Lord, I’m tired, worn out and if i’m honest, a little scared. There seems to be so much you are calling me into–it looks like too much for me to handle. But I can’t deny you’ve given it to me. It’s huge and awkward, like an over-sized beach ball, but it’s not heavy. In my quiet moments, I marvel at what you’ve entrusted to me. But today is not a quiet moment. Today I am feeling the chaos of to-do lists, detailed emails, articles to type, jobs to quote, family to attend to. I’m not able to make myself present to you. Would you, in your grace, dear Lord, make yourself present to me? Calm my flighty heart and speak peace to my whirling thoughts. Speak to the little fear, and give me greater love. Let me attend to you as you tend me and embrace your quiet and compassionate presence so that the works of my hands would be strengthened to do your will. Amen.
I returned a couple of hours ago from a 3 hour dentist appointment. You can imagine why it took that long. It’s been over 2 years since my last appointment and since I was told then I had a couple of teeth on cavity watch, it’s hardly surprising that between the xrays, gum check, oral cancer exam, cleaning and polishing, that there were some cavities. 3 of them, to be exact. (On the bright side, my gums and teeth are in good condition.)
Given the particularly nasty cavity that had formed in a crack in my tooth (did you you know your teeth can crack?) I opted to stick around until the dentist could fill it on the spot. As I was waiting, I took mental stock of how I as doing and discovered the answer was “not bad,” which surprised me. My last visit to the dentist was really stressful. I was berated for not flossing–repeatedly–the dentist kept ordering exams I wasn’t expecting, driving up the cost, shunting me between different rooms, different hygienists, and wearing me down to the point of getting a tooth repair I didn’t really want.
This time, it is true that I knew better what to expect–my pre-move old-fashioned dentist had not done particular things that these young dentists do as a matter of course. And it is true I was harassed a lot less about flossing. And since I had 2 teeth on cavity watch going in, yes, I expected to find that I did now have cavities. Knowing what to expect always helps diminish fear.
Given all that, as I sat today with my mouth getting number and number, I remembered having to listen to music at my old beloved dentist’s office when getting a filling, in order to distract myself from what was coming. At my last dentist’s, I practically cried myself home I was so stressed out when I left. Today I was resigned, but relaxed. The dental hygienist offered to turn the TV on for me while I waited, but that didn’t appeal.
What changed? “You have,” surfaced inside me as I sat. It’s true, I realized. Having a tooth filled is not going to ruin my day, and having to pay for it is not going to ruin my month. The anticipation of pain wasn’t making me anxious. In fact, I wasn’t even anticipating pain! I was not enjoying my numb face, but it was a thorough indicator that this filling was not going to hurt at all. My new dentist was taking care of me and I could trust in that, even rest in it, because he is clearly competent and has no wish to cause pain. I thanked God for this as I sat there and did my best to remain in that place of rest.
For a 3 hour dental visit, I think things went well. And now that I have the headache that usually comes after having my jaw propped open, and can now feel my ear and upper lip (the bottom one is still out of commission) my assessment is that the visit was unpleasant and tiring, but otherwise fine. I could go back again, and in fact I will, in December. I have 2 more teeth to get filled.
When was the last time you were able relax in a doctor’s office, not simply because you believed in the competence of the doctor, but also in Christ’s competent presence? What was it that made that possible?
Last week I was buzzing through my local Piggly Wiggly; it’s one of those stores that’s kind of old and worn out, but small enough that everything is easy to find and fast to check out of. I was chugging through the aisles, my head full of ideas for my new business, grabbing my groceries, moving quickly but feeling mellow.
As I checked out, I made some small talk with the cashier, saying I don’t remember what. As I picked up my shopping bag and headed for the exit, I heard a voice say “Ma’am?” from the customer service desk. Not sure I was being addressed, I looked up and saw a PW worker looking at me. I smiled at her, to indicate I was ready to listen, and she said, “Thanks for smiling.” I was surprised, laughed a little, stammered ‘thank you.’ She continued, “Not a lot of people smile anymore. It’s really good to see someone smile.” I thanked her again, a bit more graciously and continued walking to the parking lot.
It’s surprising to me that this was noticed and commented on, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. I live in a former manufacturing town. The car companies went bankrupt or moved their plants elsewhere and the jobs went with them. This city has never recovered. Life is hard for many people here. Many are in survival mode. Many have never recovered–and I can relate.
Why was I smiling? Partly because I was excited because of my new business, but that was because I had hope. I feel more hopeful about my life than I have in a long time. That might not sound very spiritual, but was this woman simply responding to my smile? I think she spoke up because she saw beyond the smile to the hope that the smile sprang from. And that means she was responding to Christ in me, the hope of glory.
You never know when you are being a minister of the Gospel. But you minister more and more the more you can carry Christ’s presence with you into the world.
Sometimes you just don’t know how to move from where you are spiritually back into a place of knowing God’s presence. When that happens to me, it’s a perfect place to look for God’s grace in operation, at least in hindsight. Here’s today’s example from real life:
Last week I made a mistake about who was preaching at church and posted my incorrect information on our Facebook page. This led to 3 correcting emails from our rector, none of which I received because I was busy “recuperating” on Saturday and just didn’t bother to check email. On Sunday, someone came to church almost an hour late because they found a notice that our services were in Simmons Gymnasium rather than the Kemper Center Chapel. Guess who’s in charge of fixing this on our website? These little irritations coast me into yesterday morning where I once again have to repeat that I am not in charge of insurance for the church and do not have the time to add that to my “to do” list.
All of these things put me in a foul mood that I just couldn’t shake. Why? Because I am embarrassed by my failure to be efficient, all-knowing, organized, and definite about my boundaries.
