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Experiencing God or Not (Andy)

Experiencing God ….or not

We’ve been wrestling with how we describe Kairos, as a movement for some time and recently Liane and I have been playing with the notion of our groups being akin to the food, drink and welfare stations along a marathon route, or similarly along a pilgrimage route (Refugios), which additionally offer rest and a space to get to know others on the trail.  We are all people on the move spiritually.  We seek to grow, explore and move on in our faith journeys.  Part of our goal, as Kairos, is to offer those spiritual service stations, rest areas and as needed, safe spaces to regroup, recover, reflect on the journey so far and meet our community of fellow sojourners.

We all look for resources in this journeying and I increasingly find that help in sharing with others on the same journey.  I recently discovered a Podcast,  ‘In the Shift’ based in New Zealand, featuring a couple of guys, Michael Frost & Shane Meyer-Holt who reflect on their personal faith pilgrimage.  Some of you may have come across Michael at Greenbelt.

Their podcast title ‘In The Shift’ resonates with the territory that Kairos embraces, of a faith that is changing and their reflections have been incredibly helpful for me.

A particular series of their episodes, which I felt have been both quite challenging and inspiring, reflect on whether, and how, we experience God.   I’m suggesting we use them as inspiration for our Wednesday discussions and that we begin with Episode 86, which is the first in the series.  We’ll then see how our conversation and reflections go, and if we feel this is fruitful, we might explore some of the rest of the series together another month.

You can find the podcasts at https://intheshift.com/podcasts or on most podcast players.

Episode 86

Their Spiel

In this conversation with Shane Meyer-Holt, they dive into the complicated world of understanding experiences of God.  For some, particular kinds of experiences with God are central to their spirituality, to feelings of closeness with God, and to a sense of meaning and purpose.  And yet for others, the attempt to impose certain forms of experience has resulted in harm and even trauma.  Some have never ‘felt’ what they’ve been told they’re supposed to feel and have never sensed God in the way that those around them are apparently sensing God.  Does this mean its all pretence, or am I simply being ignored by God?

For many, this just ends up as a very confusing jumble – we might have had meaningful experiences, but no longer know what to make of them, or we may have had a mixture of positive and negative experiences and now we’re left wondering if any of it was real at all.  So this episode is the beginning of a series of conversations trying to unpick all of this and see if we can make sense of it.

Questions for Us

  1. Where does the idea of experiencing God, fit into your experience, or expectation?
  2. Do you resonate with any of the experiences you heard about in the podcast…either a significant experience of God, an experience you later re-interpret, or a profound sense of missing out?
  3. What situations have we encountered/experienced God? Have there been experiences of God we have felt unable to talk about because they didn’t feel normative in previous contexts?
  4. Have you ever felt coerced into an experience?
  5. What positively, does help you experience God? Are those experiences found inside, or beyond church walls?
  6. Did the podcast encourage you to re-evaluate those spiritual experiences and most especially those outside your own tradition, that have been frowned upon?
  7. Would you be interested in listening to some of the remaining parts of the series…Part 2 looks at suggestibility and whether God withholds experience. Part 3.. focuses on signs of experience and problematic theology that develops from that.

Some badly transcribed and paraphrased notes on the podcast  from Andy….

7:38 We arent experts, but experts on our own experience…

8:30 We watched an Australian documentary about Megachurchs.   The documentary makers own story…ends with a poignant reflection on their own experience.   As a younger person in a church service,  he is looking around a room, everyone else experiencing something powerful, but he is not…leaves him not just wondering why, but a sense that God has rejected him… on a cosmic scale.

9.55 The hosts have experienced similar, and it has risen in many conversations they’ve had.

10.30 Experiencing God is personal, diverse and subjective, but with huge meaning.  Some of this is central to faith, others the reason they left, others the site of their trauma.

12:30- Shane:  Background in Bretheren church…little music,   then Baptist church, songs intimacy based, didn’t feel swept up, but felt connected and close to God.

14:00 Then Pentecostal worship space, worship whipped up emotionally, part of what being a Christian was, was experiencing God in more dramatic and intense ways … but emotionally exhausted.

14:00 Music was stimulating and did connect me to God.

15:45 But Starting to chat to people who weren’t experiencing the same things…and things started to disintegrate.

16:00  Michael – brought up Pentecostal.  

17:15  It was expected that you had a desire for God, to connect enabled you to do things, say things.

