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Realizing the Presence
There was really nothing extraordinary about the meeting. Sitting around a large table were leaders and workers from various social service agencies that helped people in the Kershaw County area of South Carolina. The talk was mundane centering on transportation plans for lower income workers and disabled people who needed to get to their doctor's office. Other topics, including family oriented events going on at the community center or what was taking place in after school programs dominated later conversations. All this took place after a free meal of spaghetti and green beans - oh, and a scrumptious slice of chocolate cake for dessert.
Then, it hit me - God is in this place. The presence was so strong I was nearly overwhelmed by it. I glanced around the room at the familiar faces - laughing, talking seriously, worrying about those less fortunate in the community, communing together to find ways to battle the poverty that pervades nearly every place in our nation.
Usually, social service organizations are very competitive. There is only so much money to go around in the form of grants, federal subsidies and the like. It's odd to find a group like this one that comes together once a month to brainstorm, to share funding sources and to think about how they can pool their resources to do more to help those down and out in the community.
I wanted to take off my shoes because I realized I was on holy ground.
In that simple meeting room I realized that Christ was with me, Christ was before me, Christ was beside me, on my right and on my left. Christ was in the heart of every person in that room - even if they were not professed Christians - the spirit of God was heavy in that room as they took time from their busy days to talk about those who needed their help and think about ways that they could join their resources to help them. Some amazing programs have come from this particular meeting, and the poor and needy in Kershaw County, South Carolina are experiencing God's grace and mercy through their efforts.
This was one of my first experiences with realizing the presence of God in everyday life and it wasn't one that I beckoned or expected. Frankly, I was a little bit bored at the meeting. The organization I represented wasn't really a part of the community as much as it was an outsider trying to help them help their community. But, as I contemplated the faces around the table - male, female, young, old, black, white, Hispanic and otherwise, I could not help but be struck by the spirit of the gathering - and it was holy.
I decided I'd try out my newfound sense of God's presence and see where else I could realize the presence. I discovered that God's presence is in every single moment of the day if only we'll tune in. So often, our days are consumed by tedious tasks - driving, talking or working - and we forget that God is in every single moment if only we'll take the time to realize it.
In his book, "Practicing the Presence," Joel Goldsmith wrote that "the Spirit of the Lord is present only when it is realized. Unless we feel the actual presence of God, then, as far as we are concerned, we do not have this Spirit. Again, it is a case of rolling up the window shades, or it is like saying that electricity is everywhere. That is true. Electricity is everywhere, just as the Spirit of God is everywhere. Electricity, however, will be of no value to us, unless it is connected in some way for our particular use. So it is with this Spirit of God. It is everywhere, in an absolute, spiritual sense, but It is only effective in our experience to the extent to which It is realized." (p. 22-23)
God's presence is everywhere and in every experience of our lives simply waiting to be realized. Realizing that presence is a difficult habit to establish, but it is one we must work to acquire so that even our dullest moments are transformed into moments of awe and wonder. We often get so caught up in our everyday problems and concerns that we forget to realize God's presence in it all. We end up feeling alone, scared, helpless or hopeless because we haven't taken the time to realize that God is right there - Christ beside us, Christ below us, Christ to our right and to our left, Christ before us, Christ in the heart of everyone around us. The presence is there, waiting to be realized, waiting to be utilized, waiting to bring us a sense of peace in our hectic world.
So often we ignore that presence because we're taught, wrongly, that God's presence can only be felt in certain situations - in church or during prayer or during other religious meetings and events. But, God is before us, with us, in us and around us at all times - patiently waiting to be recognized and utilized. So often, however, we push God away in our daily lives - preferring to live life on our own, without acknowledging God's presence. God will never force God's presence on us for that would go against the free will we've been given. Instead, God waits silently for us to realize the presence and take hold of it.
