The Presence of God
I just came back from a walk by the Lake, not a sunrise walk, but a sunset walk. I thanked God with just about every step for His presence, His rest, His peace. All was quiet, except for the occasional sound of a bird or a duck or of the breeze blowing through the leaves of the trees.
As I neared the end of the walk, I sat on a park bench and took in the view of sky and trees and water. I closed my eyes and delighted in the breeze blowing through my hair, cooling me, soothing me. I prayed, “Lord, thank you for the breeze, the cooling, calming, soothing breeze. Father, as this breeze blows over me, may the gentle breeze of Your Spirit flow over me. Fill those nooks and crannies that are vulnerable to hurt and fear. Blow through the cobwebs that stifle my spirit, my will to serve You, my will to press on. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Our Saturday Ladies Bible Study group has made it a practice to study only books of the Bible, verse by verse. This summer we made an exception. We’ve been focusing on prayer, using Richard Foster’s book titled Prayer.
My last installment of Dusting Bookshelves focused on the same book, on Foster’s chapter on The Prayer of Relinquishment. Our most recent Saturday morning study was on The Prayer of Rest. I’ve been very mindful of my need for rest.
Throughout his book, Foster shares stories from his own experience, stories of how these different types of prayer have changed his life. In the Prayer of Rest chapter, he told of a time when he left his study group for a morning break and took a canoe to a small island, discovered a chair on a platform on the island, and climbed up into the chair. As he sat there, looking out over the waters of the Pacific Ocean, he recalled what his wife had said to him as he left to go to this Study/ Retreat: “Come home refreshed”.
As he continued to sit on the chair, he prayed, “Lord, refresh me. I want to come home refreshed.”
He sensed God telling him He wanted to teach him Sabbath Prayer. Foster responded that he didn’t know exactly what that was, that God would have to lead him, to teach him.
All he got from God was “Be still. Rest. Shalom”. The same words came to him every time he tried to ask what or how. Thoughts intruded, thoughts of how he was being irresponsible to be gone from the Group for so long, thoughts of how the Group would worry about him if he didn’t get back to the Group soon. But the same words prevailed. Be still. Rest. Shalom.
In time, having experienced stillness and rest and peace, he returned to the Group, only to discover he had scarcely been missed.
How often I’ve allowed all the doings of my life to interfere with simply being in the Presence of God for stillness, rest, peace.
Now, back from my walk, and my spirit ready for renewal, I dusted off some other books.
I was blessed by excerpts from The Practice of the Presence of God, the Christian Classic by Brother Lawrence who lived in the seventeenth century.
Brother Lawrence declared that he felt much closer to God in his day-to-day activities than most people ever believed to be possible.
“If we only knew how much we need God’s grace, we would never lose touch with Him.”
“I honestly cannot understand how people who claim to love the Lord can be content without practicing His presence. My preference is to retire with Him to the deepest part of my soul as often as possible. When I am with Him there, nothing frightens me.
“It isn’t necessary that we stay in church in order to remain in God’s presence. We can make our heart a chapel where we can go anytime to talk to God privately. My day-to-day life consists of giving God my simple, loving attention.”
“Think about God as often as you can, day and night, in everything you do. He is always with you, just as you would be rude if you left a friend who was visiting you alone, why abandon God and leave Him alone?”
“Let us look to God with these eyes of faith. He is within us; we don’t need to seek Him elsewhere. We have only ourselves to blame if we turn from God, occupying ourselves instead with the trifles of life. In the Lord’s patience, He endures our weaknesses. But just think of the price we pay by being separated from His presence!”
“What could please God more than for us to leave the cares of the world temporarily in order to worship Him in our spirits? These momentary retreats serve to free us from our selfishness.”
“The presence of God is the concentration to the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present. The consequence is an inexpressible state of the soul—gentle, peaceful, respectful, humble, loving and very simple . . . filled with a faith that equips to handle anything that comes to us.”
Brother Lawrence says two of the blessings of the practice of the presence of God are a livelier faith and strengthened hope.
Who of us could not use a more lively faith and a strengthened hope?
“Be Still. Rest. Shalom.”
From time to time I get really hungry for substantive spiritual food. Sometimes I find it in sermons. Often I find it in books.
Spiritually hungry, I recently dusted off Richard Foster’s book titled *Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.