17:40 Late teens, caught up in the need to push-in and find that magic experience place…read stories of Revivalists.   Wanted to become one of those people…praying, fasting….trying to break through.

18:45 Had a sense of God being present to me, but there was a next room of power didn’t make it into.   Had specific experiences that were meaningful, but also felt a lack of breakthrough.

20:00 Shane: It is baked into the system, that there is always more..the carrot of being able to perform miracles.  Whatever had last week, was not good enough, you always need a fresh anointing.

21:20  Michael…part of service, everyone fell down in the Spirit, and I didn’t.  Guy came afterwards, to pray for me again…still didn’t fall.   Being  ‘Slain in the Spirit’ was a feature of that kind of experience.    Man said…..I feel like the Holy Spirit is bouncing off you and can’t get in…felt rejected…..parents offered me a different narrative.

23:15  Shane..Feeling God after singing, others after prayer, others healing at shopping mall.

23:40 Michael:  Some people, it is a warm feeling at a beach, or forest or hanging out with friends.

24:09 The Christian tradition has a variety of frameworks and expectations…of what that experience is, but most are relatively narrow in each tradition.

25:44 Three ways to approach this…

What we are experiencing or not

How to interpret that experience.

Experience and coercion..in a spiritual space.

27:00 Many people feel they are having genuine and meaningful experiences of God.  Its not complicated, or fraught… it’s just good.

27:55  SUE:  Experienced God as warmth in different parts of my body, especially around my head.  Bubbles coming up inside my tummy.    Regularly getting warmth around may ear, for me it is linked with God wanting to say something.  Sometimes in a song, occasionally in a sermon, but generally dry.  Noticed as a counsellor, warmth happens, directing me…..

29:10  Michael:  We are hearing from  someone who has a sense in their body, heart or mind, of experiencing God and it is meaningful.

29:45 Shane:  There are people who have experienced that thing, and haven’t pulled it apart.  This is what I feel, I believe it is God.   Others pulled it apart and looked at neuroscience…this could be all delusion, it is meeting a psychological need.  Ona good day, feel there is a divine, and I feel connected.   I can talk at length about being deluded, but also feel there is an authentic connection for me.

What you can’t conclude, is that others are then faking it, or they are not real….we try and fit their experience into our own, and vice versa which isn’t helpful.

32:20 Michael:   those who have an experience, assume everyone else needs to have that same experience.   

Shane: Some connect it with God’s blessing, that others could also have… when it in fact their privilege, which is enabling them to be blessed….

33:50 Michael/Shane:  We aren’t trying to dismiss those who feel they have had an experience, but at the same time, not ignore the other possible reasons for those experiences.  If there was no divine, how would we explain this stuff?   My conclusion is that none of that excludes God!

35:00 Shane:  The reality is, that two things can be true at once! 

35:30 Michael:  What about those who aren’t experiencing these things, or once did, and now do not?

35:50  Shane:  Some are not having that experience and don’t care, others feel cosmically abandoned…have a lifetime in church, crying out for God to show up, and continue to not show up in ways that were promised, and they just feel rejected.

36:55 Michael:  I wanted intimacy, and to feel a certain way, but always feeling wasn’t yet getting that full experience, although was experiencing something and feeling it was my fault…

37:55  reasons I surmised…….I was not pressing in enough, my sin…which meant masturbation for us young guys!

38:35 Shane…connection between the divine as a person, and feeling loved.  We feel intimacy with God will feel similar to being loved by a person….and that may depend on the quality of our human relationships…

39:56 Mixture of meaningful experiences, and those feeling constructed, coerced.  Some seemed good at the time, and now not so sure.  

40:40 Techniques like If talk really quietly…and then raise voice…it can evoke a response, or if you sneak up and place your hands on their head….while people are praying with eyes closed

41:05  Music playing,…had gone down for prayer…someone put their hand on my stomach…I jumped, they assumed it was the Holy Spirit….

 42:10  Unexplainable phenomena – I am much more cynical than used to be.  People who trust have stories about experiences, that I find difficult to discount because I know the person, but I don’t always like the implications of that…I would like things to be tidier than they are…

43:55 Music- In charismatic spaces, music is such a central part of spirituality.  People describe worship music was the place I experienced God the most, and now it is the thing I trust the least.