In one episode of The Simpsons, Reverend Lovejoy is upset and the stained glass images in the church windows come alive to chastise him for his lack of faith. One of the images tells him, "You're just lucky God isn't here." Many of us involved in church work are often like the good Rev. Lovejoy. For all his piety and all his hard work on behalf of the church in Springfield, Rev. Lovejoy had trouble realizing the presence of God. Standing in his own church, carrying on his conversation with the stained glass images, even he couldn't imagine that God would be in such a place. And so it is with us. It's often difficult for us to simply stop and realize that God's presence is available in every moment of our day if we'll only realize it.
For a nation so steeped in all things religious, it's surprising to me just how ignorant we are of God's presence in our daily lives. Yes, we hear a lot of moralizing about this or that ethical issue, but how often do we simply stop during the day and realize the presence of the living God in our lives? Realizing that presence isn't an exercise in morality - it's an exercise in spirituality that reaches across all religious labels and all moral issues. It's an exercise in seeing God all around us - Christ before us, below us, beside us, behind us, and in every single person we meet or think about. It's an exercise in feeling that presence and knowing that it is as real as the computer screen before you.
There are some steps that we can take to begin to live in the presence of God in every moment of our lives.
1. Realize the Spirit in you.
We all have that spark of the divine within. Each of us bears that image of God that was bestowed upon us from the beginning of time. But, often that God-image gets so deeply buried in the muck of everyday living. It's hard for us to realize that we are a mirror reflecting the image of God into the world. We are told to let our light shine before everyone (Matthew 5:16), but too often our mirrors are clouded by thoughts of shame and low self-esteem. We believe we are not good enough or smart enough or spiritual enough or "clean" enough to shine any light into the world. We fear there is darkness in our heart, a stain on our soul that somehow prevents us from being that light of God in the world.
But, oddly enough, it's not really our fear, shame or low self-esteem that prevents us from accepting that the Spirit of God resides in each of us. It's really the fear that we are actually Spirit filled beings - and what that means! As Nelson Mandela so eloquently said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us … And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
We fear our own potential. We fear our own glory. We fear our own heart and what kind of life we might lead if we truly embraced that God's Spirit is alive and well inside of us, ready to reflected into a hurting and dying world. How different our lives would be if accepted that we are Spirit-filled children of the living God! Oh, the pettiness we'd have to shed - the complaining we'd have to stop doing - the praising we'd do instead.
Indeed, God cannot dwell in a heart that hates or holds any malice for anyone. Instead, a heart focused on shining Spirit into the world bears the fruit of the Spirit, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)
I can truly tell you that I have not yet arrived at the point where I know the Spirit of God dwells in me at all times. Traffic is always my downfall - without fail. Inevitably someone will cut me off or slight me in some way in traffic and I will lose it. Hatred and anger bubble up. I might yell, honk or flash the international sign of friendship at them. I'm working on it - diligently. Every day I have my little victories - a drive to work that does not involve anger, even when another driver does something that could upset me. Not all days are victories - some days are decidedly defeats, but I am working hard to realize the Spirit of God in my heart. One day I'll be able to honestly bless another driver instead of curse them. One day. Maybe not today, but one day.
We are all a work in progress. We all must be hard at work to purge our heart of every instance of hate, envy, jealousy, malice, self-seeking, self-glorification, prejudice and bigotry. It is in this work that we realize the presence of God in our lives, helping us to overcome our small and large faults and learn to be a clear mirror to reflect the light of God into the world.
One of the best ways I've found to begin to overcome these feelings in my life is through meditation and prayer. My meditation practice is infrequent at best - that's something else that's a work in progress - but I constantly pray. I find that, more and more, while driving I'm talking to God at the same time, asking for help to make this drive one in the victory column. That practice of praying constantly, and expecting that God's help is only a thought away, keeps me going, keeps me centered. It's my form of active meditation. Find a meditation and prayer practice that helps you and keeps you going. It's the most effective way I know to begin to realize the presence of the Spirit of God dwells in you.
