October 30, 2011
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Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains,
ran down to the valleys to the place
that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
When I was eight years-old, I had a miraculous event happen to me. I’m going to tell you about it, and I think after I tell it to you, you’ll be tempted to say, “Oh,… that wasn’t all that miraculous.” But that may be because you tend to think of miracles as being much like fireworks. They’re only good if they’re spectacular. Sometimes miracles aren’t spectacular. They’re subtle. They pop like firecrackers.
At the time of my miracle, I was living outside of Philadelphia. We were renting a small house on the grounds of an old estate. Fields and woods surrounded the house. I loved the place. It was filled with natural wonders for an eight year-old boy. Various trees were my forts and spaceships. There were three ponds and a stream nearby where I could look at the fish, search for salamanders and crayfish, and skate on during the winter. I saw squirrels, rabbits, deer, turkeys, skunks (from a distance), and every once in a while, a small little pink hedgehog. I loved that place because I felt close to nature there, and to God—in an eight-year-old way.
My little miracle happened one day while climbing a particular beloved tree. It was a skinny little tree that was perhaps 12-feet high. I would shinny up the tree as far as I could go before it started to sway, bending under my weight. On this particular day, I went up about eight feet, and paused to look around. I could see the stream, the little mill house built in the 1920s where I would see the hedgehog, the old oak tree that I often dug peat moss out of. I then prayed to God: “God, please help me to always be kind to animals, trees, and everything else.” It was a simple prayer. What helps me remember it was that I felt as though God was profoundly with me in that moment. It was almost as though I could feel God hugging me. Not quite, but also not not quite,… if you get what I mean.
This experience has always stayed in my mind because it was the moment that I first recognized the miraculous in the mundane. It wasn’t like fireworks. It was like smelling flowers. I had an experience of oneness with God, with animals, with nature, and at some level it made me deeply aware that God is often found best in the mundane. I wouldn’t have said it that way when I was eight. Back then I just felt it. What this experience taught me for the first time was that too often we look for God’s miracles in big events, but where God is most often found is in the ordinary, the everyday,… the mundane.
Like everyone else, I’ve gone through all sorts of changes in my sensitivity to God over the years. I’ve had to struggle to find God in the ordinary. The fact is that all of us struggle with spiritual sensitivity. I believe our grappling with sensitivity begins as adolescents. That’s where we begin to lose a bit of our child-like innocence, and thus our ability to naturally sense God. There’s something about first becoming adolescents, and then adults, that makes us increasingly insensitive to God all around us.
As teenagers, we lose the sensitivity because we get caught up in school, which makes us more sensitive to what other people think of us, and less to what God is doing with us. Adolescences is a time of trying to figure out who we are, and so we spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about how we either do or don’t fit in. We’re not thinking much about how we fit in with God. We’re thinking much more about whether he likes us, she likes us, what our parents are doing or not doing to/for us. Our brains undergo a tremendous amount of change, and we start developing the ability to think abstractly and philosophically, but that ability is spotty. Sometimes we flit into this more adult way of thinking, sometimes we snap back to childish ways of thinking. That’s why your teenage kids drive you nuts. You don’t know whether to treat them like adults or children.
What this does to us spiritually is that it causes many, many teens to put God on the shelf. You see evidence of this in the church. What typically happens to teens once they become confirmed? Often they stop coming to church. They may still see themselves as spiritual, but they put a halt to activities that are designed to help them grow spiritually. This isn’t true of all teens, but it is true of most. Adolescence through college age is the time of lowest church attendance.
Then, in adulthood, we get caught up with work and our careers, which makes us sensitive to how we’re going to make it in the world. Our focus becomes on our career, relationships, friends, and activities. In the process our sensitivity to God in the everyday gets lost, to the point that many people, when they struggle, have a hard time finding God. They look all around, but can’t find God even though God has been there all along. The problem isn’t that God is absent. It’s that they’ve taken God for granted, and have lost sensitivity to how we find God in the ordinary and mundane.
I’ve been reading a remarkable book lately that celebrates seeing God everywhere in a time when God seems nowhere. The book is The Life Journey of a Joyful Man. It is the memoirs of Adrian van Kaam, who died three years ago. I studied with van Kaam at Duquesne University for my Ph.D., and he’s probably the closest I have to a spiritual mentor. He was a brilliant man who probably understood as much about Christian spirituality and the spiritual life as anyone who’s ever lived, other than Jesus.
