How do we come into the presence of God?

There’s a dilemma that continues to be raised in LGBTI conversations I am part of by those who are both identify as LGBTI and as Christian. The dilemma – when with LGBTI friends the person reveals that they are a Christian, some react with incomprehension. How can you, an LGBTI person, accommodate yourself to a faith community that is so homophobic and prejudiced? When the person is in a Christian environment and reveals they identity as LGBTI, some express incomprehension at the possibility of the person being both a Christian and confidently identified as LGBT or I. Some LGBTI people live between two significant social elements of their life, in each of which, some of their friends assume there to be a disjunction between the two and, as a result, a dysfunctional element in their friend.

I’ve never felt a conflict in myself between being a gay man and a Christian. Being a Christian preceded being a gay man because I was signed into the church by my family at the age of three months through baptism and again at the age of three years when I was enrolled in my church kindergarten Sunday School. Eight years later, I received the revelation that I am gay. I never had an equivalent revelation about my identity as a Christian.

What’s got me curious about all this today is the conscious realisation that I have never, since that moment of revelation in my eleventh year, doubted the core reality that I am gay, whereas I have always lived with a degree of uncertainty and insecurity about believing in God. I don’t doubt that I’m a Christian because that means being a member of the organisation and performing within reasonable bounds according the church’s norms and routines. I learnt to do that with a confidence equal to my confidence about my sexuality. But belief in God . . . that’s a whole different ball game.

Perhaps that raises a question about the dilemma with which I began. Some members of the Christian community wonder how I can be both Christian and gay. The question about how I can be both a Christian priest but uncertain about God never arises – probably because it’s too potentially dangerous. My uncertainty about God is easier to talk about openly with my secular LGBTI friends.

God talk

My suspicion is that talk about the uncertainty of the God experience is more difficult for Christians and within Christian communities now than it was four and five decades ago. It’s something I find difficult to write about. Part of me is looking over my shoulder all the time, still aware of my responsibility as a Christian LGBTI campaigner, that some Christians are ready to pounce on my uncertainty as proof that I am not a true Christian. It’s also difficult to talk and write about, full stop. It requires me to think and reveal my inner world of faith experience and disbelief and to find words to describe it.

God presence

One of the clergy at my local church introduces each service he presides at by saying: “As we come into the presence of God let us pause for a moment in silence ...” and then, almost without a pause, heads into the Collect for Purity.

Meanwhile, I’m having a complex internal conversation and moment of annoyance. Was I not in the presence of God when I sat an hour earlier in deep silence for thirty minutes, meditating, practising the presence of God? Was I not in the presence of God when I awoke to consciousness and became aware of myself at the beginning of my day? Was I not in the presence of God when I slept, or when I drove to church and walked down the path to the porch? Does the priest think God is going to be more present inside the church than outside? Is God not present until we have arrived, or are inside the church or formally begun the service? It’s as if God is not present with us or we are not present with God until we have been reminded by the priest.

I think something weird and unhelpful is going on here. The people are being held in an infantile, subservient state, dependent on the priest’s invitation to come into the presence of God, and less in God’s presence in ordinary life than when they are in the church building and together with others for worship. The invitation may well be helpful to some, concretising the presence and helping them become consciously aware. But it may also have the effect of diminishing or negating their awareness of the presence of God at all other moments of their lives.

How do I come into the presence of God? My question is not well framed. The better question is: How do I become aware of or conscious of God’s always present presence? The presence of the holy, the divine, the infinite, unconditional, utterly loving other is often elusive. It takes me time and the setting aside of deliberate intent to find myself in the presence. And that’s how it happens – finding myself there. I don’t make it happen – can’t make it happen. As an act of faith for me, the presence is always there, within me and around me and in all creation. But there is for me a huge difference in the times when I dwell with profound holy presence within myself, in my body, my feelings, my energy, my heart and guts and mind, compared with the sometimes no less intense experience of divine presence in the world around me. But even then, the experience is within, the awareness of the exterior revelation.

In my experience, the church is not very good at guiding people to find in the core of their being, in their body awareness and feelings, in the beating of their heart and the slow rhythm of their breath, in the coursing of blood through their veins and the flow of energy from the crown of their head to the tips of their fingers and toes.

I have ideas about how we can begin worship in ways which help to take people into their bodies, ground themselves and connect with their feelings, and how all of us nurture the interior body awareness that helps deepen our confidence that we really are created in the image of God and that God dwells as much in our being as we dwell in the beauty of God’s creation. I’ll write more about this if some of you reading this would like me to.

I knew with total conviction as an eleven year old, when confronted with a boy who inspired intense desire in me, that I was and have always remained a gay man. Conversely, it has taken me four decades, since my early thirties, to discover the same conviction about my awareness of God. I suspect this is not unusual. That which is called faith in God by the church is more truthfully faith in a belief in God, as existing and having qualities and being creative and loving towards us. This God is always to some degree conditional, mediated by the church and defined by church teaching and dogma. It’s an approximation – in comparison with the real thing. But who of us dares to claim that we are living with “the real thing?”

Faith is by definition and according to the wisdom of the mystical tradition, vulnerable, fragile, and uncertain. Our project, the project of faith, of seeking God’s presence and God’s will, of being a Christian and living a Christian life, is always carried out in the context of conflict and challenge and uncertainty, headed towards Jerusalem, confronted by crucifixion and resurrection, seduced by intimate, tender, unconditional love – that’s dangerous.