WE CANNOT HAVE PARADISE HERE AND NOW. We live and we wait in the midst of a broken world and a disturbed Reality. And while we wait the presence of God is problematic. Or, I should say, our awareness of the presence of God is problematic, for God is actually present everywhere, at all times, to all people. How could it be otherwise, if God be God? Yet a sense of estrangement and alienation—from our own selves, from each other, and from God—is our daily bread, and only loneliness is our constant companion.
A few times—very few—in my life I have had an encompassing sense of not-aloneness, for lack of a better term. When I experienced a conversion to Jesus Christ in the living room of a Pentecostal street preacher and carpenter named Peter, I had a trembling awareness that Christ was present and I interpreted the invitation of Peter to “know the Lord” as Christ offering himself to me as the meaning in life that I had been looking for.
For the first six months of our marriage my wife and I slept on a mattress on the bedroom floor of a small studio apartment. On a single remembered evening—I did not mark a date, though I know the season and the year—I was awake in the darkness as Roberta slept beside me. I was gathered completely to this time and this place. All of me is here, undistracted and undivided. My lover is mine and I am hers, immersed in knowing and being known, in not-aloneness. The borders of my self seemed permeable in joy, and open. I lay there quietly in the night in astonishment and gratitude.
I have often longed to regain those existential moments. But both my relationship with God and my relationship with my wife have been . . . normal. Full of ups and downs, happiness and sadness, and even in the midst of relationship, the occasional recurring sense of aloneness. I think much of Christian culture, and especially Evangelical Christian culture—our worship and Bible studies and pot-luck suppers, and music and movies and books—can be understood as our efforts to overcome our sense of aloneness. And I think, in general, these are good things. Indeed, many of these are things we are commanded to do. But too often we desire, expect, and even demand a constant sense of the immediacy of God’s presence which cannot be had among the ruins that are the world we inhabit.
Last week, one of the sections of the Worldviews class I teach dove into one of those period-long digressions that are worth setting aside the normal agenda. The question was about dreams, and visions, and prophecies, and miracles. Can’t God do that today like he did in Bible times? Doesn’t God work like that today? My short answer was, I am not going to tell God what he can and cannot do. My long answer was, well, long, as was the back and forth discussion.
One thing I took away from our class diversion was the reminder of the sensibility I had first encountered when I lived through the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s: A yearning for God to be obvious. To be an action hero whose presence demands our attention. That yearning remains a large part of Evangelical culture.
The hunger for a constant sense of God’s palpable presence, in a more quiet way, is also the engine that has driven sales of Sarah Young’s massively bestselling devotional book, Jesus Calling. I’m sure Ms. Young means well, but her device of using the first person singular to place her thoughts in the mouth of Jesus is, at best, disconcerting. Her regular habit of capitalizing “Presence”, and speaking of this “Presence” in emotive non-personal terms—such as a “warm mist”—seem to reduce the presence of God to mere feelings.
WHAT REMAINS THEN? What will make known to us the presence of God in our lives? Just these things: The encouragement of Scripture (see Romans 15:4), the remembrance of Jesus Christ (see John 15:20 and Luke 22:19), and the love we give each other (see John 15:12 and 1 Peter 1:22, and verses and texts too numerous to recount). There are no other secrets, short-cuts, or steps.
It is remarkable, yet true, that the primary means by which God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, has made himself known to us, is through a book, the Bible. And this book is the primary means through which we remember Jesus Christ. I do not always feel the presence of Christ, and I do not expect that I should, but I always remember his promises to always be with me (Matthew 28:20) and to eventually bring me into the complete fullness of a relationship with him (John 14:1-4). If the promises of Jesus known through the Scriptures are not enough for someone, nothing else ever will be.
WHAT WE ALL WANT AT THE LAST, I think, is this: To know we are loved and that we have not been forgotten. All genuine love is the gift of God. This often comes in small ways, but it comes. I am leaving teaching at the end of this school year, by way of resignation, and it is not an entirely happy leaving. I have questioned myself, my circumstances, and God, and have wondered what the point of it all was. I got a short note from a student the other day, and it began, “I’m so glad I got to have you as a teacher”. And I became aware once again that God was present, as he always has been.