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When I feel far from God

There are times when God seems just about as far away as possible. I feel alone and even with crowds around me, the world feels empty.

There are times when God feels as close as my skin, where I can feel the weight of the Presence. All the world is filled with meaning and possibility because God is with me.

But most of the time, I live between these two poles, present and distant at the same time. This is the way of long relationships, old friendships and old marriages. There’s something good and settled-in with these relationships, but also something routine and stale.

Psalm 61 prays from a distance and is an excellent companion for when we find ourselves distant as well.

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
    I call as my heart grows faint;
    lead me to the rock that is higher than I (Ps. 61:1-2).

In the Hebrew mind, Jerusalem is the center of the earth. It’s where the temple was located. And before that, it’s where the ark of the covenant was located in the tabernacle, after David had it brought to his new capitol city.

Worship provides the center of the earth. Everything else gathers around God and goes out from God. Without worship, we are center-less.

Growing up, my parents’ house was the center of my world. But once I hit college that changed. Lakeside Bible Camp became my new center. I called it my Mediterranean, my “middle of the earth.” It was there that I had deep, life-changing encounters with God. It was there that everything about me — my faith, my personality, my hopes and dreams, me relationships — were challenged and grew. Lakeside made all of life worship. Every moment became pregnant with possibilities and heavy with God.

But here’s David, praying at a distance. Is he physically distant from Jerusalem and feeling dis-located? Or is he personally distant and feeling dislocated in heart, soul, and mind? Both are possibilities not just with him, but with us. Place matters. Heart matters.

Regardless, like us, he longs for the distance to disappear. He longs for closeness.

I long to dwell in your tent forever
    and take refuge in the shelter of your wings (Ps. 61:4).

In verses 2 and 3, David has referred to God as a massive rock and a strong tower, very tangible, physical expressions of strength and security. But here he shifts to a tent and wings.

There are two vastly different possibilities for what he’s getting at here.

The first draws from the nomadic roots of the Hebrew people. From Abraham through the desert wanderings, the people lived in tents (some still do to this day). And though people didn’t raise chickens back then, along with the birds residing in Israel, vast numbers of birds have always migrated between Europe and Africa through the land. Because of this, the image of a mother bird protecting the eggs or young in her nest grew deep in a biblical imagination of how God hovers over us, protecting us with his presence.

David wants that nestled protection for himself. He wants to live in God’s tent all the time. Wherever God goes, he’ll go too. No matter what kind of wandering path his life takes, he knows God won’t ever be far from him.

The other possibility is the tent refers to the tabernacle, the place of worship and meeting with God. And the wings refer to the two sets of cherubim wings on the ark of the covenant. This is a real possibility, because of David’s devotion to the ark and the belief that the ark was the throne of Yahweh, who “dwelt” between the cherubim wings. All of this is contained in 2 Samuel 6.

He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. … Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. … They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD (2 Sam. 6:2, 14, 15, 17).

Feeling far from God, David wants to restore worship as the center of his life. He doesn’t want to be an occasional worshiper, a Sunday Christian. He is insatiable. He wants God all the time. He wants to dance daily.

Our classic expression of this is Brother Lawrence’s The Practicing of the Presence of God. As a Carmelite lay brother, he learned the ability to live in the Presence not just during the hours of monastic worship, but even while he was washing bottles or repairing sandals.

The psalm then takes what at first seems like an abrupt shift. It moves from first-person prayer to third-person praying for the king. This isn’t a prayer for the king as a different person, however, but rather a step back from his feelings and praying for himself objectively as if he were another person.

Increase the days of the king’s life,
    his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
    appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him (Ps. 61:6-7).

This sounds like a “may he live forever” blessing of the king. But it’s more about his kingship than his individual life. He’s praying about not just himself, but for the descendants of his who will sit on his throne in years to come. It’s as if all his future descendants are alive in him right now. And when they take the throne, it’s his kingship which will be extended to future generations. All of this is in line with God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:16; see the whole chapter).

