It is often said that faith is a journey, just as life itself is a journey. We know that life consists of a variety of experiences, and that sometimes faith is strengthened by what happens to us. Other times, our faith can be challenged by our life experience.
In writing to the Galatians regarding questions about the Gospel and the law, the Apostle Paul calls on the people of the church to stay focused on what matters. Like a demanding coach, he tells them, in essence, “You know what to do. You have all that practice, all that work, and your experience. Don’t be foolish and waste it now, just when you need it.”
His words could apply to us: “You know what you know, and you know God. You have experienced what you have experienced. Think about it. Do you think you went through all of that for nothing?”
We know that people experience God in different ways. Some can articulate their experience well and others cannot. Some can point to a particular date or a time of conversion when God became more real, more direct. For others, the life of faith is something that has always existed and the awareness of God has been a steady companion.
Still others still can point to a time when life was difficult, even hellish, and can attest to a strength that came from somewhere, an inner peace in the midst of the storm, an awareness of a greater presence guiding their thoughts and actions. They can understand that presence as God.
As United Methodists, we believe in Wesley’s teaching of what we call the Quadrilateral. It means that there are four distinct ways that we experience God – through Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. These four refer to the larger ways that God is made known to us in creation and in the life of the individual.
Wesley defined ‘Experience’ not in the general sense of what happens to us, but as the direct and personal encounter with God in Christ. So for us, ‘experience’ matters, but what matters more is ‘Experience,’ when we encounter God in Christ and in the world.
During the time of the pandemic, the question is asked, “What it this teaching us? What are we learning?” These are important questions, and if we learn helpful lessons and find a way to grow from this, then we gain additional benefit from our time of restriction and sacrifice.
For us, however, we go beyond that learning into the realm of faith. We interpret our experience – lower case ‘e’ – in the light of our Experience – upper case ‘E’ – of God at work in the world and in our own lives.
So we continue on the road toward the time when the pandemic will end, and to what the future holds after that, around the next turn and bend in the road.
As we travel we can hear echoes of the Apostle Paul, our ‘coach.’ He is telling us: “Don’t try to return to the old ways of thinking. To do so will be wasting what you have learned. More importantly, when you look back, look back with the knowledge that what was real in the past is real now. Remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Trust what has been your Experience with God. Let it count and rely on it now, and whenever circumstances dictate.
The beautiful words of the hymn “Be Still, My Soul” speak of this trust:
Be still my soul: your God will undertake to guide the future, as in ages past. Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
God is with us and has been with us all along. Now is the time for trusting in God. Amen.