44:45 Lyrically with key changes, peaks and troughs, songs tell us we are loved, but not deserving, bathing us in God’s presence, but urging us to push forward, God is here, coming from elsewhere and at the same time within us,  It lacks coherence.

45:30 It is the source of potent experience, and confusion.  Just hearing the music now for some triggers trauma.  Other friends listen to the music, don’t believe in God, but enjoy the music for itself.

46:25 Function of worship in the service.  The service and sermon central was elevated space in the Christian life, hearing from an ordained, anointed person the pinnacle, and good worship is a gateway into the experience of God.  As a congregation, unless achieve God turning up we have failed.

47:20  Worship would then be flogged … built-in anxiety was to achieve a feeling, or sensation before can move to the important bit…this is a gateway to the centre of the Christian life, which is listening to some dude talk…

48:20  In the Bible Musicians sent out ahead of troops into battle…a praise and worship team sent out to gain God’s favour and break the ground…

49:05  Other believe the Devil was the worship leader in heaven before being cast down, which is why he hates it…(that’s bad theology)

51:40 Whether these spaces manipulate or otherwise when someone in a loving community, looks at you, and say I see you care about you, and you matter, it is really significant.

53:20 Michael:  That’s part of what makes this so hard, or traumatic to unravel.  If that was fake, when it gave me life and made me feel I matter…hence connects to pain, revulsion and anger.

54:20 Interpreting our experiences.  What is it I was experiencing?  There is one interpretation at the time, and others later in retrospect.

55:20 In my life as a young person I felt an urgent life call from God to stand up in front of people and communicate, but I was shy nervous and socially awkward. 

56:15 Had been talking to the Youth pastor, about the opportunity to speak, they were hesitant but relented.  The weekend before was prayed for, and had an encounter with God, began speaking in tongues uncontrollably, and fell to the floor, even though the fire alarm went off, still embedded in my experience….was evacuated, sat in a car parking speaking in tongues for next hour.  Went with friends, and was able to stop.

Described it as unlocked my voice and confidence, next week I spoke and it was a great success.

Now look back on it, and I can’t make sense of it, and question it….It is STILL a pivotal moment of my life.  It DID change the arc of the thing I was doing and changed the arc of my life.

59:10 Shane:  From a psychosocial viewpoint could pull it apart….whether it is authentic or not, is another matter….Elements of my life, I would feel more respectable if didn’t have divine experiences.  You wouldn’t group me with those other people…

1:00:00  Whether or not authentic, it doesn’t matter…. don’t want to feel bullied out of an interpretation, because of the social circles I am part of.

1:00:45 Some people have had experiences with music, and then gone to a Coldplay concert, and experienced a similar bodily goosebump, intimate feeling…oh I was told that was a God thing, and I am here in a secular space, does that mean God is here….?

Shane:  I have anxiety about certain church spaces.  Once a year go to a denominational meeting, and as soon as triggers of previous life, I can’t sit through it…. it’s not just theology, it’s the stress of expectation for me to have an experience.

1:02:51  Michael:  I can feel things I used to feel in church, in places where God isn’t supposed to be.  I can now find myself triggered in places where I am supposed to experience God.

1:03:25 Shane:  I now expect to find God outside church, because that’s now my theology, because that’s where I believe God is.  Where I refuse to find God is any place I feel pressure, because I don’t believe in a coercive God.

1:04:15 Community had always been my experience of God…but people spoke to me, feeling abandoned. 

Discovered the same thing happened to me in the community, I suddenly felt disconnected and abandoned.

1:05:52 Tara: I started to learn about stages of faith, dark night of the soul, journeying.  Realised there is a fundamental gap in our discipleship conversations…looked for anything about navigating stages of faith, and there was nothing, as a leader, going into ministry.  I hadn’t seen it modelled well, and was thankful to encounter people experiencing that journey.

Found it was lacking in faith spaces, and wondering why people giving up because they feel out of the norm

1:07:27 Shayne:  Tara is catching on to the fact that faith is a broader experience than we were taught.

1:08:07 Neuroscience level, neither affirms or denies divinity in these experiences.  It may describe the way our body reacts, but cant say whether or not it is God.   People use science with agendas, either to say it is, or isnt God….

1:10:06 How else would you expect an embodied human being to have a divine experience, except through our bodies.

Would our physiology then shape that….absolutely.

