Willow Creek Church is not known for its mysticism, theological concerns or Charismatic piety. It gained its reputation from modeling church growth techniques, promoting leadership theory and demonstrating an interesting, media-driven post-modern Christian aesthetic.
I have never been attracted to that model.
Last week however, I found myself at a Willow Creek event. It was sponsored by People's Church in Franklin, Tennessee. While this is a community I respect, I actually attended the event because my friend, Bruce Grubbs, (who pastors a great church in Gladeville) invited me. He is a great guy. If he asks me to do something, I try to do it.
Anyway, there were several hundred people at People's Church when I arrived, all staring at the video feed from Willow Creek. I sat down and began watching the screen. After a short worship set, Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek, began introducing the morning speaker.
"When we were planning this event, it was the following session that made me the most nervous," he said. "Leadership at high levels usually is packaged in highly driven and self- assured people. But Mama Maggie Gobran just doesn't fit that picture. I finally conceded because I believe I may have received a sign from God about it. She is often called the Mother Theresa of Cairo. Please receive her."
As the people clapped, a middle aged, fair skinned woman, dressed from head to toe in white, came to the podium. She paused, looked out over the crowd and bowed in prayer.
She then spoke for about thirty minutes. She said some marvelous things that you can find easily enough on the internet. But it was not words that began creating a sense of awe among those who heard her. It was presence. Something was pouring out of her, through her, and into those who were listening to her.
When she finished speaking, she said, "I don't know about how you work for God here. So I would like to end my presentation by blessing your church. I want to ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and your church." She then bowed to the ground, touched her head to the floor and lay there prostrate for some time.
As she lay there, the congregation at Willow Creek (and at the People's Church) slowly began to rise to their feet. Soon, we were all standing silently, bathing in the holiness of the moment.
Bill Hybels finally spoke, trying to control his emotions. His words were wonderful. It was obvious that he had experienced what we had all experienced in those few moments.
In my last blog, Does God Exist, I asked whether it was fair that unbelievers should expect to observe some quality in those who believe God, and in those societies where believers predominate; that is different than in people and societies that do not believe. I asked if there was any other real “proof” of God’s existence.
The morning after writing that blog, I prayed for guidance and help with that question.
Maggie Gobran was my answer.
She is very smart. But that is not the answer. She also helps people but that is not the answer. The answer to my question is holiness, the "whatever-it-is" that radiates from a person who decides to walk in humble submission in the ways of God. Mother Gobran did not scold or condemn, and certainly did not force her way. Nonetheless, when she finished speaking, everyone watching her suddenly wanted what she has and wanted it more than anything else on earth.
"I was a very unlikely choice for this calling," she said. "I was wealthy, educated and loved high fashion. When my aunt told me that she thought God was calling me to ministry, all of my friends laughed out loud. So I decided to do two things: I would read the Bible from start to finished and then read it again, over and over, for the rest of my life. And, I would seek the presence of God. As I did these two things, I began to experience the Lord's guidance."
"As you learn God’s Word, learn to enter the silence. Silent your body to hear your thoughts. Silence your thoughts to hear your heart. Silence your heart to hear your spirit. Silence your spirit to hear God."
In the end, we must accept the fact that spirituality is either a way of comforting ourselves with fables and mythology or it is the core of reality. What cannot be true; what must be in fact utterly false; is a flirtation with spiritual things while living one's life as if spiritual knowledge and experience makes no practical difference. That path is increasingly repugnant to me. It may even be evil. It certainly bears bad fruit. But that is the path of much too much of the church stuff we Christian people experience.
Our moralizing, programming, politicizing, power-playing, cliché-uttering, church-as-corporation stance offers nothing to the world but the same sort of thing people already experience in any theater, rock concert, bank or political rally. So learning to do what we already do, but better, is a bankrupt path. I don’t want any more technique that will help me do what I am doing, but better.
What I want to know is if any of this is real. And I want to have the courage to either give it up if it is not real or thoroughly embrace it if it is.
I want to stop “halting between two opinions,” as the prophet Elijah puts it.
If the Bible is to be believed, we are amphibious creatures, sort of like frogs. We are made to live in this natural world. We are also made to live in a spiritual world, to periodically breathe the air of eternity. What we call that eternal atmosphere is “holiness.” When people breathe in holiness, whether saint or sinner, they become enchanted. It is the “what-I-have-been-looking-for-
all-my-life-but-couldn’t-name- it” stuff and everyone recognizes it when he or she encounters it.
But back to the question of my previous blog: Does God exist?
Yes, I saw him last Friday, peeking through the eyes of a beautiful Egyptian woman. He looked at me through her and then I looked back at Him. And I fell in love again with that other time and place that surrounds my early life.
This holy enchantment is not meant to be an escape from this world; it's meant to be an orientation to true north as we navigate our journey through this world. It teaches us to delight in this world and make a meaningful contribution to it as we reach beyond it.
It's a glimpse of reality, a remembrance of all that matters.
Cairo, a city of fear, oppression, poverty, rage and persecution of the saints; houses a secret. There is a woman there who represents a people in whom the God of glory shines. They are the children of another unlikely saint: a failed missionary once fired by the apostle Paul, never-do-well floundering young leader who let chance after chance go but who finally became the writer of the second gospel and gave his life on the streets of Alexandria.
One of his daughters is doing it again. Through her life, the same Lord who peeks through the pages of St. Mark’s gospel, is touching the poor of Cairo.
Thank God, He doesn’t forget those of us who are poor in spirit.
This week he spoke through a woman from Cairo and said, “Come closer. Closer. Yet closer.
Now take a breath and live.