If you haven’t had a close call (or two) in your life, then you haven’t lived long enough. Sooner or later, everybody at some time walks away from a situation saying, “Whew! That was a close one!” Of course, sooner or later, we all face a situation that we don’t walk away from . . . but that’s a subject for another post. It’s when we have one of these close encounters with our own mortality that a lot of the superficial stuff that encrusts our lives gets (sometimes painfully) stripped away and we find ourselves staring into the face of our own mortality. At those times, we understand just a little better how important it is to “stop and smell the flowers,” as they say.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of faith to find the Transcendent in those flowers, or in a sunset, or spectacular vista, or the seeming infinity of a starry, starry night. Yes, of course, we can walk away with the feeling that if the immanent is so amazing, then how much more amazing must the Transcendent be? We “get” the connection between the One, the Good, and the Beautiful. All this is true. However, when we find ourselves on the other side of a life-altering experience, we can take our appreciation for the Transcendent to a whole other level.
People from every civilization have looked at the course of their lives and noticed that Something — or Someone — has, time and again, preserved them from disaster. And humans are fundamentally story-tellers. When we don’t fully understand something, our minds make up a narrative to explain it. Regardless of the details of that narrative, the meaning of these personal survival stories is always the same: “I shouldn’t have survived, but Someone or Something got to me at the last minute.” The best of these stories don’t ascribe their rescue to “chance” or “luck,” but they see something purposeful in their experience. Since these experiences can be life-altering for individuals, how much more so when they are a shared experience — by a tribe or a whole people? In a very powerful way, they allow individuals to share in the mutual experience of the saving power of a caring Deity.
I have very often heard people talk about their spiritual awakenings in terms of how they experienced a Divine intervention in their lives — an intervention that transformed their personal histories and created success out of the ashes of continual failure. When this happens to a people, we call it “salvation history.” That is God being Present through time. When we can see our own stories through the eyes of this kind of faith experience, we then can come to a far deeper understanding of the God we have experienced. No longer can we be comfortable thinking about God the Unknowable, the Divine Watchmaker Who sits impassively by behind the world of nature. Now, our God takes on a whole new set of recognizable characteristics: God is Awareness (we have been seen); God is Powerful (has intervened to change our history); God is Compassion (God cares about what happens to us). For us, the God of nature has been transformed into the God of history — the God of our story.
I won’t go much deeper into this here and now (I need to leave some topics for future articles), but our human experience does open us up to seeing God as Creator, as well. Philosophers have asked many times over, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Humans have questioned the origins of the visible world throughout the ages. But, even if we were so oblivious never to have asked that question, we might still be drawn to wonder (looking at our personal adventures), “If God is powerful over the present and the future, how could God not be powerful over the past?
The bottom line here is this: with faith, we begin to trace not only the paths of our own lives, but the path of a Life beyond us that accompanies us. Somehow, the God of eternity has found a way to get involved in time; and not just any time: our time. We have all seen that “Footsteps” poster, where the writer sees life as a pair of footsteps on a beach: hers or his and God’s; yet, in the most difficult places there’s only one set of prints. Of course, goes the story, that’s where God carried her/him. It’s a nice image that expresses what I’ve been talking about here. Understand it or not, God is with us. That’s Immanuel (immanu-El)1, the God of history, the saving God.