Back in the summer of 2012, I was fed spiritually and physically during Music and Arts Worship week at Lake Junaluska. The speaker for the week, Reverend Clarence Brown, Senior Pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church, challenged us each morning to practice the Christian disciplines. He referenced Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and his book on prayer.
Now, lest somebody object to a reference to Methodism in a Presbyterian blog, let me say that my spiritual nourishment has come from Christians of just about every denomination. Richard Foster is of the Quaker tradition.
My 2012 reading of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home came on the heels of a mountain-top experience—literally and figuratively-speaking. My 2017 reading of the book came on the heels of some dark nights in the valley.
2017 had gotten off to a rough start in some ways. I had begun to “feel old”. It seemed decisions—those I knew would present themselves someday—were staring me in the face now. What would I do in retirement? Where would I live? What would my health be like? My finances? How long could I “live alone”? What could I count on? Who could I count on?
As night followed day, “everything” seemed overwhelming: transitioning into retirement, paperwork, housework, yardwork, home maintenance, finances, health care, friends, family, cats . . . . Yet in the midst of these night-time anxieties, a still small voice reminded me of other bad times—many of far greater difficulty—and God’s having brought me through them all. I would pause in my “worry” and marvel at God’s grace and provision. And then I would pray, affirming my faith in Him and knowing He was “the same—yesterday, today and forever.”
And I would pray for just about everyone I know—by name.
In an effort to get some sleep, I practiced what had become my routine of “letting go”. As people and situations and concerns came to mind, I reminded myself I am not God, I am not responsible for all creatures great and small—not to mention people. And I released all to the one who is God.
During this time, I benefited greatly from Pastor Dan’s preaching and teaching. Yet his time of ministry at our church was coming to a close. Someone asked if I’d consider teaching the adult Sunday School class for a short transitional period. I did the usual hemming and hawing, not wanting to come right out and say “no” and to my own utter surprise actually feeling a pull toward saying “yes”—should I be asked “officially”.
I was only a few days into “recovery” from what seemed to me—the licensed counselor—to be a near breakdown. Yet I began thinking of taking on this responsibility.
I reminded myself of how I had given up everything in prayer just a few days earlier. How I had let it all go. Included in the “everything” had been my calling to serve Him through the gifts of singing, teaching, writing and hospitality.
In a matter of minutes I now began to feel re-energized and ready to serve. I prayed and rather quickly found an answer.
Prayer. Study prayer.
Home from church, I headed for my bookshelves devoted to inspirational works. I picked up E. M. Bounds volume on prayer. And I picked up Richard Foster’s book.
“Slowly we are being taken off of vain securities and false allegiances.”
Oh, my! I had prayed about my feelings of abandonment, having experienced changes over the last year or so in pastors, doctors, accountants, financial advisers, the death of friends, a neighbor and, yes, cats. I thought I had planned so well for the future. Had all my ducks in a row.
I voraciously read through Foster’s chapters on the Simple prayer, the Prayer of the Forsaken, the Prayer of Examen, the Prayer of Tears, and when I got to the Prayer of Relinquishment, I was stunned.
Relinquishment. Praying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Foster referenced “the school of Gethsemane”, an unparalleled expression of relinquishment.
He described “the incarnate Son praying through tears and not receiving what he asks.”
He continued, “Struggle is an essential feature. Jesus’ prayer struggle lasted long into the night. Relinquishment is no easy task.”
Foster also makes clear that Christian prayer is not fatalism, that our prayer efforts are a genuine give and take, a true dialogue with God and a time of struggle. Relinquishment is a release of hope in which we are “buoyed up by a confident trust in the character of God.”
He says “God is inviting us deeper in and higher up. There is training in righteousness, transforming power, new joys, deeper intimacy.”
Sometimes the very thing we relinquish is given back to us, and sometimes the release is permanent.
“A settled peace, in fact, is the most frequent experience of those who have trod the path of relinquishment.”
Foster concluded this chapter with suggestions for the Prayer of Relinquishment, including the prayers of self-emptying, surrender, abandonment, release, and resurrection.
As for the official invitation for me to teach? It never came, yet there was real purpose in my having been asked. I believe it was God’s method of directing me toward dusting bookshelves and re-reading books full of substantive food, so important to my hungering and thirsting spirit in 2017.
So again I pray the closing prayer in Foster’s chapter on the Prayer of Relinquishment:
“O Lord, how do I let go when I am so unsure of things? I’m unsure of your will, and I’m unsure of myself. . . .
