Glory and honor are in his presence; strength and gladness are in his place.
1 Chronicles 16.27 (KJV)
Practicing God’s Presence
I’m one of those single-track-mind people, a burrower easily buried in his thoughts and work. I can sit at my desk for hours, losing all contact with everything else while I tunnel through the task at hand. It’s a terrible trait that very well could be the death of me. I get so focused the most innocuous interruption startles me just this side of a heart attack. My partner will pass by the study, stick his head in the door, and say, “So-and-So called,” or “Can you drop off the dry-cleaning tomorrow?” Nine times out of 10, I’ll jump an inch or two off my chair. He’ll rush to apologize, when it’s I who should ask forgiveness for losing complete sense of his presence as he moves about the place.
It’s hard to explain why we become preoccupied to the point of obliviousness. But it’s oh so easy to do—not only with the world and people around us, but also with God. As with lifetime companions, we grow so accustomed to having Him there we lose track of Him. When He unexpectedly makes His presence known (as He often does), we’re taken aback. When He interrupts our inner monologue, we’re caught off guard and sometimes—to our shame—need to ask Him to repeat Himself. A vague awareness He’s always with us is insufficient. It keeps us unprepared for moments when He comes to us and it dulls our sensitivity to His movement in our lives. There’s an art to remaining alert to God, which we might think of as practicing His presence. And while each of us does it in his/her own way, I believe it begins by striving to funnel everything we think, see, and do through an ongoing desire to please Him.
“I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth,” David writes in Psalm 34.1. The psalm comes with an enigmatic note attributing it to him when “he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.” Scholars believe “Abimelech” is a transposition of “Ahimelech,” a corrupt priest who swore vengeance against David for destroying his colleagues. Since no other record of the encounter exists, we assume David composes the poem after he escapes his nemesis by acting crazy. (This strategy works, by the way. Years ago, I stupidly strolled pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street in a bomber jacket like those being stolen off pedestrians’ backs. Five unfriendly sorts started trailing me. Knowing I’d never outrun them, I stopped cold, shaking my fist at the sky and shouting jibberish. As they passed me, one said, “Fool, get back uptown before you get hurt!”)
Then again, perhaps David wasn’t acting at all. He could have been practicing God’s presence—artfully filtering his circumstances through his desire to please his Maker. “To bless” translates as “to flatter, or make happy.” Constantly aware we’re never alone brings constant opportunity to please and praise God, crazy as that may seem to others. Psalm 34 continues: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” (v4-5) In 1 Chronicles 16, we hear a similar declaration in David’s psalm celebrating the Ark of the Covenant’s arrival at the temple. “Glory and honor are in His presence,” he says. Those unaware of the power and majesty of God’s continuous presence may regard our constant recognition of it as nutty or—in P.C. parlance—“inappropriate.” So be it. Our adversaries mistake it for lunacy and leave us alone. Even better. God’s pleasure and praise are no cause for shame. They practice His presence, and where He abides, those who bask in Him radiate His glory and honor.
Our House, His House
Limiting our praise to formal worship wastes untold chances to experience His presence in our day-to-day lives. He dwells in the sanctuary, a place specifically built to house His presence—a place we go to find Him. But He’s hardly confined to granite walls and vaulted ceilings. He finds us where we are. To offset the disciples’ anxiety about His nearing departure, Jesus assures them, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14.18) He comes to us. Our house is His house. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 6.19. Wherever we may be at any given moment is His place. And there, David says in 1 Chronicles 16.27, we have strength and gladness.
Life takes us down some mean streets. Our paths meander across tough, often hostile territory. Left alone, we’d falter and quite possibly be crushed by weakness and sorrow. Practicing God’s presence alters the landscape. Wherever we are at any given juncture is His place. Enfolded in His love and power, we’re immune to forces seeking to wear us down and steal our joy. “Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!’” Joel 3.10 reads. Psalm 16.11 testifies: “You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Strength is ours, gladness is ours, simply because our place is His place. We may lose sight of this occasionally and stumble. Regaining awareness of His presence as He moves about the place soothes our doubts, calms our fears, and gets us back on our feet. Jude ends his letter with a stunning doxology: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” Amen—it is so.
Life takes us down some mean streets, but practicing His presence and knowing He's with us keeps us strong and joyful.
(Tomorrow: Headlong Into Trouble)
Postscript: Weekend Gospel
Imagine Me – Kirk Franklin
I had the exquisite pleasure of spending last Wednesday evening with Annette, a long-cherished friend and regular S-F reader. During our visit, she mentioned Kirk Franklin’s “Imagine Me,” an amazing song that describes a variety of cruelties many suffer and bear for years in emotional wounds and scarred memories. “I always cry when it gets to the part where God whispers, ‘It’s gone,’” Annette said, as her eyes clouded up all over again. “And then I think, ‘The pain will be gone one day and if I believe it will eventually happen, I should start trusting it to go away now. It’s hard, but I’m getting better at it.”
After we said goodnight, I looked up the video and cried as I watched its vivid depictions of hardship. Then, just as she described, I wept with joy when the song pivoted into its triumphant “Gone” passage. If you don’t know Kirk Franklin’s work, this gives you a fine taste of how God has used him to bridge contemporary reality with timeless truth. And I especially recommend it to those of us dealing with relentless shadows from the past.