By Steven F. Sturm
We believe the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, that God is present at once everywhere in his creation. There is nowhere that escapes his awareness, or is outside of his immediate presence. So God is available any place, any time, in any circumstance to meet with us.
Contemplative Awareness—When we pray or meditate upon God, when we sense him in the kind acts of another person, when a glorious sunset draws our attention to him, or we experience a deep peace in our soul—at these moments we are simply becoming aware of the God who is always there. We do not make him present. What we can do is make ourselves more aware of him, more often, in more situations.
In late August of 1996 I was hiking in the Colorado Rockies out of Casa de Poudre Canyon near the Continental Divide. The trail started just below the timberline. The smell of pine and spruce filled the air. I had hiked for a couple of hours or so and reluctantly turned around, being aware that it was not safe to be caught out in high country in the late afternoon.
The hike had been exhilarating. I reveled in the majestic peaks, the deep green forest, and the view of the valley far below. Being alone, I began singing to the Lord. Caught up in worship, I stopped, raised my arms and cried out loudly, “God, if you want to speak to me, I am listening.” I repeated this invitation at least twice.
“What do you want to tell me? Are you pleased with me? Angry with me?” I asked. Waiting in silence, straining to hear, eventually I started walking again, still listening for the voice of God.
I noticed a bank of thick, dark clouds gathering across the valley and then heard the roll of thunder. Lightning streaked from the sky to a peak across the valley from me. I hurried my pace. The thunder increased. In a moment the storm was overhead.
A bolt of lightning split the sky and struck the lake below me. Then I heard a sharp crack as the lightning hit the ridge directly above me. It shook the ground and was instantly accompanied by the deep rumble of thunder.
I stood exposed on the trail. The sky opened up and hail pelted down hard and fast. I took what refuge I could under a tree, hoping it would not turn into my lightning rod. Alone, afraid, and awestruck, I waited for the storm to pass. When it did, I reverently finished my hike.
I was aware that God had spoken to me, but for years I did not know what his message was. Today I believe that God, while not answering my questions, turned my attention to himself through an awesome demonstration of his power.
Would it have stormed had I not prayed? Certainly; afternoon storms are common in the mountains. But, by purposefully seeking God through attentive listening, I became aware of him speaking to me of his power and presence from out of a natural phenomenon.
There are successively deeper levels of experience in every event: storm, sermon, sunset, or a stranger’s smile. The first level is physical, apparent, obvious. The second level is emotional, psychological, covert. At the third level is the spiritual, divine purpose, divine presence. At the depth of every experience we can encounter God if we are willing and able to be aware.
Prayer—People in love communicate in a variety of ways. Sometimes they use words, either spoken or written. Sometimes they are together in silence, without a word being spoken. Speech is not necessary; they are listening to each other’s hearts. Other times lovers communicate physically, with a kiss or embrace. Certainly the loving relationship we have with God can include as rich a variety of communication approaches.
Sometimes—most times—we will speak our prayers. From early years we have been taught to “say our prayers.” Paul wrote, “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Even mental prayer, with the words said in the mind, is a form of spoken prayer. Many believers have been taught that prayer is simply asking, or talking to God.
Some have learned patterns for prayer. One such is ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I often keep in mind the outline of Jesus’ model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) for much of my own praying.
Prayer is meant to be rich and real. It is our soul’s communion with God. But it can become routine, shallow, and narrow in focus. Some Christians are hesitant to honestly express the negative emotions of disappointment or anger with God. He does, after all, hold our eternal destiny in his hands.
A wonderful way to deepen and broaden both the content and emotional range of spoken prayer is to pray, not just read, the Psalms. This is an ancient practice used by Jews and Christians of all traditions for thousands of years, often in morning and evening prayers.
Here we don’t have to think, What shall I pray today? We get lifted out of our prayer rut, our prayer comfort zone, out of our self-centered concerns. When we pray the Psalms we are praying God’s words. We are assured the words will be acceptable in his sight. Through the Psalms we are able to express a fuller range of emotions than may be our usual habit. We join our human hearts with the heart of God expressed in his Word.
Methods vary. Some people start with Psalm 1 and, over time, pray through Psalm 150. Others may select sections of Psalms grouped by theme to pray for a period of time. One person may pray a short passage of a psalm each day. Another may pray five psalms each day (a traditional practice in some monastic orders) and so pray the entire book each month.
It is important not to pick and choose only favorites and skip more difficult psalms. Praying all of the psalms will open up some radical new territory for meeting with God. Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become” (Life Together, quoted in The Spiritual Formation Bible, p. 801).
God calls us in the totality of our being: mind, heart, and body. In prayer the body, rather than just going along for the ride or being thought of as a negative distraction, can be a full participant. Many prayer postures are mentioned in Scripture: lifting holy hands, bowing the knee, falling down with the face to the ground, standing with face lowered while beating the chest, and others. Allowing the body itself to give expression to the intention of the heart toward God can be liberating for those who find themselves “too much in their heads,” or when words get in the way
A good way to “bracket” the day with God is to develop the habit of regular morning and evening prayer. Prayer in the morning can focus our attention on God for the day ahead. Evening prayer can help us to reflect on the day that is ending.
