The Presence of God
Mid-way through the Christmas season, I’ve been thinking about the presence of God. This season is all about celebrating “God with us.” This is what our songs and scriptures and stories proclaim throughout the season. And is this not what we all long for? To experience God as present with and for us.
This longing shows up in so many ways in so many different contexts. I hear it from young adults who, despite what the sociological data says about their tenuous relationship with the church, are hungry for an experience of God’s presence. I hear it from people enduring suffering, people whose health is failing, people for whom the days can be a dreary monotony. I hear it from people who are tired, from people who feel like life is little more than a treadmill, people who are restless, unfulfilled, uncertain. I hear it from people who are mostly satisfied with their lives and are committed Christians, but who sense there must be something more to this “religion” thing than just following the rules, going to church, supporting the right causes, etc.
I think all of us, to varying degrees, at varying stages in our lives hunger for this one thing. The presence of God. But what does it mean? Does it mean feeling inspired while contemplating the vast beauty of nature? Some kind of unique clarity that we feel about our future (or our present) during prayer? Hearing an audible voice? Experiencing peace in the midst of the storm? Achieving some kind of victory over sins and failures that consistently beset us or a powerful internal experience of forgiveness? Having our gaze lifted from the terrestrial concerns that naturally preoccupy us to consider eternity?
It could mean any or all of these things, I think, and probably more. But I think beyond any one of these single experiences, the presence of God in our lives points to the deep hunger that each one of us has to know that our lives are part of some larger story of meaning—a story that is going somewhere, a story that is being guided by a force that is larger than us. We long to know that we are not alone, and that God can gather up all of the pain and all of the joy of our lives into a hopeful future. We want to experience a deep and vital connection to the source of all goodness and hope and for this connection to sustain us in our everyday lives.
This is, increasingly, what I have started to pray for people who are going through hard times, who are struggling to believe that God is with them in any meaningful way. My instinct is to pray it all away. Perhaps this is yours, too. God, make the bad stuff stop. This is a very natural instinct and we are not wrong to pray this way. But lately I have been praying that people would somehow experience the presence of God in the midst of what they are enduring, that they would have this deep connection to the source of all that is good and true, even when they are walking down hard roads.
Part of the mystery of God’s coming to dwell among us is that God comes to us in the midst of the mess of our world and our lives. God is not immune from the pain and uncertainty of a broken world. We wish God would just come and clean it all up with a mighty display of power. I know that I do! I wish that Jesus’ first coming had introduced the final, decisive defeat of all that opposes God’s shalom in the world. But God chooses a different way. God chooses to overthrow and redeem the evil of the world by entering it and subverting it from within and working through the hearts and minds and hands and feet and voices of people who freely choose to follow his path to peace. It is a victory that is gradually implemented—and one that involves us in the process.
And so, we look for and experience the presence of God even in the midst of difficult situations that do not naturally call forth our praise. I think many of us can look back on our own lives and remember instances where the way forward looked unclear, or times when we were afraid and uncertain or bent over with pain… and God carried us. God didn’t magically remove us from the mess, but God was there with us, steering, guiding, encouraging, and illuminating the path, suffering alongside of us, lifting us up, forgiving us, allowing us to forgive others. Gently gracing us beyond what we can see. This is how God works in the world and in our lives—at Christmas and throughout the year.
It’s been a tough few years. And a quick glance at the news does not necessarily augur easy tidings as we sit at 2022’s doorstep. Despite it all, my hope and prayer for each one of you is that you would experience the presence of God in what remains of the Christmas season and into the year(s) ahead. My prayer is that you would experience a deep and vital connection to the source of all life, all beauty, all truth, all hope, all courage and strength, in the midst of whatever roads God calls you on in the days ahead. That Christ would, to borrow the words from the famous carol, “cast out our sin and enter in” to our world and our lives anew.
My hope and prayer is that we would all come to know and to experience the deep truth that we cannot go where God is not.
The featured image is one that I’ve used on this blog several times, but catches my eye in new ways each Christmas. It speaks to me of “God with us” in ways that no creche, no matter how beautiful, can. It is called “The Nativity” and was created by “Christopher Ruane. It is taken from the 2017-18 edition of the Christian Seasons Calendar.
Part of the above comes from a sermon preached Dec. 29, 2019.