[This article is adapted from a message during the Collide service week.]
Where Do We Find God?
Where is God? Where do people say God is? Where is it that God shows up?
Often when I ask these questions to people I hear answers like God is in heaven. God lives in my heart. I see God in the laughter of children. God is everywhere. God shows up in moments of tragedy to comfort us, or God is in a bill being paid by an anonymous stranger; that is where God is. That is where God shows up.
Sounds acceptable, right?
Well if we find God in these places, I suppose we could also ask in what places could we not find God? Where do people say God isn’t?
This question usually gets different answers. Sometimes people will say, Well I don’t know where God is, but God definitely isn’t with me. Some think God isn’t anywhere because God doesn’t exist, or God didn’t show up when my mom died.God wasn’t with us when we lost this big game last season. Sometimes when people say, God is with us over here, they mean God isn’t with us, over there; God isn’t with sinners or bad guys.
What I find so interesting about these questions is how similar the answers may be. You’ll notice that for some people, God is present in suffering, while others may find that to be a place where God is absent. Is God present when someone is sick or dying? Why would God be there? Some say God is in church; some say God is in heaven; and others say God is everywhere–so which is it?
When I was growing up, God was presented to me in the same way many of you might have first pictured God – an old man with long, flowing white hair and a Duck Dynasty beard, usually on a throne of gold way off in the clouds up there, and usually pretty grumpy with everything happening down here on earth. This God is far off and perhaps even aloof to human suffering, like a clock maker who made the world, wound it up, and now doesn’t get too involved in the affairs of creation. This is what philosophers call the unmoved moveróthe idea that God moved the world into being, but is now untouched, uninterested, unmoved by the lives of mortals like us.
But do these images sound like the God of the Bible? Zeus or Odin maybe, but the Hebrew God?
Don’t get me wrong. The picture of a God who creates the entire Universe must be grand and impressive in scale. We live in a culture where very little awes us today. It definitely makes sense in some ways to say that God is above us or higher than us. If God is creator of the cosmos, then God is surely greater than anything we can understand or imagine.
But this God is also close to us – radically near to us and present every day in every situation of our lives.
Jesus Shows Us What God is Like
For years, Christians have debated how we can best understand Jesus, but one of the constant themes is that Jesus shows us what God is like; Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He is Emmanuel – God with us.
Jesus shows us a God who is both transcendent and immanent – beyond us and yet operating intimately within our understanding. Jesus becomes God with skin. God who tripped and got a bloody knee. God who had friends, ate meals and felt deeply misunderstood by those people who were closest to him. God who was spat on, beaten, and ultimately died as a criminal among thieves outside the city walls.
And if Jesus can show us what God is like, I think Jesus can also show us where God is. God is with us – in our joy and our pain, in our bloody knees, and when our best friends talk trash behind our backs. Jesus cries out from the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
My God, my God. Where are you?
Even when we don’t know where God is, when we have moments of feeling abandoned by God, God is somehow even there, in that feeling of absence.
The Magnitude of Grace
The word for this immanence, this closeness, this nearness of God that I want us to wrestle with is Grace. Grace is God’s action and presence with us.
When most people hear the word grace, they think of the old song: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me… (I dare you not to finish the song in your head.) Grace is wonderful. It saves us from destruction. Grace, as we typically think of it, is pardon, forgiveness, mercy, having our debts paid off, or being let off the hook.
God’s grace is pardon and undeserved love, yes. But grace is more than just how God feels about you, or what God does for you on your behalf. Grace is also the gift of God’s presence with you, knowing you, loving you, and calling you, just as you are, moment by moment into fullness of life joy, and God’s peace.
So then, where is God? According to Jesus, God is here, close to us – radically near to us and available to us every day in every situation of our lives. And not only that, but we can actually do things day-to-day; we can do things every day that will actually put us in a position to draw near to the God who is always near to us.
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t necessarily feel God every day. If God is close to us, God’s grace is present to each of us, then how do we become aware of it – how do we join in?
