I was about nineteen. There were blue and purple lights flashing around us, and chimes twinkled from the stage. People raised their hands in victorious surrender as we sang, “He loves us,” again and again. There was not a dry eye, as they say.
And then I had some sort of vision. I felt a warm hand on the back of my neck. A man’s chest was in front of me, his arm pulling me into an embrace. But no one was there.
A month later I stupidly tried recounting the experience to a friend of mine who had recently departed from her faith. “I’m not making this up,” I insisted. She looked at me sadly.
I’ve found myself at a few places along the Christian spectrum—Presbyterian, non-denominational, and now Catholic—and as such I’ve encountered a wide range of answers to the question: how do you know God? Once I thought I understood. I thought I could just reach out and grab God like some low-hanging fruit, or that I could sit with him at a bistro and chat over a latte, but now I’m not so sure.
I heard a story from one of my acquaintances that a voice told him to get off a train and, without any college education, simply ask for a job at the New York Times. He got it and worked there for twenty years. I’ve known someone who said she healed a stranger’s knee; she said the decayed cartilage suddenly reappeared and the man could walk again. I have many more friends with less extreme accounts who nonetheless swear by a voice, maybe audible, maybe not, that directs their paths.
Naturally, most people outside this evangelical bubble think these more dramatic stories are bogus or delusional, as my friend understandably did when I tried to tell her what I’d seen.
Others, even ones who believe in God and his enduring care for us, are hesitant to label something as “the voice of God.” They see “God-sightings” as an easy way out of responsibility—that waiting for a divine green light before taking action is simply cowardice or immaturity.
I suppose I see both sides.
Just a month or so after my strange “vision,” I spent some time at English L’Abri, a religious center started by the late reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer. At lunch one day we spoke about these kinds of dramatic voices and spectacles, and wondered what to make of them. Does God really speak to us this way?
One woman gave what I consider to be a thoughtful response. God can and does communicate to us however he wants, but just as how she wouldn’t go gossiping about some intimate moment with her husband, it’s indiscreet for us to broadcast our deepest and most tender spiritual moments to others.
I’m still learning myself, and I’m not about to prescribe one way of communing with the Almighty, but there’s something to be said for not waiting around for the Will of God to magically grace our heads while we sleep when we could be acting on what we already know he wishes us to do. Sometimes our religious fanfare keeps us from doing these things; loving one another, serving our communities, and doing our work ethically and faithfully. At the end of the day I don’t know how much God cares that I chose Barnard College over St. John’s. He would be with me either way.
At the same time, it’s all too easy to live as if what we see is all there is. There’s something very powerful about stopping, listening, and looking for the moments of wonder and mystery when so many of us board the train with our ear buds in, when we're the first ones out the door when it enters the station. And we do know from scripture that the Holy Spirit is with us, interceding for us and guiding us, even when we don’t ask for it. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, God is there, and He is not silent.
That’s one reason why regularly partaking in the sacraments is so important: the joining of the mundane with the magnificent. It lifts our eyes to the heavens, but reminds us that what’s around us—the kneeling people, the wooden benches, the flowers on the altar—they are good. When we spend our days anxious over whether that image was a heavenly vision or hallucination, our broken foot a plot of the devil or an unfortunate coincidence, we lose valuable time which we could be using to actually live.
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in New York City. You can find more of her writing on her blog Iced Spiced Chai or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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