Lingering in God’s Presence

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Himalayan blue poppies in the rain, Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India

The beauty of God’s creation often takes my breath away. This image did that. When I first saw it, I stared at for quite a long time. You might say it stopped me in my tracks, slowed me down for a moment, caused me to wonder. That’s not a bad thing, slowing me down. It does not happen easily.

So what does it mean to slow down and linger, to linger in God’s presence? One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the very brief story of Anna.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 NIV)

What strikes me about Anna is that “she never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.” She lingered in God’s presence. Perhaps God honored her devotion by allowing her to see the Christ child.

And then there’s this small snippet of Joshua’s story:

 . . . When Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door. So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle. (Exodus 33:9-11 NKJV)

Joshua lingered in the tabernacle even when Moses, his mentor, left it. Perhaps it changed him. Perhaps because of his devotion in lingering in God’s presence, it was Joshua, and not Moses, who received the honor of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Of course, we are not certain about any of that. Certainly we do not linger in God’s presence in hopes of receiving some reward or honor. At the same time, developing the spiritual discipline of abiding — lingering — in God’s presence brings its own reward.

What are your ways of spending time in God’s presence? Reading scripture? Writing scripture in a prayer journal? Yoga? Walking a labyrinth? Praying? Journaling? Taking in the beauty of nature? Creating a place of silence? The ways of spiritual discipline are endless.

One thing is certain: lingering in God’s presence does not just happen. We enter that sacred space and linger there only if we commit ourselves to do it. Not in a legalistic manner that is more religious than spiritual, but in ways that slowly open us up to craving that time with God, needing it more than we need to “accomplish” our never-ending daily tasks.

When we reach that place, we might discover that lingering in God’s presence is life-giving. We might suddenly realize that we are lingering in God’s presence easily and often, that it has become a part of life.

So how in the world did a blue flower get me here?

I’m not sure, but I think it is because God can be found everywhere, in any moment, in any space, in every stillness, in silence and music and birdsong, in whatever we hear and feel, through anything our eyes can see — even a blue flower covered with dew.

And in that space, we are transformed.

Amen.

In the Presence of God

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What does it mean to be in the presence of God? How do we get there? How do we rest there long enough for our souls to be restored?

Had I ever been able to answer those questions, I imagine my life would have been different — fuller, gentler, more peaceful. But like many people who work to achieve inner peace and a spirituality with staying power, I have struggled around the prize, never quite being able to grasp it.

I have used all of the tools available to me — my bible, my bookcase full of contemplative writing, my labyrinth, my hymnal, my writing, my art, my prayer. The list goes on, and I go on, still struggling to find God’s presence.F40CF356-14B8-489C-A6CE-0DC8F34C0B95

The worse thing I can do is to cast blame on myself for a small spirituality and an even smaller faith. Truth is, I think I do have spirituality and faith. Faith has lifted me up through many difficult times. Faith was present when fire destroyed part of our home. My faith held when I was forced to close the doors our nonprofit. My faith carried me through sudden kidney failure. Faith showed up every time I wept bitter tears of grief and mourned my life losses. My faith was present with me when I thought I was dying and when I left my home of 32 years, my son and my grandchildren.

My faith held. My anchor gripped God’s solid rock. I picked myself up every time and moved on with hope. Yet, this thing we call “the presence of God” has eluded me. I mostly can’t experience it or feel it or sense it as a reality.

I guess it gets back to faith, doesn’t it. For it is faith that whispers to us, “Know the presence of God. If you cannot sense it, know it. If you cannot feel it, believe it anyway.”