There’s something helpful in praying for ourselves in the third person. When we pray “me” and “my” prayers, we tend to pray skewed prayers from our skewed perspectives. And that’s an OK place to start. But as we continue in prayer, the mature person steps back a bit and seeks a more objective perspective, praying not just with the heart, but with the mind as well.

And what do we see? David prays for the same thing when praying objectively as he did when praying personally.

He wants protection and he wants Presence.

Protect my descendants by protecting me now. Let them be enthroned in your Presence forever by letting me never leave your tent now.

In anticipation of this, he finishes his prayer by saying in effect, “I will have your song always in my heart and on my lips. And I will live each day faithful to the covenant you have established between us.”

Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
    and fulfill my vows day after day (Ps. 61:8).

All of a sudden, we discover that David is no longer far away. Instead, he is singing to God and living out the daily commitments of covenant loyalty to God.

And there we have the key to living fully in the Presence: A worshipful and obedient heart.

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God in the in-between

We tend to focus on the big events, the landmark moments, the photographable experiences.

With our kids, it’s the first day of school, scoring the winning goal, getting baptized, performing in a play, getting dressed up for Halloween, opening Christmas presents. They are the highlights, the Facebookable moments.

All of them are important. Biblically, they are our Ebenezer moments, the times where we uniquely encounter God. So, like our biblical ancestors, we pile up rocks to remember what happened. That’s the biblical equivalent of an Instagram post.

But most of life happens in between these experiences. Most of it is forgettable. And much is what we wish we could forget.

Think of how much time we spend waiting in line to get gas, to buy food, to board planes — the lines at Disneyland are so much longer than the rides. Then there’s the drudgery of so much work and homework and work around the house. And there are the hours we kill watching mindless shows on TV (and, yes, TV news is entertainment) and playing video games (so close to 100% of Americans play them that statistically everyone does). And those other hours surfing the web and Facebook and watching cat videos.

We prepare meals. We commute to work and other events. We sleep. We bathe. We dress. We update software. We go to church. We exercise. We shop for necessary things (and unnecessary things).

So much of life is on auto-pilot that we simply don’t take it that seriously and ultimately don’t remember it.

But what if those were the times that we could encounter God on a regular and rhythmic basis? What if we had prayers that infused all of life with the sacredness of God’s holy presence?

That’s one of the things I love most about Celtic spirituality. They had prayers for everything. All of life became holy ground because all of life had a God-ward movement, all of life was God-touched, all of life was prayed.

The following Celtic prayers are taken from a David Adam collection.

Prayer upon rising
I rise with God,
May God rise with me.
The hand of God about me
In my waking and in my sleeping and in my rising up.

Prayer at dressing
Bless to me, O God,
My soul and my body;
Bless to me, O God,
My belief and my condition;
Bless to me, O God,
My heart and my speech,
And bless to me, O God,
The handling of my hand;
Strength and busyness of morning,
Habit and temper of modesty,
Force and wisdom of thought,
And Thine own path, O God of virtues,
Till I go to sleep this night;
Thine own path, O God of virtues
Till I go to sleep this night.

Blessing on the kindling
I will kindle my fire this morning.
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.

Blessing the house
God bless the house,
From site to stay,
From beam to wall,
From end to end,
From ridge to basement,
From balk to roof-tree,
From found to summit,
From found to summit.

What I love about these prayers is that they arise from simple daily experiences, but they transform those experiences into something bigger and more encompassing than them. They inhabit a reality suffused with the holy, with God, and they pull the ordinary with them into that reality.

Brother Lawrence was a lay brother at a Carmelite monetary in Paris during the 1600s. As such, it’s no surprise to find him among those who are known for praying. But it wasn’t simply in chapels and in his cell that he practiced this vocation. It was as a bottle washer and a sandal repairer that he did what he called practicing the presence of God.

