~ Beth Cole, “Illumination”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
How else can those undeniable experiences of God be described? I have asked and continue to ask innumerable questions about God’s existence, but I have never walked away from an encounter with God with more “answers.” That’s just the wrong category. I get answers from the Bible, but I do not get answers from God himself. I have never walked away from an encounter with God answering everything but rather pondering everything. I’m not firmed up in rigid certainty. I’m opened up in wonder.
Having said that, I have attempted to describe what that opening up and that pondering is like. Below is a journal entry that has many dates attached to it, both because of the many times I’ve come back and tried to do a better job of capturing my experience in words, only to be left evermore certain that such experiences simply cannot be so captured any more than a voice can be captured in a photograph or lightening in human hands, but also because in principle it could be attached to any time, any date, I have been encountered by God. Every such encounter takes me back to the first, where I am again a little boy, small, and God is again God—those times I again discover that God is God and I am not. As such, you will have to pardon the apocalyptic tenor of my descriptions, but you’d be better off embracing them.
Originally Titled: A Longing with A Name
It was on my way from the chapel back to the cabins, a short walk through the woods at Quaker Haven Camp in Northern Indiana. I was eight years old. We had just been released–finally!–from the obligatory chapel session where things were obligatorily said like “God loves you” and “Jesus died for you.” The camp director gave us an extra hour of free time until lights-out since it was the last night. Unassuming, I began to hurry back to the cabin to get my flashlight and all-black burglar attire to play capture the flag. Then—I froze.
I was stuck staring at something invisible and everywhere, at nothing and everything. It was kind of like the Holy Spirit people at church always talked about, but perhaps more like the Holy Spirit. There were trees. There was transcendence. The earth had lost its horizons. My vision stretched the present into forever and rebounded back. And I saw everything again, as if for the first time. I’m almost tempted to describe it as an “out-of-body experience,” but it was more like the exact opposite. It’s not that I was seeing myself from without so much as I, indeed everything, was being seen, known (something like 1 Corinthians 13:12). But even that doesn’t do it justice, because it wasn’t like discovering the presence of someone who was spying on me from behind the trees. It was more like discovering the presence of Presence itself.
I was enveloped, but not I alone. The whole cosmos had been tucked away like a bird hidden in an old man’s inner breast-pocket. It was, in a moment, a rush of Wonder and, in the next, the strike of Revelation. And in an experience of unsolicited arrival, I found myself at the crossroads of a longing I didn’t know I had and a joy I didn’t know I could have, a place I wanted to call home–in the way Peter on the mountain wanted to build three tents. And I may as well have been dead, or I may as well have just been born. I felt like a shadow that had suddenly turned around and discovered just how sad and flat was the world I had been living in all along.
I had just stumbled into the living God. It wasn’t an emotion. I did not feel a sensation or get cold chills and my heart wasn’t “strangely warmed.” I knew it in the way you can only know shame or fear or trust or hope. It is not something you can prove but something that somehow proves you. The thing I distinctly remember thinking over and over was, “God is here.” I don’t mean “thinking” like most thoughts, airy and speculative. I mean the way you might find yourself, dumbstruck, thinking, “A Lion is here,” were you to stumble on one in the woods. And I don’t mean “here” as in “around here” or “here in my heart.” Just “here,” where I was, where the universe was. Also, I don’t mean “God” in any unspecified sense. It was the One they’d named in chapel. It was Jesus, but not exactly the Jesus I’d always known. Jesus had always been floating around in my childhood mind, but so had Ronald McDonald. But in that moment, Ronald remained as statuesque as a Greek god but Jesus had just descended like lightening. So in a rush of greed, like a moth, I extended myself to take hold of him, and then—gone.
It had lasted for maybe ten seconds, maybe for all eternity. I couldn’t tell. And I wasn’t even sure it had happened, or I wasn’t even sure that anything else had ever happened. It only now existed as a longing that felt like a bashfully hopeful heartache. I remember trying to adjust my body, refocus my eyes, send my thoughts back to where they just were, run back in time, stop time, start my whole life over so I could run into this Moment again. But I could do nothing of the sort. It was the start-and-stop of wonder in capturing the invisible now, like the moment my kids finally seize a soap bubble floating about in thin air, leaving only a filmy residue of the mystery. I have been nudged by some slippery force who spoke the primal Word in an unmistakable voice and then disappeared behind the trees, as if to taunt me, as if to reveal that it was I who was hiding. So that eternal Moment was gone but I was still there—just me and time and the untamable God who escaped my grasp and was forever on the loose. I had discovered a world where God was everywhere yet nowhere to be found.
When I convinced myself to let go and continue up the ordinary hill into a now very unordinary world, I felt as if I had stolen something and everyone, indeed everything, became terribly suspicious. The universe had become one giant, illusive conspiracy. It was one big house of mirrors and I had just glimpsed through the only window in the house as the curtain was being drawn. I felt as if everyone either had this shared secret they’d been keeping from me or I had a secret that no one else knew about. But I didn’t know which it was. So I never told anyone. What was there to tell anyway? And who would have believed me? It was a pearl and the disbelieving world was swine.
But I treasured it in my heart. I treasured it like a thief treasures a diamond in his pocket, too afraid of being found out to ever cash it in, but never really wanting to anyway. It was not more I was after, it was a moment. I would have sold all the highlands of earth for the treasure of time’s invasion of transcendence. I was not sick with wanderlust but diseased with a lust of wonder. It was not power I was after; it was glory. I wanted to be overcome by its power, to drown like light into a diamond, but never again return, too greedy to want it to shine for anyone else, not realizing that that was the very greed that had buried the world, that turned the star-spangled earth into a lump of coal. I didn’t realize that if God hadn’t stopped shining on me in that moment I would have taken him hostage and crucified the world.
For I did not yet understand that creation is a diamond imprisoned in a coal mine, that it is the treasure of God’s giving heart and God is the beauty of its hidden soul. I did not yet know that God had already sold all the highlands of heaven for their power of purchase, and that he was plunged into the heart of darkness in order to return hence with its treasures.
All I was left with was an indelible memory of that peculiar moment. Born in me that day was a new and deep awareness that something had been found and something had been lost. It was beautiful. It was tragic. It was and would forever hence remain the only longing my soul ever knew, like the pure and faithful longing of my lungs, or the singular longing of loneliness. My only consolation—and perhaps this was just the point—was in this: from that point forward, my Longing had a Name.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—
The rest sit round it and pick blackberries.