Living Before God

Overview

This book seeks to help individuals live constantly in God's presence.

Writing in the tradition of Brother Lawrence and those authors concerned with the realization of God's presence amid the daily round, Ben Campbell Johnson offers a collection of traditional spiritual practices that Christians have found helpful in fostering a more consistent relationship with God.

Following introductory discussion of the reality and nature of spiritual ...

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Overview

This book seeks to help individuals live constantly in God's presence.

Writing in the tradition of Brother Lawrence and those authors concerned with the realization of God's presence amid the daily round, Ben Campbell Johnson offers a collection of traditional spiritual practices that Christians have found helpful in fostering a more consistent relationship with God.

Following introductory discussion of the reality and nature of spiritual awareness, including a fascinating excursus on the "art of wondering," each chapter of this book describes a spiritual posture that can aid people in recognizing and nurturing God's presence in their lives. Johnson explores ways of being with God, listening to God, and attending the divine presence. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for journaling designed to let readers experience each specific posture in a concrete way.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Retailing
"Author Ben Campbell Johnson tries to get readers to deepen their sense of the Divine presence in Living Before God. And to that end, Johnson shares several practical tips for celebrating God's presence, including a fascinating look at "the art of wondering."... Readers seeking to plumb the depth of their personal relationship with God should welcome Living Before God."
Review for Religious
As he explores the process of awakening to the mystery of the presence of God that surrounds us, Johnson grounds his discussion in material from Scripture, the writings of saints, and the works of reliable spiritual writers.... Living before God is a good guide for those wishing to become more aware of the presence of God in their lives.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Johnson (Professor of Christian Spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary and author of Listening for God) explores the constant awareness of being in and enjoying God's presence. He begins by urging his readers to wake up to life and to God, instead of going through the motions of living in a state of "life-sleep," and encourages them to discover "wonder" as a noun and as a verb. In his chapter about meeting the Word (Jesus) through the words of Scripture, Johnson provides instructions for lectio divina, an ancient monastic practice gaining popularity among present-day Protestants. Then Johnson confronts the temptations and the fears facing anyone striving for spiritual development and distills such problems into the issue of trust--whether one truly trusts God to be God. From these developmental chapters, Johnson moves into various issues within Christian spirituality, including how to listen to God, how to find God in the here and now and Christian freedom. Each of the 10 chapters offers discussion and reflection questions at the end, as well as an exercise for keeping a journal, making this a suitable book for individual or group study. Johnson writes honestly about his own spiritual journey, candidly presenting his faults and shortcomings along with his sincere joy when he makes progress. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802846525
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 1/18/2000
  • Pages: 156
  • Product dimensions: 0.36 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Waking Up to God and to Life


I think there is nothing more tragic than to be asleep when you should be awake. Perhaps nothing more embarrassing, either.

    Have you ever discovered in the midst of an exam that you had been asleep when one of the questions was discussed in class?

    Do you recall awakening to a missed appointment?

    Have you ever slept through a concert, an airplane departure, or an important interview?

    I have. Bewildering, isn't it?

    This loss of consciousness has happened to all of us. I remember a humiliating experience on one of my first trips to Chicago. I bought tickets to Barefoot in the Park, made my way back to the hotel, and decided to lie down for a few minutes before getting dressed for the play. It was one of those cold, snowy, windy days in Chicago. I had gotten chilled to the bone waiting in line for the tickets. The room was warm in contrast to the chilly weather outside. All the circumstances invited a relaxed sleep. When I awoke, it was 10:30 p.m. The play was over, and I was the proud holder of worthless tickets. Maybe this unplanned nap was not tragic in the larger scheme of things, but it was upsetting nevertheless.

    During my second year in seminary, my wife and I lived in an apartment heated by a coal-burning stove. Since we had a new baby in the house, I fired up the old stove one evening and set the damper to burn all night. At one A.M. I awoke with the bedroom full of smoke. The apartment was inflames. I had just enough time to get my wife, the baby, and most of her clothes out of the building. The fire demolished all of our belongings, except for what we could grab on the way out of the flaming inferno. Losing virtually everything we owned was difficult, but sleeping through the fire would have been tragic for my young family and me.

