Roberta C. Bondi is Professor of Church
History at Candler School of Theology,
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. She
is the author of Memories of God:
Theological Reflections on a Life; In
Ordinary Time: Healing the Wounds of the
Heart; A Place to Pray: Reflections on
the Lord's Prayer; and Night on
the Flint River: An Accidental Journey
in Knowing God (all published
by Abingdon Press). Her newest work is Houses:
A Family Memoir of Grace.
How can we, as humans, with our
limited understandings, fathom God's
In the normal course of things, we're
only able to know God's availability
insofar as the significant caretakers of
us as children were available to us.
That's part of what it means to be made
in the image of God. The negative side
of this is that, if our caretakers were
not appropriately available, the chances
are we're going to have a hard time not
only with God seeming available but also
with other people seeming available.
Because it is not easy to separate the
way we relate to God from the way we
relate to anyone else.
I say "in the normal course of things."
I have also become convinced over the
years that God does not leave any of us
without God. God will find a way to come
to us and be available to us in spite of
us -- in spite of our experience.
However, God may not necessarily come to
us in a way that we would identify as
God. Our language or speaking of God is
limited enough that we think that God
can only come in church, or God can only
come in prayers, or on a Christian radio
God may come to us through a Christian
radio station, but God may very well
come to us in the form of unexpected
help in the grocery store, when we're
trying to wrestle with two or three
toddlers and we despair that we're ever
going to be able to manage it all, and
some nice teenage boy comes up and says,
"Lady, let me help you with that." Or
God may come in the form of something
that we had first experienced as a
disaster, like the loss of a job or a
broken bone, that we don't identify as
God at all. But our attention has been
grabbed in such a way that we are able
to see the world differently than we've
ever been able to see it. And something
breaks loose for us. At the point where
things break loose in our life, that's
God being available. But we have the
choice to say, "No, I don't accept that.
No, I'm going to tell this teenage boy
that I'm doing just fine on my own."
We're always free to turn down God's
Are there limits to that
availability? If not, couldn't we fall
into the trap of thinking God is at our
I think God is continually available to
us. The question of availability is
different from the question of
manipulation. To say that God is
available is not to say that God is
available on our terms. God is
available, but we may not like the way
God is available or we may say, "No, I
don't want that. That's not good
enough." Or, "If God really loved me,
God would come in a different form." Or,
"God would come in a way I couldn't help
but recognize and identify it as God."
Have you ever experienced God as
There have been times in my life when
God has seemed really distant. When I
was a child I would go to revivals when
I visited my grandmother in the summer.
There I was told that I should only
trust God and believe God loves me --
and I couldn't. And I felt really
What I've come to understand is that if
I had in fact believed in God and turned
myself over to God in the way that was
recommended, I would have been destroyed
by that. God's unavailability in that
form -- maybe what I needed was to
understand it in terms of God's
protection of me from that false image
of who God was. That's a funny idea. I
don't know how far I would want to push
this in terms of somebody else, but I
really do look back now and see it as an
experience of God's grace. In not being
able to understand or take in who the
real God was, I was protected against
believing in a false God.
When my mother died when I was twelve
years old, I bad people tell me that God
willed my mother to die for some good
reason, and I just couldn't accept that.
And I'm glad I never did.
It was the grace of God that you
couldn't accept that explanation. It was
God's presence to you being made
available to you at that moment, I
suspect. If you had believed that about
God, what would have happened to you?
Where would you be now?
God is always available, but often in
ways we don't understand at the time.
It's easier to see that availability
later than at the time, and in ways that
we would have preferred not to have
happened. God comes as much in our
failures as in our successes, in our
ambiguities as in our clarities.
Some people who grow up with, false
images of God later feel really blocked
when they try to pray or experience God.
Can you share other ways to pray and
experience God that could help them?
In my book, In Ordinary Time, I
talk about that. I also do this with my
students. I have a requirement that they
commit to a prayer discipline. About ten
percent of people in class find they
can't do this. I tell them that they've
got to start from the assumption that if
they can't do it, there's a good reason.
Their way to deal with themselves over
this must be with kindness, not with
anger or a sense of failure because such
a thing is coming out of their wounds
and not out of their inherent badness.
Usually it turns out, when I press them,
that they have come from a background
where they've been told that whatever
they were doing in their prayer was
What I tell them is to find something
that they like to do -- to read a
detective novel or do hand work, to sit
down in a comfortable place they have
picked out, and to say as they sit down,
"God, I'm putting myself into your
presence for five minutes. I don't
really know you but 1 would like to
learn who you are and just spend a
little time with you." Do that for five
minutes. if they have to use a timer,
let it go off, and say thank you very
much and get up and leave.
That works not only for a person who has
had that bullying but also for a person
who has had frightening images of God.
If someone has had an abusive father
they are likely to have trouble because
they just can't trust. The images of God
as male are so strong in our culture. I
also tell them to try to use names for
God other than father, if this is
helpful, because God doesn't care what
we call God. What God wants is our
And some people have a strong
experience of God as a young person, but
never feel they are able to get back to
One of the traps of profound religious
experience is that it is so sweet, so
amazing, so wonderful, that rather than
being open to God as God actually is,
we're always saying, "No, I don't want
that. This isn't what I had." it's like
falling in love and being crazy in love.
Then the whole rest of your marriage, if
you can't experience that kind of crazy,
wonderful happiness, rather than being
able to he open to the wonders of the
love that develops in a marriage and
being able to grow and revel in that,
you decide, I must not be in love with
my husband anymore. It is a source of
And spiritual deadness.
It's an important point to make about
religious experiences. There is an
incredible temptation to make one kind
of experience the norm. People give in
to that temptation when they ask when
you were saved, as though the most
important experience of God you ever had
was the first experience that you could
identify in those terms. So you dwell on
the past rather than live in God's grace
That really is one of my concerns. They
might think they failed as a Christian.
If I really had faith, they think, God
would come to me in the way I expect. In
the meanwhile, God is coming every day.
It is a common mistake that we make in
our churches to encourage people in that
direction. But one of the things you can
count on with respect to God is that if
you are persistent in your desire for
healing, internal healing, the wounds
that bind you, you will finally be given
enough that you'll make progress in it.