On a crisp October night a few years back I was strolling, unhurried, to the twenty-eight square feet of tent that was my domicile at the time. A golden, gibbous moon was my only travelling companion. It hung low and heavy in the northeast sky, dispersing elongated shadows of pines and maples and oaks as it went. An evening dew weighted the grass—it would soon turn to frost in the frigidity of that late autumn night. I thought that perhaps I could make out the last few hues of purple before the sky gives way to complete blackness but was inattentive to the specks of shimmering light that had already pierced the veil of that same dark sky like a million pinpricks. There was majesty on the breath of all creation. But I was not yet its company.
My head was a thousand unfettered thoughts about the day gone by, nothing more than the temporary kindling our minds consume passively each waking moment. I was listening to the song “Yet” on Switchfoot’s new album for the first time, intermittently lost in the choruses and crescendos, solos and syncopation.
As I drew closer to my nylon abode, I took the headphones out of my ears. My sneakers squeaked across the wet grass. I felt a cool westerly wind dally across my face, coming and going silently. For whatever reason, the wind has a special significance for me. Perhaps it unearths subconscious memories of time spent in wild places. In the right moment I feel it as the very breath of God.
All around me were massive and ancient trees standing as watchtowers, ringed around this open field. Just beyond them, the Berkshire Mountains loomed on the horizon, carving an outline into the night sky. I looked straight up and saw the luminous stars so thick I could scarcely believe the firmament had room for them all. The whole scene came rushing in on me at a thousand miles an hour. My idle thoughts vanished as something cumbersome and unfamiliar began to press in on my mind. I was too fragile a vessel to bear the weightiness of the moment.
The moon, traversing its nightly course, climbing ever higher; the trees, extending their many arms upward in exultant praise; the mountains, craning their stony necks to get a closer glimpse of glory; even the blades of grass, reaching with all their might toward the heavens; and I, sinking slowly to my knees, impelled to worship the Creator of it all.
My heart felt like it was overflowing—as if Someone had placed all of the fullness of life they could in it and then some. There was at the same time great jubilation and immense solemnity. It was as if I had walked in on something that wasn’t quite meant for me. More than anything else, I sensed that I was extravagantly and unconditionally loved. For the first time in my life, fleeting and unexpected, I felt God’s presence.
The memory of this unexpected encounter with God’s presence that October night on the Williams College campus is very personal to me. I have recounted it just one time prior, in conversation with my wife. Every once in a while, when I feel distant from God, I pull it up from the dusty recesses of my memory and fumble it over a few times in my mind. I try to put myself back in the shoes of that college kid sauntering across the dewy lawn, yearn to feel afresh just the tiniest fragment of the emotions that accompanied that moment or, better yet, be in His presence once again.
I have been recalling the memory a lot recently. I share it with you because it is my unique signature of a truth etched into the heart of all Christians: that God desires to be with His children. Oftentimes, amidst the metaphysical arguments for or against His existence, or the theological debates on the extent and efficacy of the atonement, I lose sight of the heart of God. I get so caught up in proving in the abstract that He is the “ontological ground of determinate things” that I forget to ask the real God who is really there if He even wants to be known by such a name. Perhaps, in your efforts to reach an appropriate level of intellectual certitude before putting your faith in God, you have neglected to ask Him if He might make himself known to you.
We live in a culture that wants to possess its experiences. We try to name ourselves as the rightful owner of all that we come into contact with. We are infatuated with pornography because it allows us to own and control a sexual experience—and we call it liberation. We treat our relationships with important people like currency that lets us buy up rungs on the ladder of social influence—and we call it networking. We take God-given talents and ideas and turn them into résumé boosters and intellectual property and three minute songs or podcasts available for download—and call ourselves self-made.
I am wondering if this same mentality has filtered into my religious life. Am I treating God like my morning vitamin, wanting just enough of Him to live a healthy life? Do I prefer that He were like a standardized test where, if I get enough questions right, I pass the test and get to go to heaven? I’m pretty good at standardized tests, after all. It seems like it would be so much easier if I could have the blessings of God without the relationship with God. Keith Putt refers to this temptation as “the idolatry of instrumental religion. When God and faith become tools present at hand for individuals to utilize as means to selfish ends, then the resulting religious structures, whether doctrinally true or not, become exercises in self-deception and expressions of, not so much a false consciousness, as a fallen one.”
But then, over and against this mentality, I experience God’s presence under an autumn moon and all of these temptations fade away. For a few moments I understand that to be with God is far greater than any material blessing that He could ever offer. I feel like a key that has finally found the lock for which it was fashioned.
When our loved ones pass away, what we want back is not the free dinners at nice restaurants, or the Christmas money, or even the compliments and kind words. We just want to be with that person once again, to trace the familiar outline of their hand in ours, to have just one more game of catch in the backyard, to hear that jovial laugh just one more time. We understand in our heart of hearts that relationship is the greatest gift of all.
Back to that October night in that Massachusetts field, I’m on my knees in quiet adoration. All I can muster are a few “thank yous.” My part to play is very small. All the same, I feel the trees craning their necks to get a closer look. The grass bends its ears upward to listen in. The moon casts a single, vibrant beam, like a spotlight. The stars are a million pairs of ever-watchful eyes. And “these mountains, which have seen untold sunrises, long to thunder praise but stand reverent, silent so that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.” They all take notice as I add my feeble voice to the symphony of worship that has been reverberating throughout creation since the beginning of time.
 Robert C. Neville, Recovery of the Measure: Interpretation and Nature, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), 113.
 Keith B. Putt, ed., Gazing Through a Prism Darkly: Reflections on Merold Westphal’s Hermeneutical Epistemology (Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2009), 27.
 Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 253.