The book of Jeremiah offers this comforting advice: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

And then I can always fall back on Richard Rohr wisdom: 

“We’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”

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O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it.
You hem me in, behind and before me,
and you gently lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
I cannot begin to understand it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:1-10 ESV (paraphrased)

The Great Silence

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I struggle with the life of contemplation I most desire. I long to stand on the Holy Ground of God’s presence. And yet, I often fail in my attempts to enter that spiritual space. My mind is filled with thoughts, words, concerns, plans, worries. And with so active a mind, I am hard pressed to meditate on the divine presence of God. I simple cannot seem to find a way to enter the great silence that enables me to hear the whisper of God I so desperately need to hear.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr spoke of “the great silence” as he described the prayer of the contemplative. This is his thought:

The prayer of the contemplative is, essentially, an attention to the omnipresence of God. God is omnipresent not as a theological doctrine, but as the great silence that is present in every moment—but from which we are usually distracted by an overactive mind that refuses to wait in a humble unknowing for a pure wisdom from above.

As always, he nailed it, describing the kind of waiting in silence we must do if we are to encounter an omnipresent God. Certain ways of being can move us more fully into the great silence. 

The beauty of nature, the sound of a gentle breeze, the patter of a soft rain can lead us on the contemplative path. Intentional prayer, journaling, experiencing the healing of music, walking the sacred path on a labyrinth — all of these can encourage us into a more contemplative life.

Most of all, we need the longing, our deepest soul desire, to encounter God. The Psalmist expressed such a longing.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God . . .

— Psalm 42:1-2 (NRSV)

God is Nowhere and Everywhere!

Life seems to be a marathon search for God, a search that never ends, but rather continues unrelenting in the soul. It is no secret to realize that the soul has need of God. Or perhaps it’s better that I speak for myself: My soul has need of God.

But the God I need is not the “God of our Fathers.” That God is not big enough, complete enough, for me. I long for another presence of God in my soul. I long for a God that I can experience as both father and mother.

In my defense, there are hints throughout early Christianity and in Holy Scripture that God transcends “male” and “female.” 

In Genesis, for example, women and men are created in the “Imago Dei,” image of God, which suggests that God transcends socially constructed notions of gender. 

In the oracles of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God is described as a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children.

And the Book of Proverbs maintains that the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, Sophia, assisted God during the creation of the world.

Clearly, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.It is probably best that we heed the words and warning of bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” 

If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.

But getting back to my own search for God . . . In the over-used saying about “searching in all the wrong places,” we might find more truth than we expect. God as male; God as female; God as Spirit. Does it really matter so much? Regardless of our God image, we all search.

Some people search the heavens to find God, studying the constellations for a glimpse of the Divine. Others are certain that they find God in nature. Others scour the Scripture for God. Others are convinced that their own devout meditation and prayer will reveal God. Still others count on the religious rites and sacraments of their faith traditions.

The reality is that God seems to be nowhere and everywhere, waiting for me to find my own unique way of connecting. In the end, it is likely that I will not find God through my search, but rather come to the deep conviction that God was never lost to me in the first place. Saint Teresa of Avila may well have said the truest, purest words on this idea of searching for God.

We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to look upon God present within us.

— Saint Teresa of Avila

 

Falling Down!

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I really do hate falling down. Yesterday I fell in the kitchen. There was no banana peel on the floor to make me slip. Not a grape or a kalamata olive. I fell through no fault of any squishy piece of fruit on the floor. And I fell through no fault of my own, although I have to say that every time I fall or hurt myself in any way, Fred gently scolds me for being careless.

Well, yesterday I was not careless. I just fell in the kitchen with potholders in both hands. Good thing I had those grimy old potholders. My right hand potholder won the day because it broke my fall when I grabbed for the oven handle. So I only fell halfway, not all the way to the floor. A gracious gift!

Isn’t this a picture of life, all this falling? Over and over again, we nearly fall. And in between times of nearly falling, we really fall.

We fall hard sometimes. We fall all the way to hard ground sometimes. Sometimes we fall just part of the way to the ground. Sometimes we get hurt badly, and sometimes we can brush it off and move on as if it never happened.

