Getting to Know God, Part I

There is knowing about God (intellectual) and then there is knowing God (experiential). This blog will be mostly about the latter, and particularly about knowing God through prayer. I had intended to call the blog “Knowing God,” but that seemed rather presumptuous. None of us, this side of the grave, will be able to do more than to keep getting to know God a little better all the time; in Eternity, we shall truly know Him just as we are known by Him now, for then “we shall see Him as He is.” Until then, we just keep learning. So, I’m calling this undertaking “Learning God.”

Before we get to the main matter, however, I’d like to mention a few things about myself and the way I first became acquainted with God. After that, I’ll get around to the main interest of this blog, which is reading and reflecting on some great works from the Christian (chiefly English) mystical tradition. If you’re not interested in my “credentials” as a God-learner, feel free to skip to one of the posts that talks about spiritual literature.

First, let me say up front that I do not claim to be an expert in prayer — I have no certifications or formal training to teach about the life of prayer or to give spiritual direction. However, I have spent most of my life (the better part of the past fifty years, anyway) getting to know God through prayer and action, as well as learning what others more expert than myself have said and taught about Him. I guess you could say I have spent (and will continue to spend) my earthly life learning God, one way or another.

Learning about God: A false start

For me, learning anything about God was not easy at first. I grew up in what my mother liked to call an “agnostic” household; this is the way she defined our un-churched status, meaning that we believed in God but didn’t go to church. I grew up in the South at a time when it was rare (in fact, downright shameful) to be un-churched, so friends and neighbors were constantly inviting us kids (if not our parents) to attend church with them. My first brush with religion came at the tender age of three years, when my mother dragged my father (and perhaps my grandmother) to a revival at a Baptist church in our town; we little ’uns were dumped in the church’s Sunday school rooms while the grown-ups did whatever grown-ups did at church. (I later found this was the pattern in Protestant churches — adults go to church, while children go to Sunday School.)

Anyway, apparently the revival preacher was one of those fire-and-brimstone types who believe that you have to scare people into believing — my mother was entirely put off by this and did not darken the door of a church again for many years. My memories of the experience were that I got all dressed up (I remember clearly the navy blue sateen dress and a string of probably-fake pearls) and then was abandoned, as it seemed to me, in a room full of strangers who apparently could not stop me crying for my mother. All in all, not an auspicious occasion.

Primary lessons

Two or three years later, we moved to a different town, and some neighbors (Baptist again) invited me and my brothers to attend Vacation Bible school with their boys. My mother must have jumped at this opportunity to get a week’s free child care (she now had a fourth baby at home), so off we went. What I remember about that experience, aside from the excellent snacks (Nehi sodas in any flavor we wanted!) were the songs we learned: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” No fire, no brimstone necessary to induce little children to follow Christ, apparently. But an indelible lesson was imparted: Jesus loves me. He sounded like someone I would like to get to know.

I got a chance to learn a little more about this Jesus fellow a few months later. After school had started (first grade for me), we got to know some other neighbors, a Catholic family who lived across the street. The eldest girl, Donna, was my age and had also just started school. She was burbling over with things to tell me — about her teachers (nuns) and about what the nuns taught her. I remember the two of us sitting under her house (pier and beam construction was common in those days — sitting in the dirt underneath the house was a frequent pastime of my childhood) as she told me about sin (black marks on your soul) and forgiveness (erasing the black marks).

But what I remember most vividly was the tour Donna gave me of their house: the big family Bible sitting open on the coffee table in their living room, the picture in the hallway of Jesus praying at night in a garden, a beautiful string of beads that belonged to her mother (rosary, although I couldn’t see what it had to do with roses), and a crucifix that hung in her parents’ bedroom — also Jesus, but nailed to a cross. I seem to remember Donna telling me that Jesus was a man, but also God. I wasn’t sure exactly how that worked,but so many facts of life were a mystery to me at that age, so I believed her. However, when I returned home and told my mother that Donna’s family had a picture of God, she said that I must be mistaken — God is invisible and no one knows what He looks like.

Sin, redemption. Jesus, God, and love. They were all connected somehow, but it would be years before I would figure out how, because my family remained allergic to religion, and my continuing brushes with the Protestant faith (Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian) did little to enlighten me. So, for what seems like a long time, I had to be content with knowing this about God: Jesus is God and He loves me. Little did I realize that this is the essence of the Christian faith.

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