    Experiences like these leave us feeling stupid, undisciplined, or thoughtless of others, but another kind of sleep may be more tragic: life-sleep. Life-sleep is a quiescence in which persons seem to be awake — they open their eyes, get out of bed, eat breakfast, drive to work, go through the motions of the day — but they are not fully awake. In fact, they take on the tasks of the day unaware of a larger and more important dimension of life.

    Many of these humanoids have no awareness of the purpose of their lives; they never have been opened to their depth, much less explored it; they possess only a faint awareness of the mystery that surrounds them. Missing out on these peculiarly human aspects of life leaves them deeply impoverished and restless.

    Haven't you known some people like this? I have friends that seem to fall into this category. One has become rich but doesn't know what to do with his material security and success. Another is outwardly religious — attends church, gives money, acts pious — but doesn't seem to be aware of the depth out of which religious faith is born. And still another friend seems stuck in a mire of resentment and fear that stifles her creativity and impairs her imagination.

    These dozing persons, afflicted with life-sleep, sometimes seem uncomfortable with their disease; others even consciously ignore it. Yet a small contingency, on occasion, actually tries to awaken. Tragically, a number of life-sleepers, like the well-known Rip Van Winkle, wake up near the journey's end.

    What would it take to cure our somnambulism?

    What would happen to us if we woke up?


The "Life-Sleep" Disease


"Life-sleep" describes a peculiar state of existence in which persons function effectively in the external world with little, if any, awareness of either the depth of the world or their own personal depth. Most who sleep through life don't even suspect, much less discover, what lies beneath the surface. Some even fail to wonder about the meaning of things. But most people, in my opinion, long to awaken to a fulfillment that has eluded them but can't find the way into this mysterious depth.

    Those who live on the surface of things talk only about the trivial or mundane aspects of life. Perhaps we need not go so far to find "life-sleepers." Don't you recall times in your own life when the tasks of the day or the immediate responsibilities of family or work crowded out the more substantive aspects of your life?

    Maybe the regular act of nightly sleep itself provides a metaphor of "life-sleep." What does it mean to go to sleep? For most of us the ritual probably includes going home, eating supper, watching television, going to the bedroom, undressing, turning down the covers, getting into bed, stretching out, beginning to relax, becoming drowsy, losing contact with the physical world, and gradually falling into unconsciousness. Every night we enter into that strange world of unconsciousness where dreams may occur, images may appear, and insights may come, but we have no power to determine these nighttime dramas. Everything occurs outside the bounds of our rational, free participation. This is precisely the meaning of life-sleep: things happen in a spiritual dimension outside of our conscious participation.

    But life-sleep or wakeful sleep essentially operates in reverse. We awaken, arise, and perform our morning rituals in an unconscious manner that sets the tone for the day. Our habits of awaking, dressing, going to work, conducting business, and living through the day are carried out without our being aware of what we are really seeing, hearing, and feeling. When we live this way, we miss the spiritual depth of life. To awaken to this depth might be a great shock to our spiritual nature. Are we so well-rehearsed in sleeping through life that we wouldn't know what to do if we woke up?

    Be forewarned. Just as the material world rests secure while we sleep through the night, so the spiritual world also remains actual and secure beneath our every step. It presents us with invitations and opportunities throughout our waking day, whether we attend them or not. This deeper dimension of existence surrounds us like the air, beckons us with persistent invitations, and seeks to show itself in subtle but recognizable ways. The reality of the spiritual aspects of life does not depend upon us but upon Another who cares more for us than we dare believe. The deciding factor does not rest with this Other but with us: this One acts and invites, but our participation depends upon our attending the presence that beckons us.

    Some who have attended the deeper dimensions of life seem strange indeed to rational, one-dimensional souls. Imagine the experience of the wise men, who came all the way from Iran seeking the place Jesus was born. They traveled across the country, following a star. Imagine how they might have answered questions like "Where are you from?" and "Where are you going?" and "Who is your guide?" To the last question they would have answered, "A star." All of the "why" questions would have been terribly embarrassing to them. Something of an odd group, wouldn't you say? Others had not noticed the star, but they had, and followed it.

