PRACTICING THE PRESENCE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
An atheist and a Christian were debating the value of prayer, and the atheist said, "I never pray." The Christian said, "But you must have prayed at sometime in your life." "Yes," he admitted. "I did pray once. I was on a hunting trip in the Yukon and got separated from my party. A blizzard came up, and I became snow blind as I wondered about, and then I was also starving and cold. I finally fell on my knees and asked God for help." "Well," said the Christian, "it looks like you got it." "Got it nothing" he responded, "if an Indian guide hadn't come along just then I would have died."
Here was a man who was experiencing the absence of God in the very presence of God's grace and loving kindness. Unfortunately, this is an experience not limited to atheist and unbelievers. Even God's own people can have all kinds of misconceptions that blind them to the presence of God. The Jewish leaders had their own ideas about what the Messiah would be like, and so, even in the presence of the Messiah they experienced His absence, and they rejected Him. Christ was objectively there in their presence, but they were not subjectively aware of His presence.
How often does Christ come unto His own, and His own receive Him not? Multiplied millions of times, I am sure. Theologically Jesus is always present with us, but practically we experience His absence because we are not aware of that presence. He promised He would never leave us nor forsake us, but we need to become aware of His being ever present. This is what Paul was doing on Mars Hill as he tried to make the Athenians aware of the presence of God. They worshipped an unknown god. A god that seemed far away, and they only had an obscure awareness of this absent god. Paul's message was to help them become aware that God is not far away at all, but very near, and that in fact, they lived and moved and had their being in Him.
We are not unlike these Athenians, and part of our problem is that we need to be up a tree and out on a limb like Zaccheaus before we become aware of the presence of Christ. We get conditioned by dramatic stories to think that the only time to seek Christ's presence is in a crisis. We read of Daniel in the lion's den; the three friends in the fiery furnace, and Paul and Silas in the dungeon, all experiencing the presence of Christ in great power, and we think this will come in handy if I ever get stuck in a hopeless situation. But what we really need is an awareness of His presence in the common place every day events of life. The crisis is rare, and if we only want to be aware of Christ in a crisis, we put Him in the same category as an insurance policy. We only need to think of Him when something goes radically wrong. This is a very superficial concept of who Jesus is as Savior and Lord, and it eliminates Him altogether from the role of companion, guide, and friend.
Paul is seeking to convince the Athenians that the God who sent His Son into the world is the God of the commonplace. He is the God of the every day, the marketplace, and the home, as well as the God of the Temple. This unknown God does not need to remain unknown, for it is His desire that men know Him and experience His presence. In verses 27 and 28 Paul makes two things clear: There is an objective and subjective presence of God. In other words, there is the actuality Of God's Presence, and the awareness of God's presence. There is the fact of God's presence, but only the feeling of God's presence makes the fact a vital part of every day life.
Paul says God wants us to seek for Him. He wants man to reach out and touch someone, and He wants that someone to be Him. He is not far from each one of us, but we can miss Him completely if we do not strive to reach Him. Fact and feeling must become one; the actuality and the awareness must be united. Let's look first at-
I. THE ACTUALITY OF GOD'S PRESENCE.
The Bible makes it clear that God is everywhere because of the very nature of His being. Matter cannot be at two places at the same time, but this law does not apply to spirit. Spirit does not have the limitations of matter, and since God is spirit He has no limit of place. Our bodies are stuck to being in one place at a time, but our minds can be in many places at the same time. My mind is just as aware of the clock in the back as it is of the pulpit in the front, and of the windows on the side. My mind is present everywhere in this room even though my body is present only in one spot. My body is in the front, but my mind is everywhere in the room. If I had a mind that transcended the limits of these walls I could be aware of more yet. God has a mind that is universal, and thus, He is aware of all that is a part of His creation, and thus, He is everywhere present in His universe, just I can with my mind be everywhere present in this room.
There is no where to go to be out of the presence of God. This is David's point in Ps. 139 where he writes, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where I can flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there; if I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me." You can't go where God is not, anymore than you can go to another pew and be out of my awareness. As long as you are in the sphere of my awareness you are in my presence. God's awareness takes in all the universe, and therefore, there is no place to go out of His presence.
God does not have to work at being present everywhere anymore than we have to work at being aware of how many fingers we have, or of how many people are sitting at the table with us. We can all easily be aware of what is part of our immediate environment. So God, because He is everywhere present, is easily aware of all that is. As President Lundquist of Bethel once said, "God knows the number of hairs on our heads, not because He makes a count each time I comb it, but because He is present at every point. He knows that number as easily as we know the number of people riding in a car with us.
The implications of God's omnipresence are enormous. One of them is that He is always available whether we are aware of Him or not. Tennyson wrote,
Speak to Him for He hears,
And Spirit with spirit can meet.
