In the Presence of God
Psalm 121, Romans 4:3-5, 13-17 and Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri J.M. Nouwen
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Welcome to this second Sunday in the season of Lent. As I shared last week, the number 40 is a power number in the Jewish and Christian traditions and so, Lent is 40 days. But it’s not really 40 days. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Does anyone remember why?
For the earliest Christians and for us now, Sunday is meant to be a little Easter, a moment to pause, a day to give thanks, to celebrate, even in the wilderness, so Sundays aren’t counted in those 40 days of Lent.
It’s as if we are invited to step right out of time and remember all over again what matters and who and whose we are. Amid all of the anxiety and fear and theories about what will happen next, in a time of struggle, we come together to be uplifted and to listen and connect to the Spirit of Gentleness. Our theme over these weeks in Lent is Heightening Our Senses on our spiritual journey, in this wilderness time. How do we fine tune ourselves, all of our senses, to perceive the movement of the Spirit within us and among us?
And if we aren’t sure what God is or whether we believe in something like a Greater Power, something we might name God, what does it mean to seek Its guidance? How do we know when are in Its presence? Or whether Its presence is in us? Does the wisdom of God, the presence of God, the grace of God, the love that is God, depend on something? Is anything required of us to be able to sense it?
This piece that you heard from the Letter to the early Christian community in Rome is attributed to Paul and we can clearly hear that he is in an argument, multiple in fact. In his binary thinking, he puts grace on one side and the law on the other. He puts faith on one side and works on the other. In order for us to sense God’s presence and to feel God’s grace, what is required? And Paul says that what is needed, is our faith. He insists, “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all descendants…” Charles John Ellicott an English Christian theologian, who wrote in the late 1800’s said, “Faith…is the real key to the inheritance. It sets in motion grace; and grace, unlike law, excludes no one. It is open alike to the legal and to the spiritual descendants of Abraham; in other words (as the Scripture itself testifies), to all mankind, as the representative of whom Abraham stands before God.” The promises of the presence of God have been passed down to us, assuring us we are part of something bigger, not because of anything we have done. Rather according to Paul and others, all that is required of us is faith. If we believe… I love that it is part of my job as your pastor to hear what it is that you believe and it is no surprise that our diverse church is all over the theological map and even off of the map. We are bound together by the Great Commandment, but when we say God, we mean so many different things. It is a placeholder for all that defies our descriptions. And for many of you the theological and or philosophical posture where you have landed is something like this: I know there is more going on than I know and the more I learn, the more I know that I know very little. I am okay with being in awe with the Mystery.
As Neymat Khan wrote, “God, a mystery, We, a visible truth, He lives within us, We find him in books.”
And in our tradition, this Mystery whatever name we have for it, is not just a transcendent unsolvable, but also an incarnational, invisible force, that can sometimes be palpable. Immanuel, God with us. This means this presence can influence each and every one of us and can be present in our dreams and in our hearts and on our words and in the actions of each and every one of us.
And yet, especially, in the wilderness, we might not always perceive it.
But that which is beyond our perception can still move us. And surprisingly, sometimes it is when we tune into a loud absence that our senses are heightened for a presence.
As Henri Nouwen wrote, “Where God’s absence was most loudly expressed, God’s presence was most profoundly revealed. The mystery of God’s presence therefore can be touched only by a deep awareness of God’s absence. It is in our longing for the absent God that we discover the footprints of the Divine One. It is in the realization of God’s presence that we know that we have been touched by loving hands. It is into the mystery of divine darkness and divine light-God’s absence and God’s presence- that we enter when we pray… In the cloud of unknowing, the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence dissolves. It is the place of the great encounter, from which all other encounters derive their meaning. It is the place where the various glimpses of God-God-with-us, God as Father and Mother, as absent yet present- come together as one. In the solitude of the heart, in the depths of the soul, in the cloud of unknowing, we meet God.”
That phrase, “the cloud of unknowing” comes from the early Christian mystics. It is a Middle English spiritual guidebook, dating from the second half of the 14th century. The author or authors are unknown, but it is thought to have been a monk from the east Midlands who wrote it. Hear this, “Even the most ignorant person on earth can experience union with God in perfect love by practicing contemplation in the beauty of humility.” “For I tell you this: one loving, blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.”
So how do we know when are in the presence of God? Is anything required of us to be able to sense it?
The mystics tell us that all that is needed is a blind desire and our sacred texts tell us we have already inherited the promise of a powerful presence in the form of grace. But now it is up to us, to tune in. If you don’t already have a contemplative practice of some sort in your life, I believe now might be a good time to begin. In part because it will allow a new capacity for holding uncertainties, but also because the Spirit of Gentleness might be trying to get to us, if we could only sense It, Hear It, See It, Feel It, Touch It… In this time of wilderness struggle, our call right now is to pay close attention. Where is something good busting through to try and get to you? What gives you peace and joy amid all of the chaos, even just for a minute? When you stop, where do you notice something beautiful?
I was gifted a Christmas cactus this fall. Like some of the other plants that have entered our home since we arrived here in Colorado, the cactus has continually seemed unhappy. I have generally given up on the ferns and I gave up on the idea that the cactus might actually bloom near Christmas. I have moved it around quite a bit. Placed it at different heights, spoken kind words and generally begged to know what it needed. Still no hope for even one blossom. But then not long ago, Eliza noticed part of it reaching out, like literally stretching itself beyond where it was. So I moved it away from the wall. It was only a couple of inches. But it turns out it just needed to be turned and now it is covered in tiny new pink blossoms.
Sometimes I wonder if the Cosmos came to us in the Christ to make things simple: what you are after, the meaning of life, the key to happiness, “The Kin-dom of Heaven is at hand!” And we made it all so complicated.
How do we fine tune ourselves, all of our senses, to perceive God’s movement within us and among us, even in a time like this? Take time to stop. Turn it all off. Breathe. Know that it is not all up to what you do, but still do. Pay attention. Laugh. Even when all that you feel is the absence, don’t hesitate to aim yourself toward the Mysterious, lean toward the light. Because the truth is that even just a small turn, a tiny tilt, can leave you covered in colorful new buds of hope. Lift up your eyes, in the presence of God, you already are. May it be so.