That really isn’t the problem at all, is it? The truth of the matter is I hate the very idea of letting go.
I really want to be in control. No, I need to be in control.
That’s it, isn’t it? I’m afraid to give up control, afraid of what might happen. Heal my fear, Lord.
“How good of you to reveal my blind spots even in the midst of my stumbling attempts to pray. Thank you!
“But now what do I do? How do I give up control? Jesus, please, teach me the way of relinquishment. ---Amen.”
*Foster, R. (1992). Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. HarperSanFrancisco (a division of HarperCollinsPublishers).
Twas the night before deadline, and all through the house
Were books stacked on bookshelves and books left to browse
I searched for the right one, the one sure to please
Readers of columns and blogs such as these.
Books have been my friends since early childhood. Someday I want to sit by the fireplace and reread Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau and John Greenleaf Wittier and Robert Frost. But today I want to sit at the piano and play carols from my childhood Christmas Carols* book. As I retrieved this beautifully illustrated book from the piano bench, I was carried back to a different time and place: my childhood Christmases in rural Pennsylvania.
I never truly believed in Santa Claus. Grandma read Twas the Night Before Christmas to me, and I imagined those reindeer on our tin roof. Yet it seemed more plausible to me that Pappy was the gift-giver on Christmas Day. And for good reason. Sometime shortly after Thanksgiving, I would ride with Pappy and Grandma to Lebanon. We called it “going to town”. I remember the novelty of putting a nickel in the parking meter. I remember the excitement of going to the basement in the Bon Ton, where Santa sat in one corner on his throne-like chair. Toys lined the remaining walls. A big train village filled the center of the room. I remember the excitement of showing Pappy which toys I really wanted and then sitting on Santa’s lap and telling Santa, too.
My family attended the Christmas Eve service at church. Children, dressed in their finest Christmas clothes, sang and “said their speeches”. Our family tradition included opening gifts on Christmas Eve. I remember getting lots of books: Black Beauty, Little Women, Heidi, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, Hans Brinker and so many more.
On Christmas morning, we drove to Pappy and Grandma’s farm. Over the River and Through the Woods rang in my ears and warmed my heart. As we pulled into the barnyard, excitement mounted. The first one out of the car, I bounded through the gate and up the hill to the back porch and into the kitchen. The smells were tantalizing. Pumpkin and mince pies. Molasses cookies and sand tarts. Roast Goose. Sweet potatoes with a molasses glaze. Dried corn. Home-made “filling”.
After the Christmas dinner and clean-up, we gathered in the small living room to open gifts. There were presents under the tree, and sure enough there was one for me, and it was always “just what I wanted”. One year it was a Glockenspiel.
Then, Pappy disappeared for a short time and returned with lots of penny candy, which he dumped on the kitchen table. Mary Janes. Chocolate drops. Caramels. Nonpareils. Kitts Taffee. Root Beer Barrels. Peanut Butter kisses. He gave each of us a small paper bag and told us to pick out whichever candies we wanted for our own bag of candy. He beamed with joy at bringing us such joy.
The gala celebration of Christ’s birth ended as Grandma, Mom, Aunt Alvena and I gathered around the piano in the parlor and sang Christmas carols. One of my favorites was I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
*Selected and arranged by Karl Schulte with illustrations by F. D. Lohman and published by Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, Wisconsin; copyright MCMXXXLII.
During a lengthy hospital stay in the ‘60s, I “discovered” C.S. Lewis through Letters to an American Lady. Despite his reportedly strong dislike for letter-writing with his “rheumatic hand”, he not only wrote more than a hundred letters to this woman whom he had never met, but he also wrote a hundred plus letters to other correspondents.
He began this series of letters when he was 51. He died at the age of 65, on the same afternoon of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Letters to an American Lady by C. S. Lewis*
Lewis “believed taking time out to advise or encourage another Christian was both a humbling of one’s talents before the Lord and also as much the work of the Holy Spirit as producing a book.” (Editor Clyde S. Kilby)
You surely don’t mean ‘feeling that we are not worthy to be forgiven’? For of course we aren’t. Forgiveness by its nature is for the unworthy. You mean ‘Feeling that we are not forgiven.’ I have known that. I ‘believed’ theoretically in the divine forgiveness for years before it really came home to me. It is a wonderful moment when it does.
I hope now that you are forgiven you will spend most of your remaining strength in forgiving. Lay all the old resentments down at the wounded feet of Christ.
