God behind the scenes

A few weeks ago a well-known anthropologist whose most recent book is about how evangelicals hear God speak came to campus.  It was pretty thrilling to hear scripture read in the lecture hall where I’ve given fieldwork proposals and heard anthropological theory, and it was exciting to see my colleagues take seriously questions of faith and practices of prayer.

But seeing as how evangelicals are claiming to hear God speak into their lives, and this has prompted Tanya Luhrmann to develop a new theory of the mind, in which people of faith train their minds to hear voices outside of their pysche, friends and colleagues eventually did ask me whether I hear God speak, audibly, as well.

Spring on the Princeton campus.
Spring on the Princeton campus.

I don’t really.  Not audibly.  No burning bushes…yet.

Sometimes, in fact, I don’t feel God at all, and I wonder if I’m “doing it all wrong.”  If my faith tells me that God doesn’t draw lines between sacred and profane, like anthropologists, but that the Holy Spirit is in everything and everywhere, then why don’t I hear God speak like my evangelical friends?

It probably has something to do with my prayer practices, as Luhrmann has posited, but it also probably has something to do with God’s great, unchangeable nature, a theology of waiting, and God’s work being not only life-changing, but counter-cultural.

I’m not contesting a God who speaks–the Bible gives us plenty testimony to that effect, but I’m attempting to testify to a God who also speaks in the silences, in the pauses, through others, and behind the scenes.  Did you ever wonder what happened in between Moses and God’s holy rendezvous, or Peter’s visions, or John’s breakfast with Jesus?  Oh yeah, that’s right, the Israelites built a golden calf, Peter’s faith failed him in God’s darkest hours, and John and the others were straining to see the future of a movement that had lost their leader to death on a cross.

But God, God hadn’t forsaken them.  God was behind the scenes.  And so, even as the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, our humanity makes us gravitate toward the loudest voices, the greatest triumphs, rather than the trials, the silence, the humility, the work behind the scenes.

Water lilies in Kunming, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Water lilies in Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

What God does behind the scenes, however, is great, too.  When we release ourselves to both God’s on stage and off stage work God subtly equips us in ways that go unnoticed until we find ourselves in our times of greatest trial, need, or joy.  God’s work is not always showy or attention-grabbing, but if you look for it, it’s everywhere, in the little acts of kindness and justice that people lend to one another without fanfare or media blitzes, but with great humanity and care.  There were handfuls of people healed in the Bible, whom Jesus had humbly go on their way, while he continued his own humble journey to the cross.

I’m not suggesting that the God who speaks to you in prayer isn’t the same one that heals in secret, prays for us with sighs too deep for words, or equips with patience and diligence.  Quite the opposite– they are, miraculously, one and the same.  And yet, it’s simply clear why the loud, thunderbolt one gets our awe, astonishment, and praise.

A view of Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A view of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Evan Schneider.

For me, God, especially of late, is more behind the scenes, subtly, yet faithfully equipping, and speaking through those around me in voices of care, concern, and affirmation.  I imagine that God was very much behind the scenes those horrific hours after the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon.  I pray deeply that God is behind the scenes for families in China who struggle to care for special needs children, or for places where bomb blasts are the stuff of everyday life.

For me, knowing and believing that God is behind the scenes is the hardest part of faith and prayer and life.  But it can also be the greatest comfort to find that even when God isn’t speaking, God is always there, behind the scenes.

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