What does it mean to “know” God? My favorite prayer guru, James Finley, uses a Buddhist metaphor to explain this. A student may be able to “know” a rhinoceros in the sense that the student could point to a picture of a rhino in a field of other animals like elephants, giraffes, etc. But to know what a rhino is in that sense is so different than experiencing the hot breath of the rhino against the student’s neck! The experience of God is not meant to be as menacing as that; but it is as real as that.

A Feeling of Being Sourced

The experience of God may happen quite spontaneously when we are simply taking a walk. We suddenly realize that we are within a presence that is much greater than us and that we are connected to that Other. It is an experience of being sourced. We can have this experience on a more regular basis by simply quieting ourselves long enough to be aware of this presence that undergirds our very selves. Picture what a plant would experience if it could: suppose it could be conscious of water coming from outside of it into itself until the water becomes completely one with the plant; light falls on the leaves of the plant and is absorbed into the chemistry of the plant. We take in air and water and food; these are but examples of how our lives are totally dependent on the Great Giver, the Great Source, that enables our lives to be. This is the fundamental experience of the presence of God, when we know it as an experience not just as a fact. We experience ourselves as the created, and not the Creative Source.

Knowing/Not Knowing

Of course we cannot know the one who is total mystery. But it’s like standing in front of a sunset or an ocean: we cannot take it in, but for all that we still experience it. We may be lost in wonder and could never put it in words, but we are still standing in front of something we are experiencing. This is sometimes called knowing The Unknowable.

Paul’s Insight

This fundamental experience expresses itself to us in different ways at different times in our lives. In Paul’s letter to the Romans tonight we have one example of a specific experience of God, that people of prayer come to know. Paul says,

(26)Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (27)And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

“What could this possibly mean?” you might ask. Have you ever had the experience of talking to a therapist when you had no idea what was upsetting you? You just knew you were a bundle of racing thoughts and swirling feelings. You talk in a way that sounds like gibberish. And then the therapist says, “It sounds like you’re saying…” and tells you exactly what you could not say yourself. You’re in awe. How did she do that?! That is exactly what I’m trying to say. And you feel immense satisfaction that you have been heard…even when you did not know how to speak.

Paul is saying that the Spirit of God is so close to you that the Spirit is able to understand you better than you understand yourself. And what seems like simple frustration to you is a kind of opportunity for the Great Listener to pay very close attention to you and to report her understanding within the Divine Community that is our God. If we are aware of this movement inside of us, this shift from frustration to a deep confidence that we were heard, then we understand on an experiential level what Paul is saying.

We could think of another example. Have you ever had an experience of a lawyer defending you for something? You think your back is up against the wall. They proceed with confidence, knowing exactly how to provide the best defense. And you are amazed. (Remember one of the names for the Holy Spirit is “advocate,” which is a name we use for lawyers.) Similarly perhaps a doctor relieved you of a condition that you were despairing of. These too can serve as analogies for how God “takes our part” and “works wonders” on our behalf bringing us to an unexpected sense of satisfaction.[i]

My point this evening is that the basic experience that we all may have of “being sourced” by God sometimes comes to us in the specific form that Paul is talking about. And that is those times when we don’t know how to represent ourselves well before God. God herself knows how to pay attention and give us what we didn’t even know we needed. But when we receive it, we know it was exactly what we need. We are not alone. All of life is shared.

Sts. Clare & Francis
16th Sunday of the Year
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-43
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by RayMorris1 on flickr.com


[i] Afterthought: one member of our parish wrote to me after hearing me preach this message in church. After complimenting me, This member said, “And what you did not talk about is that, much to our dismay, at times, there is no apparent shift or in-breaking of God’s presence. Like the roots of a flower seeking moisture in a drought, sometimes there is no apparent sourcing of power; sometimes we go through those often written about anguished periods of “dry prayer.” I agree. From my perspective the conversation about “dry times” belongs in a discussion about the advanced stages of prayer. Usually when I preach I want everyone to know how experiencing the presence of God is available to everyone. This is not the purview of mystics alone. But, yes, that was a very special moment on the cross when Jesus cried the words of the 22nd psalm that his people had cried for centuries and would cry again for centuries more especially at the Holocaust: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” That feeling of the absence of God is real also. Every follower who walks after Jesus will know this moment. At the same time, we as beginners need to know the simple message that God is there for us day in and day out. Most often the experience of that can be very palpable. But yes, sometimes God is there when we cannot feel it. I don’t want to talk about “dry times” out of the context of a graced life; it can sound like the Christian life feels more like abandonment than like accompaniment.