The ministry of presence …

A reader writes:

Hi Brian! I hope you are doing well. First of all, I want to thank you for speaking truth in such a remarkably thought-provoking, challenging way. I am just about to the end of “A New Kind Of Christianity” and I can sincerely tell you that my faith has been profoundly stimulated because of it. The way that God has revealed Himself through your writings has given me such a more honest, raw, and truly beautiful picture of the love of God through Christ Jesus, for which I am very grateful to you.
You have obviously traveled many, many places around the globe and ministered and served so many people in so many different facets. I wanted to see if you had experienced what I have heard referred to as the theology of presence and touch. I was serving in the eastern European country of Moldova this summer, the poorest country in all of Europe. I was blessed to be hanging out and playing with beautiful, precious orphans at a summer camp, and was struck by how deeply they are moved by giving hugs (lots of them), holding my hand or others’ hands that were there serving, laying their head on one of our team members’ shoulders, or simply wanting to feel the hair on our heads (and for me and many of the male team members, run their hands over all the hair on our arms!). Obviously these things are done on a daily basis elsewhere without a second thought, but it was very easy to see that these simple actions were how they expressed their hearts at their fullest to me and the rest of our team. They were so filled with the love of God through physical actions that it was easy to see why they were so filled with humility, tenderness, self-sacrifice, sweetness, and innocent joy.
I also experienced this theology of presence and touch while in Moldova during a visit to a 500-year-old castle called the Soroca fortress, which sits right next to the Nistru River, the border between Moldova and the Ukraine. Inside the castle was a tiny Orthodox chapel (here’s a picture) –
As I stood at the two swinging wooden doors that led into the small area behind it, I was able to see a few small tables and podiums with various items used in traditional Romanian Orthodox worship. There were a few paintings of Jesus (which aren’t visible in the photo) in the area, which seemed as sort of a Holy of Holies. I was only there for just a few minutes, staring silently at this small area, when I was just suddenly overcome by a rush of the Holy Spirit. I was simply overwhelmed, almost to point of tears, with the realization that so many people over hundreds of years had probably had some very real, raw, incredible experiences with the living God in that space (I’m getting chills now just looking at it). The Orthodox church strongly emphasizes the mystery of God, that we should have an utmost reverence for Him and stand humbled in His presence simply because of who He is, much like the way I felt standing in this small chapel. I left there that day literally tingling because of how deeply the Spirit of God had stirred in my soul that day.
It is so interesting that things like this often get overlooked, downplayed, and sometimes even rejected in much of American culture. Many churches in the U.S. find these things to be “weak” and even “heretical,” in that experiencing God only comes through long hours poring over theology books or leading a Bible study. And yet I experienced a moving of God in those few minutes simply being a spot where a very intentional and heartfelt type of worship had take place over many, many years, as though God had written a story told through very personal experiences in that little area and was including me in that story.
So the two questions I have for you are these – have you experienced anything this or something similar to it in your ministry while traveling around the world? Do you feel that this type of theology – of simultaneously experiencing the extremely personal yet vastly infinite nature of God through physical presence and touch – is currently important and/or even present in the American church?

Thanks for this beautifully written account … Yes, I have experienced both dimensions of what you describe: God’s presence flowing like a gentle current in simple human interaction, and God’s presence shining through what the old Celts called “thin places.” As you say, some religious leaders downplay this sort of thing, and I can imagine all kinds of reasons for them to do so. But on a popular level, I think people are drawn to the experience of love, peace, glory, beauty, goodness, and joy … and so they will find ways to seek those experiences with or without the permission of their religious leaders.
For what it’s worth, this is one layer of what John is doing in the early chapters of his gospel. Through the stories of Cana, Nicodemus, and the woman at the well, he points out the fact that “organized religion” doesn’t have a monopoly on the Spirit … who flows freely like wine, blows free like wind, and refreshes freely like water from a deep well. (I explore this theme in my upcoming book, which I’ve been editing lately during ever free moment….)