Falling is not all bad. We learn a few things by falling:

  • We learn that people are often nearby to help us get up.
    or that no one is around to help us get up.
  • We learn that we can get up all by ourselves most of the time.
  • We learn that moving or twisting a certain way is a fall waiting to happen.
  • We learn not to be so careless.
  • We learn how not to do it again.

And we learn that there is someone always near us who can keep us from falling, someone who is mentioned in the tiny New Testament epistle we know as Jude. In one of the most beautiful benedictions in all of the Bible, Jude gives praise to this One who keeps us from falling, “the only God our Savior.”

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 NRSV)

And amen.

It’s one thing to be protected from falling. It’s quite another to “stand without blemish in the presence of God’s glory.”

That place where we stand without blemish is a sacred place, holy because of the presence of God, safe because of the protection of God. It is a good place to stand.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

A Horribly Wonderful Year

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Art in foreground: “Horribly Wonderful” from The Land of Froud by Brian Froud, 1976.

Celebrating a five-year anniversary can be a fine excuse for a party! Definitely a five-year milestone can offer a chance to revisit and recall memories. My five-year anniversary is tonight, the night a phone call from my doctor ordered me to get to the ER. It was the night we learned that my kidneys had failed, just like that, out of nowhere, no notice. It was the night that end stage kidney disease turned my world upside down. It was the night that was the advent of a full year of hospital stays, biopsies, surgeries, physical and occupational therapy, loads of questions, very few answers and most of all, a very concerned and fatigued husband.

Fred was my rock, as he has always been. He slept next to me in that horrible excuse for a family bed. He kept vigil at the hospital day and night. When I was able to persuade him to go home to get some rest, he answered my phone calls in the middle of the night when I was sleepless, frightened or lonely.

“Are you up?” I would ask.

“I am now!” 

I don’t really think this anniversary calls for a party, but it does call for some reminiscing and remembering. So last night, Fred and I recalled the year I was so ill, that horribly wonderful year. Interestingly, we have two separate and differing sets of memories. He tells me that, most of that year, I was not aware of much, to the point of not even recognizing him. He tells me that I almost died during three separate critical events.

On my end, I remember none of that. I did lose time in that year, with confusion about losing days, even weeks, when I was unresponsive. I endured hundreds of needle sticks, maybe thousands since I am told my veins had collapsed. I received a port for hemodialysis that promptly caused me to nearly die of sepsis. I had a kidney biopsy that developed a painful bleed. I ate terrible food most of the time. I spent a lot of time in therapy learning to walk, write, identify colors and place square blocks in round holes.

Together we remember the love and care of my church, the family that constantly clamored for updates, the handful of good friends that were present, the food that the church brought to us every single week, and the nurses, angels in disguise.

I must say that, even to this day, I miss the sweet nurses that cared for me with great compassion. They were ever-present when I needed help and, during those long nights, they would often come in with a popsicle, sugar-free of course!

A final memory for today’s blog is the soft, fluffy afghan that my dear friend, Rev. Donna Rountree, brought me from her church. The Disciples of Christ church where my friend served as pastor barely knew me. I had preached there once. The congregation prayed for me, over the afghan, during a church service. Then Donna brought the afghan to the hospital, placed it on me, and told me that it was covered with the prayers of the people. What a special gift! What a special grace!

07CC221A-DFBC-4372-8E66-854CA41B0296When I think of that year, my description of it is “horribly wonderful.” Wonderful because, in the worst of times, God breaks in through the grace of a devoted husband, a caring family, an attentive nurse, a gentle phlebotomist, a close friend, a skilled physical therapist, a loving church family. 

So, yes, I took from that horrible year some wonderful memories, and that is what I can celebrate at this five-year milestone. And what’s more, I am here, still on this side of heaven and grateful for better health and life-saving dialysis. Pure grace!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

 

 

My Lord Is Near Me All the Time

635D7269-16B0-4C30-8A96-05536FDFF587Magnificent power! On a ride through the Georgia countryside, I witnessed nature’s beauty in a thunderstorm. The sky lit up from one end of the horizon to the other and then enormous streaks of lightning flashed in astounding display. It took my breath away, not because of its danger, but because of its brilliance. I struggle to find words to describe it.