    I suppose many persons considered Carlo Carretto, who also followed a star, a strange character. For twenty years in Italy, he had led a renewal movement of youth in affirming the faith and resisting Communism. At the age of forty-four, Brother Carlo left the security of the group, gave up his vocation of leadership, and took a ship to North Africa in answer to a call from God. Again and again he had to comfort his friends and especially his sister with the assurance that he was doing the right thing. He wrote to his sister, "Don't worry, Dolce, it's God who's calling me. I know His voice. Think of my life up till now: I've always followed the right star, haven't I?" Carlo spent the next ten years in the North African desert, learning to pray.

    Carlo attended the invitation of the Spirit. But his going to North Africa in obedience to a voice speaking from within challenges our commitment.


Life-Sleep in Biblical Imagery


Both Jesus and Paul invite disciples to wake up from life-sleep. In the records about Jesus' life and teaching, we discover that he dealt with this malady even in his own followers. Here is the story:


Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, "Watch out — beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread."
And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve." "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven." Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:14-21)


    When Jesus cautioned, "Watch out — beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod," he compared their influence to yeast. The literal-minded disciples did not understand that he meant the teaching of the Pharisees and the political power of Herod. They thought he was angry because they had brought no bread for the journey.

    Jesus asked penetrating questions of these life-sleepers. "Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?" All these questions not only challenged the disciples of Jesus but also challenge life-sleepers today, who know about the material aspects of life but do not know the spiritual depths of their own experience. Jesus' questions both affirm and invite. They affirm the reality of a deeper dimension in life, and they invite the sleepers into an awareness of it.

    Jesus himself lived with a keen awareness of this dimension of the created world. He did see. He did hear. He did understand where the hidden God was at work. But the disciples' spiritual faculties of perception and understanding had been blunted.

    Jesus had fed the five thousand with bread and fish. But for some reason the disciples had not grasped the mystery. In this miracle the Transcendent had broken into time; the Divine had presented itself to them. They should have known that Jesus was unconcerned about bread when he could feed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. Yet, they did not remember; they were blind, deaf, and clueless.

    Perhaps he still asks those same questions of his followers: Do you still not perceive? Do you not understand? Are your hearts (emotions, awareness, and sensitivity) callused so that you do not feel anymore? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Ears and fail to hear? A mind and fail to remember what I do? You have the faculties to engage the deeper dimension of existence, but you are not using them.

    How close does a miracle have to be for us to see it? How shocking must it be for us to appreciate it?

    On another occasion at the end of Jesus' teaching, his disciples asked why he taught in parables. He explained that he used parables because those who saw did not perceive and those who heard did not understand. They fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive" (Matt. 13:14).

    Like the disciples, the multitudes that followed Jesus did not see. They, too, were life-sleepers. So Jesus taught them in parables, short stories that had the power to subvert their everyday world. By using these stories, Jesus turned their everyday world upside down. He opened their eyes and ears, and he sharpened their understanding so they could see the world in all its completeness.

    One parable illustrates the point: "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?"


It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:31-32)


    When Jesus chose the mustard seed, the smallest of herbs, he cut deep into the value structure of his cultural world. In his mid-Eastern culture, size and proportion were measures of greatness. If a man was rich, he built a big house, he gave huge dinner parties with numerous guests, and he wore the finest clothes. But Jesus says the Kingdom of God consists of smallness, of things that seem to be of little value. And the growth, development, and expansion depend upon God. Perhaps his listeners' preoccupation with "bigness" blinded them to the Kingdom — an insight not alien to our own situation.

    The mustard-seed metaphor points to a dimension of reality that seems small but grows and becomes enormous. The Parable of the Mustard Seed holds the cure for life-sleep. Still, both Jesus' followers and the religious professionals of his day took his sayings so literally that even his shocktherapy did not clear their vision or awaken their imagination. They heard Jesus' words but remained confused about the meaning. They were like the woman who attended the horticulturist's lecture on gardening. He said that mature horse manure was best for the garden. The woman in the audience raised her hand and asked, "How old should the horse be?"

    Saint Paul invites the same kind of awakening when he says, "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.... Therefore it [Scripture] says, `Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you'" (Eph. 5:8-9, 14).