Or to put it in scholarly theological terms: How do we practice the presence of God?
The Wesleyan and Anglican tradition would call these “things to do”, these faith practices that get us in touch with God’s presence, the means of grace.
The phrase “means of grace” may not be one you’ve heard, but try thinking of it as “a means to an end”. If I’m in Chemistry class, I’m going to need some beakers, graphing paper, and a periodic table to help me get the C- I need to pass. All those tools are means to the end of learning chemistry.
In the same way, means of grace are those practices and habits, the things we do, that help us accomplish our goal as Christians of encountering the loving presence of God. I am not advocating earning God’s presence or grace in our lives, but rather working to place myself where I can best encounter this grace. Imagine trying to experience the thrill of a live concert, but you’re frustrated because you’re just not feeling it sitting in the car. You have to be in the venue!
The means of grace help us receive the grace of God, but they also teach us to be more aware of God’s presence with us. The means of grace aren’t magic, where you say the right prayer and cast a Jesus spell. This isn’t Hogwarts. We’re not conjuring up God’s presence; God’s gracious presence is already here. These practices are ways we learn to be open to God.
Let’s Get Practical
OK, enough ethereal speculation. Let’s get practical. Some of the obvious means of grace are Christian practices like prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, taking holy communion, or fellowship and friendship with others. Other means of grace include serving others or performing acts of kindness and compassion to those around us. All of these traditional means of grace are ones that Jesus showed his disciples and taught them how to do. Each of these, in their own ways, can open us up to God’s presence.
When we search the Scriptures like Jesus did with his followers on the road to Emmaus, we get to hear about the story of God and all the different people called to know and experience God’s grace. God called Moses, a murderer with a speech impediment, to proclaim liberation and lead the people of Israel. God called Mary, a pregnant teen girl, to bring Jesus Christ into the world, to be the mother of God? No big deal right? These stories can open us to see that if God called them, where could God be calling me? Searching the scriptures becomes a means of grace when our story and God’s story collide… see what I did there?
When we come to the receive the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, we’re brought back to the night he met with his disciples in the upper room and offered them bread and wine. So for almost two thousand years, Christians have practiced this means of grace. In ordinary things like bread and wine, nothing special, Jesus shows up in a tangible, and edible, way. We take the bread and juice into ourselves, and somehow through the sacrament (or mystery), Christ is truly present and within us.
Now, you can eat bread, read books, and pray a prayer and still not “feel” any different. Again this isn’t magic or a transaction where you pay the clerk some prayers and get some “Jesus points”, redeemable for grace or God’s presence. Instead, these means of grace are the normal ways we can become aware and open to receive the grace that’s always available to us.
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was and elsewhere the one thing that we have to have for eternal life. Hint: it has nothing to do with denominations or going on a mission trip (though that can’t hurt, can it?). He doesn’t even say we have to believe all the right things. Rather, he says we have to love God and love our neighbors.
With this teaching in mind, I suggest that a means of grace is anything we choose to do, anything and everything we can do, that helps us follow his number one commandment: love God and love those around us.
The truth is we can encounter God’s grace outside the church all the time, outside the normal parameters in places we would never expect. Almost anything can become a means to experiencing the presence of God, or grace.
When we believe God is with us and can be present in our lives, we can start seeing God in all sorts of people and places.
So where is God? God is radically near to us, and we can do tangible things to become more aware of, and encounter, the grace of God’s presence.
Kyle is a pastor in a United Methodist church in the Shelby Forest Area, graduating from CYMT in 2014, and from Memphis Theological Seminary with an MDiv in 2017. He loves his wife, his two dogs, hiking, coffee, nerding out over comic books, banjos, talking about grace, and existential dread.
“The Hill We Climb” is a disorientation experience that will allow youth and adults to dive into a conversation around what it looks like to be the light in the midst of darkness, to be a mender in the midst of brokenness, to be hope in the midst of despair.