In my most recent post, I talked about what happens in baptism.  I categorized the post, among other things, as being about seeing God.  And it occurs to me that it might not be clear to others why I did so.  The short answer is that, for me, my relationship with God became a personal relationship through other people, through community.

Back when I was living on campus at school, I had a relationship with a woman.  In retrospect, it was not a mature relationship.  And that’s probably as much about me as it was about her.  She came into my dorm room, one night, as I was lying in bed with the flu (and a fever of 102) and told me that she was not my girlfriend, she never had been, and she’d never thought of me in those terms.  I was devastated.  And I became more depressed than I have ever been in my life.

I checked out what others thought they saw in the relationship when I got over the flu.  And I was told that to others outside of the relationship, it looked very much like we were relating as boyfriend and girlfriend.  Which made me feel a little less an idiot.  But it did nothing to help my depression.

One night, maybe a week or two after this happened, I went up on the roof of a building to look at the stars.  I never get close to the edges of roofs — they make me clumsy and very nervous.  So when I found myself wanting to get closer to the edge of the roof, I decided it was time to go inside.  Only, when I came to the place where I needed to turn to go down the stairs, I found that my body seemed to be trying to continue moving forward (and off the roof).  It may have been the hardest thing I ever did to take control of my body and turn and head down the stairs.

That really scared me.  I took it as a sign of very deep depression.  And I made it a point to stay off roofs.

Not too long after this, I had occasion to head home.  I had been driving for some time when, out of the blue, I had the overwhelming experience of being loved.  It was like I was floating on a cloud of love that lifted me up and held me.  I experienced this, tangibly, as the love of many people who were or had been in my life.  Most of them were still alive.  Many of them were still an ongoing part of my life.  But some of them had died, and some of them I hadn’t seen or thought of for many years.  But I experienced their love for me in this cloud of loving.  And I knew who they were.

I don’t know how long this experience lasted.  If I were guessing, maybe 5 or 10 minutes.  And I was in a different place afterwards.  I felt loved, and cherished, and valued.  And I understood, at the same time, that the love of these people was just a small part of the love God had for me.  It was part of how God made that love real in my life.

For me, that’s really when God became a person, rather than a concept.  God was a person with whom I had a relationship.  And that relationship was born out of my relationships with other people.

I was thinking about that as I thought about baptism bringing me into a community which is the Body of Christ.  And I was thinking about that when I read a small quotation from Malcom Muggeridge (from Something Beautiful for God, which I also found in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants):

Accompanying Mother Theresa, as we did, to these different activities for the purpose of filming them — to the Home for the Dying, to the lepers and unwanted children, I found I went through three phases.  The first was horror mixed with pity, the second compassion pure and simple, and the third, reaching far beyond compassion, something I had never experienced before — an awareness that these dying and derelict men and women, these lepers with stumps instead of hands, these unwanted children, were not pitiable, repulsive or forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be, friends of long standing, brothers and sisters.  How is it to be explained — the very heart and mystery of the Christian faith?  To soothe those battered old heads, to grasp those poor stumps, to take in one’s arms those children consigned to dustbins, because it is his head, as they are his stumps and his children, of whom he said that whoever received one such child in his name received him.

I’ve had few experiences even roughly comparable to this.  Perhaps the day I baptized the premature daughter of members of one of my congregations.  She had been born brain-dead, unable to breathe on her own (so she was hooked up to a machine) and had to have the mucus sucked out of her lungs several times a day (by another machine).  And her condition had remained unchainged.  There was something special and precious about her.  And it was a great privilege to celebrate that baptism.

She had normal brain waves the next day.  Which felt to all of us like a very tangible sign of God’s presence in all this.  But she never was able to breathe on her own.  And ultimately, we had to  let her go and  leave her in God’s loving hands.

Maybe that day I felt something akin to what Muggeridge was talking about.  And maybe a few other days too.

But God has come to me in community.  Jesus is made real in the lives of my neighbor.  I am carried on God’s love in the arms of God’s people.  For me, this is a core experience, a core belief, foundational — however you want to talk about it.  It is part of the central mystery of my relationship with God:  that God uses what is around me in God’s creation to come to me.

That’s not the only way I experience God.  My mind helped build up the first beginnings of a conceptual relationship.  And sometimes I simply feel that I am somehow in the presence of my God.  But that’s how it became a personal relationship for me.

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