2. Realize the Spirit in others.
I see and behold God each hour of the
Once we begin to see God in ourselves, it's easier to realize that if the Spirit of God dwells in us, then that same Spirit dwells in all of those around us - whether they are aware of it or not. Some people will never realize that they possess the Spirit of God and thus will never reflect that love into the world. This should not prevent us, however, from reflecting the Spirit that we know is within us out into the world and onto these sorts of people. We are God expressed, and so is every person we meet, "whether he is good or bad, friend or enemy, next door or across the seas," wrote Goldsmith.
In the faces of men and women we should always see God. As Mother Teresa so eloquently said she saw God in all his "distressing disguises" as she worked with the poor and dying in India. How many distressing disguises of God do we see each day? The homeless on the street, the poor who work but can barely make it, the mentally ill disowned by their families, the sick, the prisoner, the social outcast. So many distressing disguises.
For me the most distressing disguise of God is the religious man or woman who believes that God's message is one of condemnation of anyone. The most distressing disguise is the powerful person who invokes God's name while oppressing the poor and the outcast and disenfranchising the middle class. Those who have so misunderstood God's message of distributive justice, mercy and peace and instead make war, spread injustice while claiming to right wrongs and have no mercy on anyone who is not just like them distress me greatly. But, I must continue to remind myself that they too carry that spark of the divine. I am commanded to love them for they are my neighbor - my brother and sister whom God loves just as much as God loves me. I must recognize God in them, even if the disguise they wear distresses me.
We must purge hatred from our heart - even for those who do the most vile things in the world, even for those who may hate us simply because we are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
As King told his followers, those who may distress us with their disguises are not evil people, but misguided people, blinded by their own fear. Many of them are good, decent, spiritual people who cannot see past their own prejudices. They are not evil, they simply do not understand - and it is our task to educate them - to show them the grace they refuse to show us. In the words of Jesus, we must love our enemies, do good to them, show them mercy and grace, even as they do evil in the world and show no mercy and no grace.
3. Realize the spirit around you in each moment.
Everyone is busy. Just look around your own life. There's so much to get done sometimes it feels like there are just not enough hours in the day. We get up tired, thinking about all that needs to be done and by the end of the day we're so wiped out all we can manage to do is grab some fast food and zone out in front of the television until it's time to go to bed and get ready to do it all again. Oh, sometimes we remember that we need to stop and pray, but usually it feels like our prayers are not even leaving the room, much less being heard by God. We feel helpless and alone. Sunday might be a day of much needed spiritual renewal, but that doesn't last much past Monday morning, if that long.
If we're honest with ourselves, we don't really think about God all that much during the course of the day, if at all. It's as if we have partitioned God off to that Sunday service and afterward put God back on the bookshelf with our Bible and commence living our lives without God. No wonder we're tired - trying to live our lives on our own power, when adequate power is available if we'll only realize the presence and live into it.
We must make ourselves consciously aware of God's presence in each moment of our day.
Just saying "thank you, God," is enough to bring the presence of our maker into our consciousness - enough to imbue us with the strength and power that we need to get through a stressful day. The apostle Paul tells us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18) - not just when things are going well, but in stressful times when there seems nothing to be thankful for, we must breathe our thanks to God and acknowledge the presence that brings peace that passes all understanding, even when we're feeling stressed.
Often I realize God's presence in a flash, like during that meeting in Kershaw County or recently when I heard my boss talk about the overall goal of a parenting project that our team is working to disseminate in several counties.
"I want to change the way people think about parenting," she said. "The goal is to give parents consistent messages on parenting in an effort to reduce child abuse on a population level."
What a noble goal - helping parents to be more effective and help kids grow up in a safe and nurturing environment. Oh, that we all had such lofty goals. The improvement of people as parents and the safety of children must be high on God's agenda and programs designed to help families in this way are certainly God's work in the world. I saw God's fingerprints all over the work I do every single day.
Think about your own work, your own gifts and talents. God wants to use everything we do to improve life for the brothers and sisters around us. But, each day we turn a blind eye - we forget that God is always in the mix, always waiting for us to realize the presence and use that power to make life better for even the least of these in our world. We are God's hands and feet in the world - but only if we take the time to begin each day with the realization that God's presence is with us each moment of the day.