    Christ, the light of the world, shines upon the minds of persons, and as his light illuminates their understanding, it spills over into their lives. They live as persons of light, persons with meaning, with a sense of direction and purpose. This way of life produces goodness in them, right choices and actions; they live in harmony with God's intention. No wonder the apostle cries out, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

    In spite of the teaching of Jesus and the words of the Apostle Paul, many of us are still living blind to the real world. It is like living under the spell of a sorcerer, walking through life with our eyes closed to the mystery at work. We do not recognize what is being presented to us with every new day, and thus like actors with a single script we perform our memorized rituals on the stages of our lives. We live as though some mysterious force has flattened the world of an ordinary day, making it dull and uninteresting. What magician has waved his enchanted cloth and told us what to see? What prankster has bewitched us into believing that what we see is all there is?


What Does It Mean to Wake Up?


To be awake means to have our eyes opened so that we see, to have our ears opened so that we hear, to have our reason alert so that we understand. This is the biblical way of speaking of spiritual awareness. To be awake is the opposite of being asleep, deaf, and without understanding. Those anesthetized by earthly engagements and attachments must be shocked into wakefulness! For a moment this inner explosion disorients them and breaks their ordered way of thinking and perceiving. In that transitional moment, they glimpse the deeper dimension of reality!

    Jesus provided this kind of disorienting shock by the things he did. His miracles stunned people so that many of them said, "We've never seen anything like this before." Such a shock caused his audience to wonder in amazement.

    His parables had the same effect. "The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour," he said (Matt. 13:33). His listeners were compelled to wonder what he meant by yeast and flour, and what significance these common kitchen supplies could possibly hold.

    But Jesus' healings were themselves paradigmatic. When he healed a blind man, he demonstrated how "unseeing" persons could be made to see by his touch. When he healed the paralytic, he showed that unfeeling persons could be made to feel and engage unexplored dimensions of their psyche. And when he unstopped deaf ears, he revealed how spiritually deaf persons could be made to hear. Each of these healings dramatized the recovery of a capacity lost by neglect or fearful rejection.

    It is possible, I believe, to wake up, to become aware. Awakening occurs in many ways. Some open their eyes with a start because of a noise or a touch, others with a jolt because of a shocking experience. Some slowly and gradually come to the consciousness of a new day.

    No matter how deeply I reflect on a human being waking up to the vast reaches of the spiritual dimensions, I always conclude its occurrence is a mystery. Even awakening from sleep is mysterious. I don't fully understand how one emerges from the deep silence of sleep, becomes aware, and arises to a new day. From the first twitch of the sleeper on the pillow to the fully dressed human walking out the door — when you think about it, it's something of a wonder.

    This daily experience of waking up does indeed provide a metaphor of a spiritual awakening, a waking up to life's depth. You might be awakened by some slight change in your body position, or by an alarm going off. Or you might come to the end of your rest and slowly become conscious. Perhaps you are roused by a small, conscious thought that you have. Then you turn over and rest a little more. Next you sit up. You open your eyes to discover that the world is still there, the same one you left several hours earlier in the dark. Now it is light, but your eyes haven't adjusted to the light, so you squint. Then slowly you stand and stretch. You think about where you are and what you'll do first today. You then take the first step into a new day.

    You reach for your bedroom slippers and put them on, along with a robe. You make your way downstairs to the kitchen, turn on the lights, pull out the coffee, and make a pot for you and a pot for her. While the coffee brews, you go outside and pick up the daily paper, pull off the wrapper, and come back to the kitchen. By this time, one cup has brewed, and you pour it and sit down with the paper. You have performed the first ritual of the day; you have begun a new day.

    In a similar way we can talk about the things that happen when a person is spiritually awakened. Most life-sleepers rest comfortably in a mode of life inherited from their primary, social world. This world has given them their language, their set of values, their role models, their ways of relating, and their sense of identity and worth. But sometimes something happens to a life-sleeper — she has an unsatisfied hunger or an unanswered question or experiences pain. The occurrence causes her to wake up, jolts her out of her sleep just like an alarm going off in the morning. Perhaps this is the first time she has become aware of pain, like the pain you can get in your shoulder from sleeping in the wrong position during the night. The awakening may occur because of a persistent question that feeds the yearning for God. The pain and the question combine to shake up the order in her life. Through the mystery of goodness and love, she begins to wonder about her life. She may ask who she really is or how to create secure relationships. These little experiences of pain, fear, doubt, questioning, and wondering create openings just wide enough for the light to shine into her consciousness. These shocking experiences are the equivalent of drawn shades being opened to let in the daylight. As the light shines, even faintly, the darkness begins to be dispelled.

