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The God who leaves traces

Thursday, 27 May 2021  | Christopher Brown


 

Though invisible to the naked eye, Covid-19 spreads around the globe, leaving traces of dislocation, anxiety, suffering and death, all of which we are painfully aware. But also invisible to the naked eye and spreading around our pandemic-ridden earth are traces left by God. We are grateful to the scientists, whose enormous challenge has been in discerning and deciphering the structure of the virus and its mutations and discovering and rolling out treatments and vaccines. Theirs is a life-and-death task. But God’s traces often stretch us beyond our everyday awareness. They can also be challenging to discern, decipher and discover what they ask of us. Do we consider detecting traces left by God as a life-and-death quest? The traces evident in the life and purposes of Jesus would indicate yes! Such traces offer life-giving and life-transforming signposts, much needed in our Covid crisis.

There is a surprising twist to this exploration. It is God who is seeking us! God’s traces are evident in the incarnation, self-emptying, death, resurrection, ascension and kingship of Jesus. Yet even when detectable, God’s traces can stretch us well beyond our comprehension. Who then can search the infinite mind of God and the finite human mind? It is the Holy Spirit who guides our prayerful discernment and deciphering, enabling us to discover God’s intent for us in our anxious world.

I glimpsed such an intent in a phenomenon that occurred as Covid-19 began its worrying global spread. With the pandemic spreading so rapidly around the globe, so did the refrain of an ancient blessing (Numbers 6:24-27), sounding out from the United Kingdom and echoing in different languages and countries across the world. I asked: ‘Has God left His traces here?’

The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His Face toward you
And give you peace
As we receive, we agree, Amen
.

(UK Blessing. Original Song, ‘The Blessing’, by Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe and Elevation Worship)

I recall my first encounter with this acoustic and visual phenomenon of blessing, with its compelling display of unity of faith. Momentarily elevated, I had the experience of contemplating the Eternal face of God shining upon me, right amidst my troubled world, orienting my soul towards God’s imminent presence. My eyes had filled with tears. My heart stirred in surprising and unanticipated ways. Recalling the experience twelve months later brought similar emotions and sense of wonderment. New questions emerged. Was this the brush of angel wings? Is the Holy Spirit encircling my soul? Is the Spirit enlivening my desire for something more? Is this an immeasurable yearning for the kingdom of heaven to become manifest on this troubled earth? As this ageless blessing harmonises with an eternal anthem, could God be leaving traces in and around my soul?

In my finiteness, such transcendent, sublime and ineffable encounters are hard to sustain, let alone discern and decipher and discover their invitations. Others, when invited to recall their responses to the blessing phenomenon, offered differing perspectives. Remembrance for some was profoundly moving. There were also questions concerning the Blessing’s intent and motivation, or whether the prominent display of unity across diverse faith communities could last. Scepticism is not an unusual response to what some call peak religious experience. Encounters with God can be unsettling. Will too much be asked? Is the depth of my dependency on God under scrutiny? Is there an unmasking of my false sense of mastery and autonomy? Am I to be more expansive in my love of God and others and to act out of greater freedom? What might this yearning for the kingdom of heaven require of me? And is there always a part of me that rebels?

Such sublime experiences of God can soon fade, with everyday preoccupations and expediencies eclipsing their grandeur. One friend commented: ‘Too much of God is too much!’  And yet, a residue of the blessing phenomenon has remained with me over the past twelve months. Are there traces left by God still to be found in these lingering residues and rediscovered in the remembering? If lost to the centre-stage of my consciousness, perhaps in the wings the Holy Spirit whispers to me that the God who searches for me loves me too much to let me go. I can simply ask the Spirit: ‘What took hold of me during that song?’ That can be enough to keep me receptive to this divine touch of blessing and to the possibilities of uncovering traces left by God.

I can imagine the Spirit taking up my question of ‘what took hold?’ and gently shifting my attention from the ‘what’ to the ‘who’: ‘Who took hold of me during that song?’ Refocussing upon the ‘Who’ reorients me to the movements of God.  With the Spirit’s accompaniment, the remnant remaining from my encounter with the Blessing — through its contemporary expression and ancient origin — points me towards traces of God through time and now spreading throughout our Covid troubled world. Such traces are closer than I have imagined, especially with the Spirit alongside me to enable and enliven my gaze.

Aided by scripture, the ancient elements of the Blessing invite me to remember how God’s favour has been upon us for a thousand generations. It orients me to the continuity of God’s blessings in the here and now, as His face graciously shines upon all of us. Aided by the Spirit, we can all discern and decipher traces of the kingdom of heaven in and around us. We are encouraged to experience the immediacy of God’s gracious presence and to discover his invitation to active participation in his life and purposes in our everyday lives. As God’s presence goes before us we can also engage with the traces of hope deposited by the Spirit concerning the new heaven and the new earth.

Even where there is scepticism, remnants of the experience of the Blessing phenomenon can linger, with the traces God has left in the soul still to be revealed. The Spirit is most creative in bringing our gaze back to God’s imminent and kingdom presence in our troubled earth, and in our here and now. Having explored the global reach of the Blessing, I also looked for traces that were more immediately at hand.

I noticed a residue lingering from an experience of just over a week ago. I had attended a silent prayer morning with six members of my faith community, held in a hermitage set in beautiful bushland.  I asked the Holy Spirit: what continued to stir and to invite me back to that encounter? Indeed, there was an appreciation of gathering for prayer with committed friends. Words such as wellbeing, love, joy, lightness and peace also surfaced. These point to God’s presence and to the gracious shining of God’s face. Had God sought us there? Some traces lingered. Traces remained upon receptive hearts that, during that morning, had been poised unto the Holy. What still resonates in recalling the welcoming, the praying and the farewelling of my praying friends? It was the thought of God gathering and enlivening through His Spirit, children upon whom the ‘great traces’ of his image rest. Lord, awaken me to such traces, be they great or small, near or far!

Lifting my gaze unto the Holy, I am invited by the Spirit to submit more to what God is doing. At the wide-open doorway of the kingdom of God is the invitation to look for more of the traces left by God. They include signposts to guide me on the great adventure of life and faith that can transform me in the life and kingdom purposes of Jesus. Engaged by the Spirit in such life-giving ways, I can echo the Amen, Amen and Amen of the Blessing!

 

Christopher Brown is an honorary research fellow of Trinity College, Queensland, and a spiritual director. His two books are: Reflected Love: Companioning in the Way of Jesus (2012) and Guiding Gideon: Awakening to Life and Faith (2015). He is co-editor of a forthcoming collection, To Whom Shall We Go: Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis. Chris contributes to holyscribblers.blogspot.com.

 

Images:

Praying hands – photo by Nathan Dumlao

Traces – source unknown


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