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 availability?

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 station.

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 love.

Are there limits to that availability? If not, couldn't we fall into the trap of thinking God is at our service?

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 unavailable?

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 guilty.

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 wrong.

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 company.

And some people have a strong experience of God as a young person, but never feel they are able to get back to that.

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 divorces.

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 every day.

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.

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