4. Find spiritual community.
Do not confuse this with finding a church. In fact, finding spiritual community is often best done outside of a church setting. A soul nurturing spiritual community, by definition, must be a small group of people. You cannot connect spiritually with a large group of people. To be truly spiritual, the community must know one another intimately and be able to love and support one another at a very deep level.
The trouble is that these kinds of spiritual community are rare and often hard to find. I've only found such community a couple of times in my life. Once, my partner and I found a group of people meeting in the home of one couple. We discovered the group quite by accident through an Internet connection (but of course, it really wasn't an "accident" but God moving to bring us together). We would meet in this couple's home and discuss books we had agreed to read together. We would support one another in our spiritual walk, edify one another with spiritual insights and love one another unconditionally. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of community in my life. Shortly after finding this group we moved from the area and lost contact with them. I still grieve for the loss of community - a feeling that has yet to be replaced in our new community.
I was also lucky enough to find spiritual community among the people who were in my spiritual direction class. These were people who understood how community works, the intimacy one must open oneself to in order to make the spiritual community edifying to everyone. Just being in the presence of these people was enough to put me on a spiritual high for weeks afterward. We only met once a month over a two year period, but the community that formed in that intimate setting lasts me for a lifetime. Again, it has yet to be replaced by another community.
It's important to understand the hallmarks of such a community so you can identify it when it comes along in your life. Such community is small - not much larger than 10 to 15 people and each person in the community understands that spiritual intimacy and openness is a must. This sort of community is revealing - we cannot hide ourselves for long in this community because the spirit is so strong we are moved to open our hearts to those around us.
There is a stark contrast between this kind of spiritual community and what passes for church these days. Many mainline churches are very concerned with morality. They believe Christianity is a set of rules and regulations and that if we follow those rules and regulations long enough we'll somehow become "righteous." Spiritual community is different. In spiritual community we come warts and all to the foot of the cross. We open ourselves in ways that would never be acceptable in a legalistic Christian setting. We come with our doubts, our questions, our quest for a life lived abundantly in community. We feel safe to express those doubts, ask those questions and find companionship on our journey to a full and abundant life. We find nurturing, not moralizing. We find acceptance, not condemnation. We find true companionship, not fair weather friends who gossip behind our backs. In short, we realize the presence of the Spirit in this community.
John Eldredge in his book "Waking the Dead" gives a good rule of thumb on how to discern whether the community you're in is truly a nurturing community.
Eldredge's quote reminds me of the movie "Saved" and the stark differences between those who claimed to be Christians and the outcasts who were despised by the Christian kids even though they proclaimed they were "filled with Christ's love" while literally hurling Bibles at other kids. The outcasts formed a true spiritual community that brought them freedom and life. As the outcasts found themselves set adrift by the "Christians" at their school they found their image of God was restored and that they rejoiced in each other's heart. They acted as true spiritual community, while the corruption, arrogance and shallowness of those who followed the legalistic form of Christianity were exposed. The narrow ideas of Christianity only brought bondage, anger, bitterness and death of the heart.
There are many churches and communities who claim to be Christian that do not display the fruit of Christianity. Legalistic, moralistic and rigid forms of religion do not bring life, freedom, restore God's image and rejoice in our heart. Cling to community where you find these qualities, and flee those that do not display them. Only then will you truly realize the presence in community.
5. Always act in the spirit.
Once we realize the spirit in ourselves, the spirit in others, the spirit in each situation in our lives and find spiritual community to nurture ourselves, we cannot help but act in the spirit, always demonstrating God to the world.
This is where I begin to write for myself as much as I write for you. I am far from consistently demonstrating God in the world. Cut me off in traffic and you'll see how far away I am from practicing what I preach. Catch me on a bad day when my mood has darkened and again, you'll find me far from the perfection I seek. We all have those days, those moments, when the presence is the furthest thing from our minds. I have reached a point in my practice however that these moments serve as a bell of mindfulness to me to get back to my practice, to get back to realizing the presence of God in each moment. Instead of wallowing in the bad day or wallowing in the anger an inconsiderate driver may spark in me, I try to take those moments and turn them into reminders of how far away my goal remains, and I resolve to do better.