The recognition of this embarrassment was helpful for my wee brain, but it did not actually help me feel less embarrassed at my human limitations and imperfections. What I found instead was that it connected to something deep within me that was wordless and undefined–the foul mood was not just the embarrassment, but something in my human condition that is disordered and not in God’s image. The nameless thing became a prayer, a longing or desire of some kind that I directed to God with the occasional verbalized prayer of “You’re going to have to fix this, Lord. I’ve got nothing to go on here.”
Today I woke up still in a dark mood, found my way to my computer and began work. I hear a story about a woman locked by her niece in her room until she died. Her family knew, but did not address the problem. I hear a story about African slaves who were sent to a prison for the smallest of infractions, then tortured and killed there. These dark stories, rather than depressing me further, actually cause my heart to thaw; I send up prayers for the souls of these falsely imprisoned people. After lunch, I take Roxie for a walk in the park, where we meet a dozen children and a Lab who all want to pet her. These everyday interactions cause me to smile, laugh and shrug off more of the darkness I’ve been feeling. As I turn towards home after talking with Ronnie, the park’s gardener, my heart is singing and I realize I’m back in God’s presence–and God himself brought me here.
Can’t find your way into God’s presence? Pray that he will lead you back and that you will recognize when you’ve arrived.
Lord, I thank you for your grace that untangles me from the places I get myself stuck in that are far from you. Keep me close to you always, lead me back quickly when I aimlessly wander away, teach me to be human and loving rather than super-human and efficient. Amen.
One of the most powerful disciplines we can engage in as Christians is practicing the presence of Christ. The classic work on this is Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (available in many different formats and prices on Amazon.com and many other places). In it Brother Lawrence mentions the different approaches he used to remind himself of God’s presence with him at all times–Brother Lawrence is the man who talks about “games with minutes” and is famously known for practicing the presence of God while washing the dishes, which to me is simultaneously encouraging and discouraging.
Many people with I’ve spoken with about practicing the presence of God or Jesus say they simply can’t do it–that they’re not wired that way. I don’t buy that. Think about it: when you fall in love with someone, you think about them all the time. you yearn for them when they are not there, you keep your body angled towards them when they are in the same room but not next to you. You are effectively practicing their presence when they’re not next to you.
This highly sensitive (and perhaps highly strung) tuning does change as you grow into a relationship. Right now, John is in the room next to me. I have an awareness of his location in the house. When I come home after being out, the first this I do is I find out where he is in the house. I always have a little piece of my mind listening for him. I have to be really concentrating on something else to not hear him when he calls to me, regardless of how softly he speaks. If he were to sneak out of the house, I would come into an awareness of his absence with a matter of minutes. I’d start looking for him. I’d call him if I couldn’t find him. Maybe you’re not like this with your spouse, but you are with your child.
When the Bible talks about Jesus as the bridegroom and us–the Church–as the bride, there are certain realities that are implied and transferable to our personal relationships with him. The highly-tuned love between husband and wife is one of them.
So I do think you can practice the presence of God.
The key to practicing the presence of God as a spiritual discipline is finding a way to do it that works for you. Brother Lawrence’s “games with seconds and minutes” doesn’t work for me because I have such dislike for competition–even competition with myself! There have been times that a certain distasteful task will prompt me to be mindful of God. but sometimes when that subject becomes less distasteful I forget to practice the presence of God anymore!
Just as in any relationship dynamics change, circumstances change, “real life” interferes–and how you relate to God changes. Expect that the places and prompts that you use to remind you of God’s presence now will change over time. Just be mindful of the changes and keep looking for the new ways God wants you to be mindful of him.
This is a big topic that I certainly can’t cover in just one post. So I’m starting a series called “A Moment with God” that’s about practicing His presence. I’d like to address spiritual disciplines that set us up to become more aware of Christ’s presence, then look at other options besides dish washing and self-competition to might help you to see God’s hand at work more and more throughout your day.
If you have any questions or topic suggestions for this series, please feel free to comment! Both are most welcome.
Yesterday was Sunday, the day set apart to rest and to meet God. I was invited to participate on the music team, which is a gift to me. I enjoy it so much and don’t get to do it very often–we have so many talented musicians at our church, and truth be told, I am only an average singer, if that. I was so looking forward to it. Then, as I prepared to hop in the shower, I got a call from my husband, asking me to bring his gig bag to church. “Wait,” I said, “Is music rehearsal starting at 8:30?” He confirmed, and I flew into a tizzy. Fast shower, got dressed, brewed my tea, grabbed the gig bag, my purse and flew out the door….locking myself out with no car keys. After a panicked call to my husband, he reminded me that we had put a set of keys outside for our dogsitter, I got back into the house, got the car keys, shoved off to church, arriving 20 minutes late to rehearsal, dragging my husband’s gig bag and suddenly realizing I had left the beautiful Ash Wednesday flyers on the dining room table.
Needless to say, I was not practicing the presence of Christ.
As we rehearsed, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who was off. The other vocalist was having trouble getting her voice warmed up, the young man playing guitar couldn’t find the downbeat, my husband had to keep getting up from the drums to adjust the sound system, which was on the verge of feeding back.
Somewhere in the midst of this I began to realize I was in a bad way. I began to commiserate with the other vocalist, exercising some of the frustration of the morning. I indulged in some “grmphs” and “harumphs,” attempting to release them to God rather than aim them at any particular person. I started to pray a non-verbal prayer that would have sounded a bit like “bblaaakkkk.” By the time those leading the service had gathered for prayer, I was able to earnestly pray for grace to overcome the black cloud of the morning.
…And somehow, within the first two songs, we were all worshiping God together.
Lord, thank you for your grace which overcomes our grumpiness, our black clouds, our petty inconveniences. Thank you for doing this not just for our selves, but for the sake of others. And thank you again that people aren’t always in my head to know what I am thinking. Amen.