These daily activities that were as mundane as possible became the catalyst for a robust spirituality. He didn’t escape his bottle washing by practicing the presence, he elevated it. Bottle washing became his burning bush.

So, what would some basic prayers be like for us? Here’s an attempt at a prayer before driving a car and a blessing before washing dishes. They’re not great, but they’re a start.

A prayer for driving a car
Watch over me, Lord,
As I put key in ignition.
Watch over all who drive on the road.
Give us sobriety;
Give us alertness;
Give us kindness for others who drive;
Protect us from weather;
Protect us from mechanical defects;
Guide us to our destinations;
Your presence with us for every turn of the wheel,
That we might arrive safely
And be ministers of your grace
Wherever our wheels may roll.

Blessing the washing of dishes
We asked your blessing over our meal
So, now, bless these dirty dishes
And bless the one who washes.
As I clean them,
You clean me, O Lord,
Washing away every stain
Of pride,
Of anger,
Of hurt feelings,
Of any unforgiveness,
That I may be a clean vessel
Fit for your purposes.

Just as much as he does in the high and memorable moments, God is in the in-between. So, let’s develop a language, a way of praying, that arises from the need to dwell in his presence in the everydayness of our lives.

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Prayer is simply keeping company with God

Every now and then I come across a book where the title alone is enough for me. In fact, when I read it, I discover that the rest of the book is really just helping me understand what the title means.

Eugene Peterson’s book on discipleship is called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. It’s a perfect description for a life of following Jesus.

Gordon Fee’s book on the Holy Spirit is called God’s Empowering Presence. Again, perfect. The Spirit is God himself present in us, empowering us to be his people in his world.

Then there is Catholic theologian Simon Tugwell’s book Prayer: Living With God. I read the book during what felt like a fairly prayerless time in my life. After years of disciplined quiet times of Bible reading, praying, and journaling, I didn’t have all that many words to say when it came to these devotional times. And then I read Tugwell’s book.

Tugwell doesn’t play down the importance of speaking to God in our prayers — that is always important, as it offers our inner being to God. What he does is expand the territory of prayer so that it becomes a much larger country, instead of a cramped closet.

Prayer includes our words to God, but is so much larger — it is living with God.

Another spiritual writer, the bottle washer Brother Lawrence, wrote another book which has a practically perfect title: The Practice of the Presence of God. Like Tugwell, Lawrence suggests that prayer has less to do with the words we speak before meals, in church, or in other places (again, these are still extremely important) and more to do with the basic orientation of our lives. Are we living with God? Do we consciously live in (practice) his presence? Every effort we make to draw near to God (who is never far away) is prayer. But doing so requires practice, an intentional effort.

All of this to say, prayer is keeping company with God. It turns us toward him, intentionally engaging with him.

That’s why Bible reading is so important. There’s nothing magical about the book or about reading it. There’s nothing magical about the ink or the pages the words of Scripture are printed on. And it’s very possible to read these words and be infinitely far from God as we do so.

Regardless of the defenses we put up, when we open our Bibles, we make ourselves vulnerable to God.

These words of God just might come off the page and enter us. They might draw us out of our small world of Self and into the large world of God. As God speaks his eternal Word to us in our reading, we just might discover ourselves in his Presence, we just might discover ourselves responding with words of prayer or simply with a wordless companionship with this God who speaks to us, to me.

As you consider what one or two things to add to your life in the new year, I want to lobby for a regular practice of Scripture-reading. It’s an excellent way to open up this prayerful life with God. Here’s a link to a daily reading guide that will get you through the whole Bible in a year. But don’t let cranking through it be your focus.

Bible-reading is not an obligation, but an invitation.

Remember, Abraham and Moses had no Bible to read and did quite well in their time spent with God. What’s important to remember is that God has invited us to live with him, to stay always in his presence. There is nothing better in this life. And there is no better way that through the gift of Scripture.