When I talk about demonstrating God in the world, I am urging you to let your actions speak louder than your words. I am always wary of people who publicly proclaim their Christianity. I don't want to hear you say that you're a Christian. I want to know it by how I see you act in the world. Those who claim to be Christian yet support political parties or policies that harm the poor, oppress the outcast and marginalized, and harm the environment raise doubts in my mind about their understanding of what Jesus calls us to be in the world. Those who claim to be Christian but attend churches that deny full membership to some based on such things as gender, race or sexual orientation raise doubts in my mind about the genuineness of their faith. Those who say they are Christian but speak hateful words, or seek legal sanctions on those with whom they disagree make me doubt the sincerity of their claim. Don't tell me about your faith, let me know how true it is by showing me your heart - by showing me that you truly love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
We are God's hands, eyes, ears, feet, and arms in the world. The only way true community is formed is when we embrace those around us - not just those who are like us but perhaps more when we embrace those distinctly different from us. One of the most grace-filled moments I have had in my life is when author Philip Yancey answered a letter I had written to him praising him for his works. Even though Mr. Yancey and I may differ on many theological points, not the least of which being homosexuality, I felt love and a Christian kinship with this man simply because his words were full of grace and edification. He was willing to put aside any theological differences and see me for what I am - a child of the living God. His words do more to further the cause of Christ than a million letters that drip with condemnation that I get on daily basis. Those self-righteous letter writers want to prove themselves right and me wrong on the issue of homosexuality and God. Mr. Yancey had no such agenda. He may believe my views to be wrong, but he would never stoop so low as to make me feel condemned by his words. Instead, it was obvious how much effort he put into his words to make them open, warm, welcoming and full of grace. This man exhibits the fruit of the spirit and he makes me glad to be a Christian. He gets it. He demonstrates God whenever he speaks or acts. He sets a fine example for me and everyone he comes in contact with.
I am not there yet. I do not demonstrate God as much as I want to - but I am constantly working on it. To demonstrate God we must consistently demonstrate grace, love, peace, joy and mercy. Our words should not be full of anger or hatred, loathing, jealousy, gossip or malice.
Paul tells us that we should "Let no evil talk come out of you mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear it. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:29-32)
We are to be imitators of God, demonstrating God in the world, outdoing one another in kindness. This is how the world knows that we are followers of the living God, not because we say so, but because we show it forth in the fruit of our living. We are known by our grace, by our peace, by our mercy, by our thirst for human unity, reconciliation and distributive justice for every one of God's children. The song says they'll know we are Christians by our love - and so it is. Without love we are a clanging cymbal - unpleasant to friend and foe alike. Let our speech and our actions always be gracious and in our lives always demonstrate God.
Begin now, just where you are, realizing the presence of God in your life. As you sit reading this essay, turn your attention inward to your heart - examine it. Do you know that your heart is good? Do you know that God dwells deeply in your heart waiting to be realized inwardly and displayed outwardly to a hurting and dying world? Look at your hands - these are God's hands. The world needs your hands to realize the presence of God's kingdom right here and right now. God needs your arms to embrace those who feel that God could never love them. God needs your mouth to tell others that their hearts are good and that God dwells deep within them as well, waiting to be realized and brought out into the world for the edification of us all.
Do not hide your light under a bushel, let it shine forth and help others realize the presence of God in their lives. Find others who are searching for that light in themselves, form spiritual community with them and nurture the light in each other so that it may shine brightly and bring in still more others out of spiritual darkness. Begin now a moment by moment practice of realizing God in yourself, in others and in the world at large. Open your eyes and realize that the kingdom of God is within you, waiting to be brought out into the light. Realize now and forever that Christ is your shield:
Live each moment in the presence.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She currently serves as assistant pastor at MCC Columbia. She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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