I can recall being in school for spiritual direction and we talked about what we called, ‘theological assumptions’, and the theological assumptions that go along with the practice. From the idea that God cares deeply about us, to the idea that God can speak to us through the pages of scripture and nature and others and even our own insights, to God being present with us and reaching out to us to connect, all of this and more are theological assumptions we bring to the practice of spiritual direction, and, into our lives of faith.
The idea of ‘theological assumptions’ might sound scary or give you a feeling of apprehension. In a world that craves certainty, here we are talking about assumptions we are making. An assumption sounds like we don’t have proof for what we say we believe. It sounds like we should issue the warning, ‘be careful, to assume makes an ass of out of u and me!”. But, when you consider that
theo-, which means God in Greek and the suffix -logy means “the study of,” theology literally means “the study of God”. Think of biology, the study of life, anthropology, the study of humans, or even zoology, the study of animals. And so, we study. We study by reading books, and listening to people speak who have devoted their life to the topic of their study. We experience things for ourselves, we talk through ideas and concepts with friends. When it comes to God, as much as would like to be sure about things, the Great Mystery of God is simply that we possibly can’t know it all. This is where we often say that faith comes in to play.
All this to say becomes a giant preface to the idea that God is with us.
This idea, that God is with us, is reaching out to us, is inviting us into connection, is one beautiful way to imagine God to be. Though different denominations view this differently, I always found the ‘chair story’ one that becomes a great starting point for someone considering this for the first time…
The chair story presents two chairs; I sit in one and God sits in the other and we sit facing each other. Time after time, I turn my chair away. Time after time, God gets up with their chair, moves to where I have turned, and sits down in front of me again. Time after time the process repeats, and time and time again, God turns to face me once more.
While I loved this idea at one point, now I imagine that in all the turning I do as person in this life, God is already present at the turn. God is there no matter where I go. In scripture we can read that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In this way, at every turn, God’s Loving Presence surrounds us. I may still turn, but God meets me in the turning. I may close my eyes, but God is still there. I may not always acknowledge or see or feel or experience or remember God’s presence, but God is there.
This idea comes up often both in the practice of spiritual direction and when we talk about ideas of prayer. When we set aside out 20 or 30 minutes of ‘quiet time’ to connect with God we almost imagine that God walks into the room with us, sits down there with us, and when the time is up, God leaves. We are left to our own life and the next time we pray, God is there with us again. It’s as if the words we use when we sit down to pray magically summon God’s presence and we acknowledge God’s arrival at those moments. But what of the rest of the time? Where is God then?
When we talk about God being with us, a piece of scripture like Psalm 139 can bring a renewed sense of awareness to God’s presence with us. God’s presence with us consistently throughout our lives can bring up a lot of feelings and ideas. If God is angry and judgemental we may feel crushed under the pressure of having God always with us. If God is loving and encouraging and desires the best for us, God’s presence can feel inviting and warm. If we imagine God as a man in a chair silently watching the things we do without interacting we can feel like life is a performance and we may feel we can’t quite relax. If we imagine God’s presence as as Love that surrounds us, as present as nature surrounding us, it may feel serene to consider God with us. Our relationship, and yes, our theology, can all inform how we experience God with us.
This idea is fascinating to explore. It’s often something we may not think about too much, and when we begin to ask ourselves what we think about God’s presence, we may give ‘text book’ answers that we’ve heard before, without considering what our actual lived experience and actions reflect we believe deep down.
When we look at the biblical narrative, we see the idea of God with people in a variety of ways. From the story of garden of eden where Adam and Eve walked with God, to the story of God’s presence dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant, to God’s presence in the tabernacle, we see the story find its crescendo in the arrival of Jesus on earth. Jesus marked a physical incarnation of God that humanity could interact with; you could see Jesus, you could touch Jesus, you could ask Jesus questions and hear him speak to a crowd of people. Then, the story shifts once again to Jesus leaving and in His place, God’s presence as the Holy Spirit, being a presence that is always with us as Comforter, Counsellor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, Standby…
‘God with us’ certainly is an idea with an expansive history and offers us a beautiful invitation to exploration.
During advent, we often read the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18-25:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.”
Most of our Christmastime festivities centre on celebrating the arrival of Jesus! While Easter is a time to examine his death and resurrection, Christmas is the joy of celebration at what Matthew says happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled. We celebrate the arrival. We celebrate Jesus. We celebrate that God would come as Jesus and be with us to speak and listen, to heal and weep, to laugh and eat and sleep and be present with us in all of our humanity meeting all of his.
I read in a book this weekend, We are, as it were, more or less “human” insofar as we are in the “school of love.”
As I made note of “school of love” I considered how Jesus’ life is our subject of study of this school of love. His life makes a case study for how to love. If I believe God is Love, and Jesus is a human incarnation of God, then Jesus is the human living out of Love in a way that, from the scriptures that have been pulled together, we can read and study and explore. Perhaps “God With Us” is an invitation to the “school of love” by which we are all students slowly learning and applying what we are learning. It’s a school that we never graduate from, but only continue to grow in. It’s the school of our lives, for which we are forever students.
So, what does it mean that Jesus came and was God With Us? What did it mean to those who lived at the same time as Jesus? What does it mean to us that, during advent, we anticipate when Jesus comes again? And what does it mean that we live life now, with the Holy Spirit, as God with us?
This is the heart of the 2023 Virtual Advent Soul Care Yoga Series Immanuel: God With Us.
Together, through a 1-hour per week session of yoga asana, breath work, meditation, and reflection, we will be given space to explore the idea of God With Us. Each week we will look at a different idea, including those questions highlighted above, and you will be given the opportunity to engage with each idea through movement, breath, and meditation. It’s a beautifully embodied faith practice that can be a lovely addition to your advent season.
To learn more, click HERE.