1:11:11 Lets talk about experience and coercion, the pressure to have certain kinds of experiences.   I’ve certainly been pushed across a room, by someone pushing against my chest…..

I staggered backwards, but he kept chasing me across the room…in the end, I gave up, and gave a courtesy drop…

1:12:54 Lauren: I grew up in a fundamentalist church, where the spirit of God is not alive and died with the death of Jesus.  Growing up and becoming a worship leader in my 20s, seeing the song and Bethany music, stirred my soul and began to explore charismatic, at a church gathering, a woman passionately speaking, in the Pentecostal service…she prayed at the end, people falling on floor…I didn’t know what to do.  Prayed over me…took mic away and said… it’s your turn to fall on the floor.  I didn’t feel anything, but processed it after with trusted people….asked to do something I felt uncomfortable about and wasn’t given the option to decide….no longer in church, trusted sense of self couldn’t be felt.

Being ina community, where I could say, I felt this and it felt wrong…mainly left me feeling I distrust myself.  

My experience of God is a self-sense of self.

1:15:50 Michael:  I like the fact the prayer, was straight up…hey fall over now.

It can happen in forceful, or even kindly ways, or even with authority….here is the experience you are supposed to be having, ignore what your body or mind is saying and just have this experience.

1:16:42 Why do people want you to have this experience…mostly they genuinely believe this is the connection with God and makes them feel good, and they want you to have the same thing.  They want you to have the same experience.

What gets mixed in with mega-church, is when that becomes the normative…always should happen things.   Because they happen in church, we need to keep producing the experiences to prove God is here.

1:18:00 Don’t have much to do with church social media.  One of the sayings comes up….God moves at this, and that…..experiences described a s’God really moved’.  That being an affirmation and measure of success….we managed to generate these experiences and feelings, to evidence God, and therefore what we are doing must be right.

1:19:02 The movement of God is an abuttal to any critique over abusive practices…one church after resignations, said, we feel God moving in this place, so surely means we are okay…

1:20:00 Shane:  Even the way of demonising other spiritual experiences, such as new age, or secular music.  If you are having parallel feelings to what you are having here, it’s important to know that this lets demons into you, the only place you can authentically have these experiences is here….

If you could get these feelings anywhere, you might stop turning up

1:21:00 Catholic church the priest mediates the experience of God for the people…the sacraments are your way of experiencing of God.  Pentecostals critiqued that, but then developed their own version of it…a retaining of the ownership of the experience…

Where God is moving, is in this place.

What is on the line if God stops moving….

Can’t have a church that stops growing…

1:22:20  If God not moving, everyone is criticised…if we go downhill, and don’t get that experience then people will leave

1:22:48 Friend went to the Hillsong campus, and left to go to another campus because God was showing up there…..leader dragged them back into the first campus…whipped them into a frenzy…

If we don’t keep generating this experience, what control do we have over people….this is what stokes competition between these places…

1:24:00 You end up doing weird things to generate those experiences….building the atmosphere of faith…. and play e minor when the preacher says this, or all go up the front to produce the sense God is moving?

End up making things up…been on stage,. Playing that chord…..claiming lots of hands up…only eyes open, see that it’s not true….

1:25:25 Nobody is putting up their hands…but if I make them think they are…then they may feel they can generate the atmosphere…

1:25:51 There is a pressure to generate a certain sense and experience.

1:26:04 Shane: When trying to universalise that experience, then it undermines any other experiences or lack of experience….

1:26:48  Why nature and contemplation are not pushed in these strands of Christianity, is they are much harder to own in a corporate space….less likely to suggest people go look to sunsets unless they can take the tithing bucket as they walk.

1:27:28 idea that everyone should have the same experience, isolates, marginalised, or left feeling judged those who aren’t….

Taking diversity of experience of God, that has become a system that elevates a certain group of people and isolates and traumatises others….

People who come into those spaces are already vulnerable, traumatised and vulnerable, who are sensitive to all this, coming into this potent environment and feeling even worse.

1:28:54 How do we think about this in healthy ways, that create space for experience, without generating trauma?  How do we think about God and relationship to the world….

Is God outside the system breaking in, or within all things?

Who gets to legitimate what spiritual experiences are…

Is God sat outside of us, deciding whether to enable us to connect with Him or not?

So much of Christianity comes down to belovedness of all, so anything that suggests someone who desires that intimacy, and doesn’t give it…is awful.

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