sometimes, also guilt. Fear and shame and guilt are experienced first before the pure love of God is met.
It is a long journey of overcoming our brokenness. It is not as though God is silent or distant. The problem mainly is we are so broken with a sinful kind of guilt, shame and fear (not the good kind of fear, shame and guilt that makes us run to God instead of away from God).
Making God’s love a mantra wont help either. We can memorize bible verses about love, recite it a hundred times and it will still not work. The bible is not a book of platitudes but a super lens into reality. It works only with a generous doze of honesty and courage. The false self will never find God.
As I grow, I begin to sense God is really there. He is a different God than the God I once knew. It is hard to find him because he dwells in the solid reality that I know little about. I need lots of faith, but also lots of honesty and courage. He is present in the blessing as well as in the pain. I must be willing to receive both joy and pain to be able to see him.
I need to also embrace completely my loneliness and see how ridiculous it is, that I am lonely despite that Jesus is so near and present. But such loneliness tells me also that I can long for Him deeply in the same proportion as power of my loneliness. I need to direct that loneliness to Him and not to pornography, busyness, noise, and material possession.
Today, I find a Jesus who is more relaxed, more gracious, and more playful. I find a Jesus less prone to make me feel guilty but one who makes me feel more loved and embraced. I find a Jesus who does not overwork me and pressure me but who calms me (to lie down in green pasture and to walk beside still waters). I find Jesus though fleetingly, in the way that my family has grown – three loving sons and a wife who is faithful in the same way that God is faithful to me to keep me from becoming the jerk I almost always want to be in my pigheadedness.
I guess, the biggest difference is that the Jesus I see now is more engaged with me, or rather, I am more available or more of me is available to Him – meaning, overall, we embrace in a wider and deeper way than before. He does not just want my brain. He wants me to love him with all my self – heart soul mind and body. He has paved my path with goodness (surely goodness will follow me…even though my life has not ended yet, so I could just easily tomorrow after writing this, fall into bankruptcy and lots of anxiety again). I have so much fear about tomorrow so he has made himself bigger than tomorrow.
I can see His hand around me. I may say I am sinning less and less although I also see myself as such a great sinner but perhaps, I have grown to see my sins more (instead of being simply oblivious). I long to finish the race triumphant, with cheers all around me – this comes from Him I think.
I have prayed over the prayer Jesus taught us. At one time, I just revolved around the forgiveness part and the rest of the prayer just seem to fade into the background. These days, I have stepped over into the temptation portion of the prayer of Jesus. As I look back, I feel I am playing like a little child, walking with Jesus, my papa, and walking also around him as we walk. I can see almost all sides of him as I walk around him. He twists his arms just to continue to hold me up as I walk.
I have wounded many and I have been wounded too, many times even up to now in this late part of my journey. But he has healed me. He restores my soul. The reality of Jesus is not just a figment of my imagination. He exists independent of my perception or lack of perception. He moves within a reality that I will slowly enter in and will finally do when I cease to live in this body.
For the most part, the reality of Jesus is in the Body, the church, the community of believers. As Bonhoeffer said, the closer we are to one another, the clearer Christ becomes. It is deep engagement with fellow believers that I sense Christ the most.
God will not judge me in the end times by how many people I have evangelized. Instead, God will judge me based on how many fellow believers, who are poor, have I clothed when they were naked, visited when they were isolated, fed when they were hungry. Mother Teresa said, she could see Jesus in the sick and the dying. As I embrace the community of believers, I also sense the reality of Jesus, especially among the weakest and the neediest.
Jean Vanier calls his journey a downward mobility. I also believe like Vanier that Jesus is there, deep down below, among the poorest of the poor. It is among the poorest Christians that I have found the reality of Christ, the most. Long ago, I have realized that mission is all about being where God is. Jesus said, where I am, there my servant will be also. My journey moves towards that place. While He accompanies me in my journey, my journey is also about finding Him so where he is I will be there also.
John of the Cross says, the surest way to find him is to love. Love will lead us to Jesus. We must insist on love as the way to finding Jesus. Only in love can we see Christ in the Body (His church). Only in loving those around us can we see Christ. Only in loving the poor can we touch Jesus (what you have done to the least of these your brethren, you have also done to me – when you clothed me, visited me, nursed me in my sickness, fed me when I am hungry. Thus, the disciples asked, when did we ever clothe you when you were naked and fed you when you were hungry and nursed you when you were sick or visited you when you were in jail?).
We must love our spouses. Marriage and the church seem to be just one being from the way St Paul taught it in Ephesians 5.
We must learn to love deeply.
I watched the stage play, Les Miserables, and I remember well one line in one of the songs, a line that haunts me until now: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”