The first third of the memoir deal with his life in Holland during the Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945. When the Nazis invaded Holland, things became difficult, but not radically. The Nazis saw the Dutch as being somewhat German, and therefore somewhat akin. But at the war progressed, and as the Dutch resisted German occupation and began hiding Jews from them, they oppressed the Dutch people more and more. Beginning with the Allied push after D-Day in 1944, life became truly oppressive. The southern part of Holland was liberated from Nazi control, leaving the northwestern portion in desperate straits while the Allies pushed on toward Germany. Van Kaam had been attending seminary in the south, but it was liberated while he was home visiting his family in the northern city of The Hague, leaving him trapped behind enemy lines. That’s when the devastation really began.
The Nazis, who were slowly losing the war, reacted by tightening control of the north. And as they did, they became more and more barbaric. It started with the Nazis demanding more and more food from the Dutch farms. They had to feed their armies, and they really didn’t care if the Dutch starved. As van Kaam wrote, the average person’s calorie-per-day quotient dropped from 2500 to 1300, then to 950. By winter of 1945 they were living on 450 calories a day. There was no meat, no fresh vegetables, no fruit. They lived on root vegetables at first—potatoes, carrots, turnips. When those were horded by the Nazis, they were left to eat sugar beets, which have no caloric value, and tulip bulbs, which were toxic when eaten in larger quantities. Van Kaam suffered the effects of that toxicity for the rest of his life. Then the Germans demanded that the Dutch population turn over their winter coats and blankets in order to give them to the German Army. The Germans also cut off electricity, coal, and oil. The Dutch people had no choice but to basically deforest most of the north to burn for heat, as well as burning siding from houses, shingles, window frames, furniture, and more. Anything that could be burned was. The Germans even confiscated pets and horses to use for food.
As the Dutch resistance persisted in their call for a nationwide labor and railroad strike, the Germans responded by killing men at random. Van Kaam writes about walking through the streets of The Hague one day as it sat eerily quiet and empty. Two women in an alley nervously motioned for him to come to them. When he walked over to them, they rushed him inside because the Germans were grabbing every tenth man off the street and shooting him in reprisal for Dutch Resistance activities.
Van Kaam went into hiding in general, while also being part of a network that hid Jews, anyone accused of hiding Jews, anyone caught speaking against the German government, or anyone who refused to cooperate with the Nazis. During this time he started an underground newsletter to speak words of faith and hope during the winter and spring of 1945. He would have been shot if he had been found out. The Germans, faltering on both the front lines and in Germany, posted announcements demanding that all men, ages 16-40, had to report to be conscripted to be shipped to German factories, to clean up German cities ravaged by Allied bombing, or to build German defenses on the front lines. Many men were taken. Many more went into permanent hiding. The women, in most cities, were left to do almost everything because the men were either gone or in hiding. Millions of Dutch were starving, freezing, plagued by diphtheria and dysentery, conscripted, slaughtered, and left to struggle for survival.
Still, despite of all of this, van Kaam discovered God’s grace everywhere. The Germans, exercising their God-bestowed free will to choose evil continued through their atrocities, did not kill van Kaam’s ability to sense God everywhere. In fact, the worse it got, the more he found Christ in the acts of thousands of self-sacrificing Dutch people, Protestant and Catholic.
Ultimately, his experiences under the Nazi occupation actually opened him more to the miraculous in the mundane. He sensed Christ’s presence in the simple acts of the Dutch people sharing their scarce food with each other. He sensed God’s presence in his increasing awareness of beauty of grass, trees, plants, flowers.
Van Kaam wasn’t alone in his discovering God in the mundane under German occupation and atrocities. Many other books chronicling events of the same era wrote about their authors’ sense of presence. Elie Weisel, the renowned Holocaust survivor and writer, tells in his book, Night, of a man being hanged in the center of the Auschwitz concentration camp where he was a prisoner. As the Jews all stood in formation, looking at this hanging from the branch of a tree, a man yelled out, “Where is God now?” Another yelled out, “Hanging on the tree!”
Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, spoke of how they discovered God in the profound beauty of a sunset while standing in the court of the concentration camp. Corrie ten Boom, whom I’ve mentioned many times before, discovered God in dinners shared with the Jews they were hiding, in Old Testament Bible studies with them, and in the concentration camp with the small little miracles that happened everyday to bring beauty to their devastation.
For a number of years I’ve been fascinated with a phrase I hear people speak on occasion: “God is nowhere.” So many people think this is the case, that God is absent, whether because there is no God, or because God doesn’t care. What fascinates me about the phrase is that if you change your perspective on the phrase just a little bit, the phrase is transformed from
GOD IS NOWHERE
GOD IS NOW HERE
The difference between the two is adding a little space to sense God’s miraculous presence.
If we really want to see miracles of God, it doesn’t take much. It just takes the willingness to cultivate the ability to look for God’s work in the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary; because it’s in the ordinary that we begin to lay the groundwork for seeing the extraordinary.