Our identity is created as a direct result of our experiences and the world or structure we live in. Not only do I have several identities, but each one is defined by a relationship; I am a sister because I have siblings, I am Nana because I have grandchildren and I am a child of God because God is my creator, etc. However, that last one poses a difficult question, “How do we get an identity as a child of God when we cannot articulate who God is or truly experience God in our human form?”
In order to claim an identity as a child of God, three things have to happen. One, God’s self must somehow be present with us. Second, if God is indeed present, how does that happen? Theologians have struggled for centuries trying to articulate the essence of God, so how can God be present to us in a way that we can grasp? There must be a way that his presence comes to us. And Third, there must be a way that God's presence is communicated, and we need to recognize it for what it is.
As humans, we seek tangible ways to relate to God. My experiences in life are a way to claim an identity as a child of God. If that is true, then God must somehow be a part of those experiences. Karl Rahner (a German theologian) would say that God is present to us in God’s “self-communication” which means that “what is communicated is really God in his own being, and in this way, it is a communication for the sake of knowing and possessing God in immediate vision and love”.
I experienced several life changing experiences which helped to shape who I am, the most prominent has been through death. Still, it was not going through it so much as it was the people who were there for me during those times. Death is a difficult thing to face. There is often anger and confusion; despair and apathy. I remember when my niece Melanie died at the age of fifteen it was such a shock that I became physically ill. Eighteen months later another niece, Stephanie age thirteen, also died. I could not believe this was happening.
People came from all over to be with the family. Some brought food, others did dishes and laundry still others just came and sat. Somehow I found peace in the midst of incredible grief. I was not okay with what happened, but I could face it in small doses drawing on the strength of others. I experienced God’s grace embodied in the woman who handed me a plate of food and another who gave me a ride home.
I often talk about the ministry of presence - where what you have to offer is simply yourself. I have seen the best examples of that in my volunteers over the years. One volunteer in particular comes to mind. Jim had been bringing his nephew to confirmation and youth group for years. Jim never lead any of the sessions he simply talked to the kids: he asked them about their week, he commented on great insights they have during discussions, he went to their events and he just plain hung out. He was God’s love and grace embodied and present with these young people.
In Rahner’s theology of grace, “grace must be given an embodied, finite expression…its greatest human expression would be in human relationships. The love God has for us is best expressed in the love we have for one another”. This is clearly evident in the ministry of presence that Jim brought to our youth group and it helps us understand how we can be blessed with the presence of God and in turn find our identity as a child of God. This is the ultimate ministry of presence, just as Jim gave himself to the youth, God gives himself – his very presence – to us.
This presence is tangible at any age. I once asked my young youth group (ages eleven to thirteen) to finish the sentence “Grace is…” regarding how they experience it in their daily lives. Here are some of their responses: “Grace is:
- wanting the best for others;
- helping someone for the heck of it;
- being calm when my brother is making noise;
- watching my sister dance.
They experienced grace through their interaction with others. Sometimes giving it and sometimes receiving it.
Grace is found in the presence of God, but the only way we can see it, is to stop long enough to recognize it. Although God is always there, we are not aware of it. Contemplative practices are a good way to be still and listen for God’s presence. The purpose of these is not that we might experience joyful moments of peace or escape the anxious reality of our lives, it is so we might become aware of, and in touch with, God’s presence in our lives.
In youth ministry there is a misguided understanding that young people only want excitement and action. If it is not loud and action packed, then you will not get their attention. Yet, people are often surprised when I tell them that the most powerful experiences for youth are quiet reflective prayer services. How often do they get to slow down? Life is non-stop and over stimulated. They never get a moment to just “be.” This is true for all of us.
I took my seniors to Seattle for a day trip. After spending the day sightseeing, goofing off, and having discussions in coffee shops, we headed to Saint Marks for a compline service. We were early so I started to ask them what their favorite part of the day was, but I stopped myself. One of the boys said, “We can talk about our favorite part of the day now…it is not like it’s going to be this service!” I conceded and we had our discussion. We went into the service and as we exited the building two of the boys (including the one who made the comment) jumped down the stairs, turned around and said, “That was amazing! It was my favorite part of the day!” They loved sitting quietly and experiencing the presence of God, and they could name it.
This happened over and over in youth ministry. They were passionate about prayer around the cross; they wanted to sit in a dark sanctuary with just a few candles; they asked to spend time in prayer. Of course, they still liked laser tag and scavenger hunts, but they craved to know God’s presence and adults are no different. Our lives are crammed with noise, activity and demands on our attention and time.
The only time we really get to stop and rest is when we are forced. We rest when we get sick, break a leg or have a heart attack. So often we cannot even take a walk in nature without an ipod stuck in our ear. Are we afraid of what we will hear? Or are we just so used to being over-stimulated that we know no other way?
It is critical to stop for reflection and quiet in order to recognize that God is real and present, not only in the loud crashing moments, but also in the simple everyday things of life. There is no way for us to approach God or to reach an understanding of God at “his” level. That is why God must come to us first and in ways that make sense to us.
Our identity is reflected in how we go about life. It defines how we respond to the joys and the struggles we encounter. When our identity is grounded in the love and grace of God, we in turn, can offer God’s love and grace to others - even if we do not know we are doing it.
The way in which we encounter the amazing love and grace of God is in our relationships. It is in how we respond to each other and how we are present to each other which, is a reflection of what God is doing in his self-communication; in his presence with us. The trick, of course, is being aware of God’s presence in our lives. Deep down there is a hunger for God, but that desire is in competition with the things of this world.
My prayer is that we can all find ways to recognize, when someone like Jim sits down and asks us how our day was, we will see God’s love and grace in that moment.