Meditation—What do you think when you hear the word meditation? Is it a man seated in the lotus position intoning a mantra? Or do you see a businesswoman taking a 10-minute power break to relieve stress by relaxing her body, controlling her breathing, and focusing her mind? These are forms of meditation, but there are others.
David practiced meditation. The psalmist speaks of “the meditations of my heart” being acceptable in God’s sight (Psalm 19:14). He is said to have meditated day and night. He meditated on God’s statutes, God’s promises, and God’s works (Psalms 104, 119, 143).
This is the meditation I am referring to: a consecrated, focused attention on God, his nature, and his acts, especially through his Word. It is not just reading Scripture. It is not Bible study for gaining intellectual understanding of content. It is not preparation for lessons or sermons. It is a contemplative pondering and prayer of Scripture.
One approach is to meditate on a biblical scene, particularly the gospels. Using consecrated imagination, put yourself in the scene with Jesus. Employ your senses. Be the blind beggar, Zacchaeus, or the woman at the well. What is Jesus now saying to you?
What Are We Really Seeking?
What are we hoping to find as we seriously seek God? Is there real benefit to engaging in spiritual practices? The apostle Paul reminds Timothy, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Before we consider the real value that training in godliness brings, let’s look at some misconceptions about its results.
Lesser Goals—Some hope that adding a little meditation might reduce stress, and help them be more effective in the real world. It might, but this misses the point. Others seek an experience, a mood, constant serenity, or bliss. Their aim is too low, and they will likely be disappointed. Spiritual practice is neither an enhancement of secular life, nor an escape from life. It is a way of life to which God in Christ calls his people.
Even less worthy goals include wanting to be known as a really spiritual person, or to add the aura of mysticism to one’s persona. Spiritual pride is always a danger. Most destructive is a belief that being more attentive, prayerful, meditative, or contemplative will somehow enhance our standing with God, assure salvation, or increase our chances of winning God’s favor and blessings. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spirituality is a loving response to the God who loves us, saves us, and makes us whole by his own grace. These are all by God’s initiative, not by our effort.
God Alone—It is God alone that we seek. “Anyone who comes to him (God) must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6, emphasis mine). If we seek for God himself, then the reward we receive is what we seek, God himself.
The apostle John wrote, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with God the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Fellowship with the Father, the Son, and we might add, the Holy Spirit, is more than a metaphor. God himself longs for that to be a living reality in every follower of Christ.
Robert Richardson, colleague of Alexander Campbell both at Bethany College and The Millennial Harbinger and later Campbell’s biographer, wrote that the true purpose of the gospel is “to reunite man to God in holy spiritual fellowship,” to arrive at “the spiritual renovation of the soul.” He concluded that the person who experiences “habitual fellowship with God . . . is the residence of the Divine Spirit . . . and has reached the blissful purpose of the Gospel” (Millennial Harbinger, 1850, as quoted by William Paulsell in Disciples at Prayer).
Not On Our Own—Although we seek for God alone, our search is not on our own. The triune God is a community of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has ordained his people to be in community, the church. While a very few throughout history have lived as hermits, the vast majority of Christians have lived out their spirituality in the context of community. The form of that community has varied. The more familiar include wandering bands of disciples following a teacher, monastic society, congregation, colony, or family.
Larry Crabb, noted Christian psychologist, challenges his readers to see the great need for true community. “The church is a community of people on a journey to God. Wherever there is supernatural togetherness and Spirit-directed movement, there is a church—a spiritual community” (The Safest Place on Earth, p. 21). He writes of the rarity of experiencing this in most churches, but also of the tremendous power released when it is experienced.
A spiritual community, a church, is full of broken people who turn their chairs toward each other because they know they cannot make it alone. These broken people journey together with their wounds and worries and washouts visible, but are able to see beyond the brokenness to something alive and good, something whole (The Safest Place on Earth, p. 32).
Spiritual community may include two kinds of relationships: spiritual friendship and spiritual direction. In the context of soul care David Benner writes this:
For many people, the most significant soul care relationships lie among friends. Everyone needs such friendships. We all need others who will take the time to listen to us and help us express ourselves at the level of our deepest psychospiritual longings, needs, and struggles. We also need people who, by the way they relate to us, help us learn how to attend to our own deepest selves in the same manner (Care of Souls, p. 188).
Such mutual spiritual friendships may be experienced between two individuals or within a small group.
The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative who is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He obeys the attractions of an inner voice but will not listen to other men. He identifies the will of God with anything that makes him feel . . . a big warm interior glow. The sweeter and the warmer the feeling is the more he is convinced of his own infallibility. . . . The world is covered with scars that have been left in its flesh by visionaries like these (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 194, 195).
Are you ready to seriously seek God and be found by him? Look in the world around you, at the Word of God the Bible, and within your own soul. Employ contemplative awareness, variety in prayer, and Scripture meditation. Rejecting lesser aims, seek for his presence alone, in the company of other seekers and guides.
Like Augustine, the fourth-century spiritual giant, let our cry to God be, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you” (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1).
Steven Sturm is minister with the Waialua Christian Church in Oahu, Hawaii, where he lives with his wife, Blossom. He works as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director and is an adjunct faculty member with the master of science in counseling psychology program at Chaminade University. Recently he was appointed chaplain and assistant professor of spiritual formation at Hawaii Theological Seminary.