Closer is He than breathing,
And nearer than hands and feet.
The actuality of God's presence is a theological truth, but to experience this reality we need to move on to the second point which is-
II. THE AWARENESS OF GOD'S PRESENCE.
We need to understand that much that is real, true, and actual does not have an impact on our lives until we become aware of it. Candid Camera is a great example. People do things they would never do if they were aware they were on camera. When they become aware they immediately cease to do the foolish things they were doing.
We do the same thing everyday in our homes. We do things that hurt and hinder rather than help and heal. They are foolish things we do and say to those we love for any number of reasons, but primarily because we let the circumstances of life control us. We let the frustrations of life outside the home affect how we treat those inside the home. Just imagine how becoming aware that the Candid Camera crew had set up your home to film how you treat your family after a miserable day at work. You would by the power of that awareness suppress all anger and unkind cutting remarks, and you would be curteous and thoughtful and reasonable in all your requests. You would be a model of love.
But since you know the chances are several billion to one that your reactions to life behind your own doors is going on tape, you feel free to be sub-Christian without the fear of discovery. Our awareness that our behavior would be exposed to the public would greatly modify our behavior. We can only justify sub-Christian behavior because we are unaware of the presence of Christ. We practice the absence of Christ because it is the only way we can be comfortable on a sub-Christian level.
It would be extremely embarrassing to come rushing into your living room screaming at your mate or children, and discover Jesus sitting on the couch visiting with the one you are blasting verbally. You'd give anything to have the chance to go back and come in dealing with the issue in a civil and polite manner. The point is, if we could be aware of the presence of Christ we could control all of the sub-Christian impulses that all of us feel at times.
Teilhard de Chardin said something that could change our lives if we would take it seriously. He said, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." If we were aware of the presence of God and of Jesus in our lives, we would have a taste of heaven, and joy would be a dominant characteristic of our lives. Only in heaven will all tears be wiped away, and so there will always be tears in this life, but an awareness of the presence of Christ will enable us to handle the negatives of life in a more positive way.
Angela Morgan may seem too ivory towered in her poem, but the fact is, the more we can reach out to the level of her awareness, the more we can experience the glory of the commonplace. She writes,
I am aware
As I go commonly sweeping the stair,
Doing my part of the everyday care,
Human and simple my lot and share-
I am aware of a marvelous thing.
Voices that murmur and ethers that ring
In the far stellar spaces where cherubim sing.
I am aware of a passion that pours,
Down the channels of fire through Infinity's doors,
Forces terrific with melody shod,
Music that makes with the pulses of God.
I am aware of the glory that runs
Bound to the stars by invisible chains,
Blaze of eternity now in my veins,
Seeing the rush of ethereal rains,
Hear in the midst of every day air,
I am aware.
Here the theological and practical are made one. The actuality of God's universal presence is mingled with the awareness of His special presence in her everyday duties-even that of sweeping the stairs. This sounds like Brother Laurence who became famous for his classic little book called, THE PRACTIC OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD. He developed such an awareness of the presence of Christ in his life that it made no difference to him if he was in the prayer room or in the clutter and clatter of the kitchen. The result was his work was the same as worship, for it was done in Christ's presence, and for His glory, with equal joy. Imagine being able to eat or drink, or do whatever you do, to the glory of God. Every activity or chore becomes a project you do to please Christ, as you are aware he observes you. Brother Laurence could wash pots and pans for the glory of Christ because he had learned that all of his secular life, as well as his religious life, was lived in the presence of Christ.
This does not mean that Christ does not work in our lives if we are not aware of Him. He does. He entered the home of the two on the road to Emmaus, and he talked with them, ate with them, and they enjoyed his fellowship even though they thought he was a stranger. Jesus can be present blessing us in many ways regardless of our awareness, but the awareness increases our openness to His leading, and to a sense of joy and gratitude for His presence. God will not cease to work His will if we remain unaware of Him, but we miss out on the joy of His presence.
In Is. 45:5 God says of Cyrus, the Persian King he used to change the course of history: "I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,..." Here was a man who was greatly used of God, but he did not even know it, and was not aware of the presence of God. God did not lose anything, but Cyrus did. So with us, we are losers by not being aware of the presence of Christ.
C.S. Lewis felt that we need to be aware of our unawareness of God. He wrote, "If we cannot practice the presence of God, it is something to practice the absence of God, to become increasingly aware of our unawareness till we feel like men who should stand by a cataract and hear no noise, or like a man in a story who looks into a mirror and finds no face there..." Lewis is saying we need to become aware of just how unaware of God we are. This is necessary if we are to be motivated to do what God wants us to do-reach out and seek for His presence. The prodigal did not long for his fathers presence until he felt deeply the sense of his absence. We do not invite Christ into many situations of life, because we are unaware of our unawareness.