We must beware of the Past, mustn’t we? I mean that any fixing of the mind on old evils beyond what is absolutely necessary for repenting our own sins and forgiving those of others is certainly useless and usually bad for us. Notice in Dante that the lost souls are entirely concerned with their past! Not so the saved. This is one of the dangers of being, like you and me, old. There’s so much past, now, isn’t there? And so little else.
Don’t weep inwardly and get a sore throat. If you must weep, weep a good honest howl!
A Broken Heart
The allegory sense of her (Mary Magdalen) great action dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box which one must break over the holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside they are more like sewage. All very alarming.
Fear and Dread
Fear is horrid, but there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Our Lord was afraid (dreadfully so) in Gethsemane. I always cling to that as a very comforting fact.
For it is a dreadful truth that the state of ‘having to depend solely on God’ is what we all dread most. And of course that just shows how very much, how almost exclusively, we have been depending on things.
I suspect that what we feel to be our best prayers are really our worst; that what we are enjoying is the satisfaction of apparent success, as in executing a dance or reciting a poem. Do our prayers sometimes go wrong because we insist on trying to talk to God when He wants to talk to us?
We have always been forgetting things; but now, when we do so, we attribute it to our age.
I’m afraid as we grow older life consists more and more in either giving up things or waiting for them to be taken from us.
As for the bug-bear of Old peoples’ Homes, remember that our ignorance works both ways. Just as some of the things we have longed and hoped for turn out to be dust and ashes when we get them, so the things we have most dreaded sometimes turn out to be quite nice. If you ever do have to go to a Home, Christ will be there just as much as in any other place.
We must both, I’m afraid, recognize that, as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!
The machine is wearing out. . . . It was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a fondness for the old rattle-trap
There is no way out of it: either one must die fairly young or else outlive many friends.
There’s nothing discreditable in dying. I’ve known the most respectable people do it!
What a state we have got into when we can’t say ‘I’ll be happy when God calls me’ without being afraid one will be thought ‘morbid’. . . . If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home’, why should we not look forward to the arrival.
Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you; like taking off a hairshirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than we leave behind.
Our Lord says to you ‘Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go. Underneath are the everlasting arms. Let go, I will catch you.”
*Copyright 1967 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
I once was sure I had placed ten twenty dollar bills between two books for “safe-keeping”. A friend and I went through all the books on the shelf, determined to find the money. We didn’t find the money in the books. (I found it later between photo albums in another room on another shelf.)
I rarely find money in books. I actually find gold nuggets in books. Sometimes it seems like I’ve found a gold mine.
First in a Series
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
“Rereading books, we said with immense agreement, was the mark of the real lover of books.”
(“We” refers to C. S. Lewis and Sheldon Vanauken in conversation with one another.)
Quotes are from Sheldon Vanauken unless otherwise specified.
“Most of the people who reject Christianity know almost nothing of what they are rejecting; those who condemn what they do not understand are, simply, little men.”
“Christianity had come to seem to us probable. It all hinged on this Jesus. Was he, in fact, the Lord Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, the Christ? Was he, indeed, the incarnate God? Very God of very God? This was the heart of the matter. Did he rise from the dead?” (“Us” refers to the author and his wife, Davy)
“Today, crossing from one side of the room to the other, I lumped together all I am, all I fear, hate, love, hope, and, well, DID it. I committed my ways to God in Christ.” (Davy Vanauken)
“I did not, I thought, resent her being a Christian. I resented her acting like one.”
“There might be no certainty that Christ was God—but, by God, there was no certainty that He was not.”
“It is not possible to be ‘incidentally a Christian’. Being a Christian must be first or nothing.”
“I wanted life itself, the colour and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ . . . . I didn’t want to be a saint.”
“ . . . I’m not going to believe this damned rubbish any more. Lies, all lies. I’ve been had. Up I sprang and rushed out to the country. This was the end of God. Ha! And then I found I could not reject God. . . . One discovers one cannot move a boulder by trying with all one’s strength to do it. I discovered—without any sudden influx of love or faith—that I could not reject Christianity. Why I don’t know. There it was. I could not. That was an end to it.”
Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy is a human love story within the divine love story of God and his children, Davy and Sheldon. The telling of this compound love story includes the exchange of letters between Vanauken and C. S. Lewis.
“Goodness and love are as real as their terrible opposites . . . .
But love is the final reality; and anyone who does not understand this,
be he writer or sage, is a man flawed in wisdom.”