Friday, February 26, 2010

Personal Faith Experiences & Presbyterian: Mutually Exclusive Terms? Nah...

Mention "personal faith experiences" or "spiritual experiences" to a group of Presbyterians and odds are that some of them will, as we say in my neck of the woods, look at you all funny like. At least that's the impression I've gotten from almost 60 years as a Presbyterian.

They are not, however, mutually exclusive terms. All of us, as Presbyterians, have had them. We still do. Maybe some of us just still think it's a little uncouth to talk about them. Truth be told, I'm much more comfortable talking about personal faith experiences now than I used to be, even when I was serving as a pastor.

When I was in college — an evangelical Christian school in Columbia, SC — I was, to be honest, a bit put off by all the experiential language, by my roommate, classmates and speakers in chapel talking about these personal faith experiences. We never did that in my home church of First Presbyterian of Anderson, SC, much less in my home. I do think my Presbyterian birth and upbringing had a lot to do with that.

When I got to seminary it seemed we never talked of such things, our conversation, rather, being filled with ethics and apologetics and biblical/systematic theology and exegesis and polity and who was "liberal" and who was "conservative."

But yet, all of us have had — are having — personal faith experiences, or, if you prefer, spiritual experiences. If nothing else, my experience as a hospital chaplain confirmed that.

For us Presbyterians — well, we very often begin our religious life with a personal, very personal, faith experience. We are baptized; the majority of us as children.

Mine occurred way back in 1952 in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, Texas. The Rev. Mr. George Burroughs placed a handful of water on my head as my mother held me and my father stood by watching. Regardless of what meaning we may impute to that act, it is personal, it has to do with faith, and it is an experience.

I often wish we Presbyterians had a ritual, practiced often, to remind us of what is often our first personal faith experience: our baptism. My more liturgically minded friends have the Asperges, during which, Sunday after Sunday, the priest or bishop, using the aspergillum, throws drops of holy water on the assembled worshippers while they sing a prayer based on Psalm 51. I always find that so meaningful when I join those "high church" friends for worship. Heck, we do good to have the Lord's Supper once a quarter, but that's for another discussion. When I recall, during that ritual act, my first personal faith experience of baptism, my sense — not my knowledge of, but my experiential awareness of God's presence — my sense of relationship with God is invariably enhanced.

So yes, personal faith experiences, spiritual experiences, are part of the warp and woof of Presbyterian life. We begin with one; we have them throughout our lives; more often than not, we end with one. And I'm inclined to think we're becoming a little more comfortable talking about them.

David R. Gillespie lives in Greenville, SC, and is engaged in the private practice of providing pastoral caregiving and spiritual direction for Christians who feel neglected or marginalized by the Church. He is a member of North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian (USA). He's also the author of numerous essays, articles and book reviews, with a few short stories and poems thrown in, and blogs regularly at Southern Fried Faith.

1 comment:

John Edward Harris said...

Most would not equate personal faith experiences or spiritual experiences with mystical experiences but I think we should. Let us take big dreams and visions seriously, even drug induced trips with religious and spiritual content are worthy of theological reflection and processing with a spiritual director. In some respects I still find William James helpful as we reflect on the varieties of religious experience.