Leslie Weatherhead, the great English preacher said, "I believe we can live in a world where His presence is the very atmosphere that we breathe and where almost everything we touch reminds us of Him." This is possible to the degree that we become aware of God's presence in all of life. If we could just become aware that in Him we live and move and have our being, we could say with the poet,
The Presence of the Living Christ
Seems sweeter every day.
The overwhelming love of God
Is felt on life's highway.
David S. Lampel wrote," To imagine that one meets God only during weekly, corporate worship is a little like imagining that one is only bound by one's marriage vows once a year during the anniversary celebration; the rest of the year one is free to disregard the commitment to, or even the presence of, the marital partner. Ridiculous? Precisely."
Keith Miller, in his book A SECOND TOUCH, tells about the problems he had with his family when he got up early for his devotions. Each morning his children would follow him, climb on his lap, and ask him questions. He finally became irritated and said to them, "Be quiet and get out, because daddy is busy." One of his girls asked her mother what was wrong with daddy, and she said, "Oh, he's learning how to be a good Christian so he could love the people downtown." When Keith heard this, he realized he had to handle this situation differently. When his daughter came in the next time, he put his arm around her and told her he was learning about Jesus. He showed his love to her, and she wanted to join him every morning for a time of reading and prayer. He came close to being one of those who was working like the devil for the Lord. Christians can become so zealous in some legitimate goal, but become sub-Christian in their behavior, because they forget the presence of the Lord.
Asking Christ into your life is more than just an event. You do not just say, "Lord, come in and make yourself at home," and it is done. It is a process of developing a habit. You have to work at some systematic method whereby you call yourself to awareness of Christ in your life. You will forget and fail to be aware all the time, but with conscious and continuing effort you can develop a pattern that will increase your awareness, and give you daily victories.
Bible reading and prayer could be more easily linked as one if we could develop the awareness that the Bible is the only book in the world whose author is present when it is read. This can make prayer more meaningful, and Bible reading more of a listening side of prayer.
Love is characterized by a longing for the presence of the one who is loved. This is true in all relationships. You love to be near and with those whom you love. Their presence adds to your joy, and their absence subtracts from your joy. The reason courtship is so exciting is because of the high quality of the experience of presence. You are really with each other, and talk to each other. You are so dominated by each others presence that all the rest of reality takes a back seat and becomes obscure in comparison. When you get married and raise a family there are many demands that divide your attention. You no longer give each other one hundred per cent of your presence. You let your presence be absorbed by many other people and tasks. The number one battle in marriage is to keep on giving your mate a high percentage of your presence. When this gets to be a minimal part of your relationship, you have slipped into what is called a nominal marriage. That is, you are married in name only, but not in experience. It is like the nominal Christian. He or she says, "I believe in Christ," but they do not seek His presence or His guidance. They do not love to learn of Christ and grow in their awareness of His being and His will.
There are nominal parents too. They have the label of parents because they have produced children. But they do not love to be with their children, and give them their presence. They are too busy with other things that demand their presence. The children then become an irritation because they also demand their presence. Presence is to a child a primary meaning of love. You can provide all that life offers to a child, but if you deny them your presence you deny them your love. Love's best gift is always your presence. During the Nazi bombing of London that began in 1939 many English children were evacuated from dangerous areas. Amazingly it was found that these children suffered greater emotional upset from being separated from their parents than they had suffered from being exposed to physical danger.
We all need the presence of someone we know who loves us to feel secure in life. You are never so lonely as when you feel a lack of the presence of someone who cares. Jesus promised to never leave us or forsake us, and so we are never alone, but we still feel alone at times because we cannot sense His presence.
We need to practice the presence of Christ by recognizing that His invisible nature is able to be seen in what He has made. This is what Paul wrote to the Roman Christians- "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Romans 1:20
We are without excuse, but we still miss His presence because we do not pursue it in our minds. If we just look at creation and tell our mind to think of its Creator we could sense His presence. We need to remember what we sing in church when we are out of church seeing the creation of God. Maltbie Babcock wrote over a hundred years ago-
This is my Father's world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas--
His hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father's world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.
This is my Father's world,
O let me ne'er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father's world:
The battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and heaven be one.
All Thy works with joy surround Thee,
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee,
Center of unbroken praise:
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Blooming meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain,
Call us to rejoice in Thee.
A.W. TOZER wrote, "God is indeed there. He is there as He is here and everywhere, not confined to a tree or stone, but free in the universe, near to everything, next to everyone, and through Jesus Christ immediately accessible to every loving heart. This truth is to the convinced Christian a source of deep comfort in sorrow and of steadfast assurance in all the varied experiences of his life."
May God help us to practice His presence, and thereby gain more of what He desires us to experience in life.