Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Looking for God’s Presence

Having come up to Ione for a brief retreat, I am on the lookout for God. One never knows where He will show up, break the silence, and shake things up. (It’s nice to have a couple of hired hands to facilitate my stay).

I’ve not been one to have the kind of divine encounter that is visible and/or audible. It’s been more subtle, internal. I have heard the testimony of others and read various accounts. Theologian James Houston speaks of a night following a conference in Urbana when he was awakened by an “incomparable light” at the foot of his bed. He was convinced that he was in the presence of God, and he knew in that moment he was called to total surrender. Catherine of Sienna often spoke of her happenstances in the spiritual realm that were more real than life in the physical. 

I am not sure if I am envious of if I prefer my spiritual life at a lower key. This may have less to do with my spirituality and more to do with my fears. Nonetheless, these are not our choices. One cannot predict or produce or demand these revelatory moments.  

This morning, after some time with God in His Word. I launched off, going up river in my kayak. Some of my best praying takes place on the Pend Oreille River. It is why I come up here. But my eyes are also open to His voice. Day to day, His expansive creation pours forth speech (Ps 19:2). He may be speaking through these three Canadian Geese who keep circling. They are on a chase (it is, after all, Spring). Is God reminding me He also chases me? I pause in my paddling to ponder the shadows moving ominously over the forests. The sun and the clouds seem to be in this dance. Life is a mix of light and dark, and they come in the same unpredictable ways, one giving way to the next.

Back at the cabin, the eagles are again creating a home using last year’s Douglas Fir. The whole sequence begins again—building, nesting, birthing, feeding, training—then it’s time to be pushed out. Life moves on. You can’t stay in the same place. I laid out on the grass and looked up at the sky. I love the skies up here. Way off, I noticed one, than two eagles, soaring almost directly above. For the longest time, they circled, riding currents. Is God speaking, telling me to quit being so destinational and learn how to soar, even if it means going in circles? Are these a series of divine voices or are these my own creative musings?

In his latest book, God’s Wider Presence. Robert Johnston explores the ways God makes His presence known to us. This is some of the working material for my retreat. Johnston expands my imagination. The scope of general revelation is hard to pin down. It may be through nature; it might even be through film. The book also creates anticipation, inviting me to enter whatever God may be up to.

In the course of reading, some of my assumptions are challenged. It may be that my theology may be more constricted than I realize, allowing little room for such experiences. Johnston begins with a story Kierkegaard once told. There was a vestibule, part of an auditorium where one encountered two doors. Above one of the doors was the sign, “Heaven.” Above the other was the sign, “Lecture About Heaven.” Most people flocked through the second door, the safer door, the one labeled “Lecture.” Would I follow them? Would you? Out of his experience, Houston wrote: “We cannot doubt that God is fully capable of entering into the personal life of His disciples in ways of His own choosing. But we are more inclined to live habitually in the comfort of institutional Christianity than to be vulnerable to God’s personal intervention in relating with us.” In other words, we tend to go through the second door.

The questions before me are these: When I attempt to leave the busyness of my pastoral/educator world in search of God, do I really want to find Him? What would I do if the Spirit suddenly showed up in some unnerving, mystical way? You never know who He will speak through. He speaks through His Living Word and written Word. But then, He’s been known to speak through secular kings like Cyrus, unknown sages like Agur, pagan prophets like Balaam and pagan sailors like those on Jonah’s boat—not to mention donkeys. There is a wider revelatory Presence, one that goes beyond Word and Church that just might encounter us if we are listening.

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