    We can describe a process of spiritual awakening, but we cannot dissolve the mystery. Seeing with the eyes of the heart and feeling the transformation that follows create a new perspective on life, but none can fully explain how or why it happens.


Ways of Awakening


When we survey the experiences of persons who have been awakened to reality, we see that the awakening can be triggered in a variety of ways. Sometimes a life-sleeper is awakened by a question like "Did you ever stop to think what you're doing with your life?" Sometimes just stopping to think is enough to awaken a soul. Those who resist being awakened say, "I dare not stop to think, because if I did, I wouldn't know how to get started again."

    Sacred encounters have a way of shocking our consciousness that undermines old ways of thinking. Our encounter with the Holy may be like that of Isaiah in the temple. It may be like that of Paul on the road to Damascus. It may be like that of the blind man who, at Jesus' first touch, saw men as trees walking, but then, at Jesus' second touch, saw clearly. Or we may suddenly see the depth in life in the routine experience of a worship service. A young woman in one of my classes described an experience in church when the presence of Christ became personally real to her. Though she had been baptized as a baby and had attended church all of her life, it was not until she was seventeen that she awakened from life-sleep.

    Some persons have been awakened by a powerful vision of what their life is meant to be. This sort of vision came to Peter on the rooftop in Joppa. The images and the voice that spoke to him introduced him to a new way of looking at Gentiles. Peter didn't create this vision; it was given in him. The message contradicted everything he had been taught. His most trusted authority was challenged and annulled. His vision had the same effect as Jesus' touching of the blind man's eyes — his eyes were opened, and he went away seeing, too.

    An applicant to our doctoral program wrote about her reasons for desiring the degree. She had had a vision of wading through a swamp until she came to a clearing where there seemed to be a building like a church. Suddenly people began coming out of the forest, all kinds of people -- small, large, black, white, poor, rich. She heard a voice speaking to her: "Go rebuild my church." This commission seemed too great for her to undertake. Then an angel appeared who seemed larger than life. He stood next to the church, and it became clear to her that only with God's assistance could she help to rebuild the church. The vision propelled her into action.

    A positive urge that results in a new form of behavior may awaken our spirit. A Samaritan is walking down the road. When he sees a Jew lying in the ditch, he walks over and, out of compassion, ministers to him. This action contradicts the Samaritan's whole cultural upbringing, but he does it anyway. Similar things happen when a salesman discovers that customers are not things to be used but persons to serve. The world forever changes for him. I knew a woman whose life was changed because she saw a play about street people; afterwards she went home to found a ministry to the homeless.

    Sometimes the pain of conscience awakens people. The realization of wrongness, of having failed, of having contradicted one's vision and values creates such disappointment that a person cannot live with herself. A woman vows to be faithful to her husband, but tensions arise, affections are tested, resolve for the moment relaxes, and she finds herself with another man. Feelings of remorse drive her to seek counsel and forgiveness, and these twin experiences of failure and forgiveness introduce her to the dimension of spirit.

    Some are awakened when their life experience begins to unsettle their inherited worldview. The world they inherited had no depth, no sense of mystery, but their life experience includes mysterious encounters with the Beyond, coincidences that defy explanation, and yearnings that cannot be fulfilled in a flat world. The sense of Another in their midst, a feeling of presence and power in a moment of weakness or helplessness, and the old life posture strains under the pressure. These persons begin to feel like a grown man in a kid's trousers — the soul outgrows its clothing.

    Once our eyes have been opened, we can never again go back to our original innocence. Once we have seen, we cannot "unsee" — the world has depth! As someone has said, "You can't un-ring a bell!"

    The process of awakening has no end. Some have believed that once they awakened, they were permanently aware. Not true. We continue to awaken more and more deeply throughout our life journey.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
1 Waking Up to God and to Life 1
2 Wondering about the Mystery 13
3 Engaging the Word 29
4 Resisting the Biggest Lie 43
5 Listening for God 55
6 Imagining God in an Ordinary Day 69
7 Coming to the Present 85
8 Acknowledging God in My Heart 97
9 Celebrating Life in Freedom 113
10 Remaining Faithful to the End 129
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