Here’s how to scientifically explain it. Within a thundercloud way up in the sky, many small bits of ice (frozen raindrops) bump into each other as they move around in the air. All of those collisions create an electric charge. After a while, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges.

And so it was tonight. I do not always find spiritual significance in acts of nature, but this night I was overwhelmed with the idea of the absolute power of God’s creation. At the same time, I considered my close relationship with Jesus.

God, whose ultimate power can be beyond our human comprehension, visited us through his Son who walked among us on this earth. All of it dawned on me in the midst of a powerful, resplendent thunderstorm that reminded me of the eternal truth of a beautiful hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All The Time.” *

In the lightning flash across the sky
His mighty pow’r I see,
And I know if He can reign on high,
His light can shine on me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When refreshing showers cool the earth
And sweep across the sea,
Then His rainbow shines within my heart,
His nearness comforts me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

As a child my overprotective grandmother made sure that lightening would frighten me. It worked because of her very frightened demeanor at the first sign of a storm. I remember how she gathered my brothers and me close beside her on the sofa, wrapping her gentle arms around us. At every clap of thunder, she screamed.

But as an adult, I actually love thunderstorms. When thunder roars, I hear it as a reminder of God’s strength. When lightning flashes across the sky, I see it as a marvel of God’s power. When I feel showers of rain, I feel God’s presence in the provision of life-giving water. In all of it, I am grateful for the nearness of a relationship with Christ. It is abiding truth: my Lord really is near me all the time.

Amen.

To listen to the hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time” click on the video below:

 
* Georgia hymn writer, Barbara Fowler Gaultney (1935-1974), turned to writing hymns as a source of hope and an expression of her faith. In tenuous health throughout her life, Gaultney was educated in the Atlanta public schools and attended the University of Georgia. While a member of the First Baptist Church of Forest Park near the Atlanta airport, she penned both the words and music to “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time.” Her minister of music, Julian Wilson, assisted her in submitting it for publication. Her hymn was first published in the Baptist church music periodical, The Church Musician, April 1960. It then appeared in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal and has become a favorite of many congregations.  (Harry Eskew, https://gabaptistworshipmusic.org/my-lord-is-near-me-all-the-time/)

 

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Even There!

D2954ADE-75B4-4134-8B99-77B434376264Today, my pastor reminded me of a cherished truth, that we are not just loved by God, we are also known by God. Today’s scripture, Psalm 139, is indeed a precious gift. The Psalmist assures us that God knows when we sit down, when we lie down, and when we rise up.

The Psalmist declares that God knows our every thought. God knows our path. God knows our ways and the words we will speak, even before we speak them. The miracle? God truly and thoroughly knows us — every flaw, every bad habit, every unkind action. And God loves us anyway.

But for me, even more comforting than that grace-filled promise, is the truth beginning in verse seven, that God is with me when I feel alone. In the past few weeks, in fact, I have felt very much alone, far away from my child and grandchildren, far away from close friends, living in a new place that does not yet feel like home.

I am blessed with a loving husband of 48 years, my very best friend. We enjoy each other. We love being together day in and day out. We live in a lovely place in a pleasant neighborhood. But we are not really home.

So from the place I find myself these days, I find great comfort in hearing the Psalmist speaking, maybe even singing, about God’s abiding presence. In this part of the Psalm, one of the most meaningful scripture passages of my faith journey, I find the promise of God’s presence with me. The message calms my soul and consoles my heart.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there shall Your hand lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-9 (NKJV)

Wherever I go, even there God’s Spirit is with me. Wherever I am, even there God is with me. Even there!

Thanks be to God for the gift of presence.