Psalm 139 May 1, 2022 – Befriender Sunday
A few weeks ago, I met with the Befrienders, and I was intrigued by their four principles, especially that “God is present.” What does it mean to believe that God is present? What difference does it make to think that God is somehow present when we stop to listen deeply inward? What do we hear beyond our busy thoughts if we listen in silence? Is God one of those clamoring voices? How can you tell which voice might be the right one? How might God be present in that conversation when we listen to another person? Jesus did say, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Did he mean that literally or more symbolically, like whenever we gather as a family, we remember Grandma Doris?
I started using the words “God is present” as a prayer phrase during my daily meditation time. Breath in. “God is present.” Breathe out. This daily reminder has helped me keep open to the possibility that God is near and may have something to offer. Whether I am making a hospital visit, writing a sermon, or looking at Excel spreadsheets with the Trustees, where might God be in all this pastoral work?
This practice led me to read again one of my favorite books on spiritual life, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence. This 17th-century monk was a soldier during the horrible 30 Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. At age 16, he looked across the battlefield one morning and saw a leafless tree standing between the two armies. The thought came to him that in a few months, Spring would come, and this tree would sprout leaves and flower again. While armies raged and spilled each other’s blood, this tree quietly prepared for new life. Lawrence saw this as a sign of the power of God’s love to transform the human soul, no matter what the life circumstances.
Later in life, Lawrence became a Carmelite brother in a Paris monastery. He was the steward who oversaw the kitchen stores and meal preparation. Though Lawrence joined the other monks in daily prayer, he believed prayer happened all the time. He didn’t feel the need to close his eyes and fold his hands; he simply endeavored to be aware of God’s presence, even as he scrubbed pots and pans or counted the food stores. This kind of prayer is less about setting aside a time to speak with God, ask for help, and pray for the sick, but more about being aware of the sacredness of the present moment. When I read Brother Lawrence’s letters on prayer, they sound like Buddhist Mindfulness practitioners like Tara Brach or Jack Kornfeld. The practice is to be non-judgmental as your thoughts pass through your mind and return to your center. A Buddhist might focus on their breath, whereas Brother Lawrence centers on the presence of God at the moment.
Lawrence was not a great writer; he didn’t record many mystical visions, and he wasn’t an abbot, yet he had significant influence in quiet ways in his monastery and order. People often entered the kitchen and felt calm. Monks felt at ease sharing their burdens with him as they dried dishes together. His way of being present to God created space for others to come to their center of divine awareness. It reminds me of a Befriender’s practice of emptying your cup. Before meeting with someone, it is helpful to have a moment to let go of all the thoughts and worries of the moment. We can’t listen to someone else if we think about picking up avocados for dinner, being steamed about what your Facebook friends post about politics, and feeling like you gained weight last month and need to go to the gym.
Who knew we could think of so many things at once? When we empty our cup, the buzzing ceases, and our stillness becomes a reservoir of openness. This stillness of Spirit is a gift to offer someone else when we listen. You don’t have to see a burning bush for God to be present. Sometimes the Spirit just needs a little stillness to work in the situation quietly. We may not immediately recognize something is happening. I keep learning the lesson that ministry is not just about what I do or say but how I show up. I can give a carefully constructed sermon about grief that isn’t as helpful as simply listening well, being an empty cup to contain the turmoil, and practicing the presence. Often people tell me things, and I have no idea what they should do. There is nothing I can say that will take away their pain. I can try to be a sacred presence, which might open some space for divine work.
I realize saying God is always present is a substantial and bold claim. It is not something I can empirically prove. I’m not always sure where the divine might be. Is a happy moment really about God, or did I just have a good day? Is God also there in the challenging moments? The Psalm claims that God is there in both heaven and Sheol, God will be there if you dwell in the uttermost depths of the sea, God will find you in the darkness for it is not dark to God. I trust that these poetic phrases also mean that God finds us regardless of our emotional state or life circumstances. And God is not just passively present, but searches us and knows us.
Praying that God is present is something more than saying mindfulness is good for you. A little silence restores the soul. (How many of you have had a mindfulness class?). Mindfulness is quite good for you and does not require that you believe in a deity.
I started practicing mindfulness in 2005, apart from my faith. My faith was in shambles. I was going through a divorce and not serving a parish. I felt that God was deeply disappointed with me, that I had failed my calling. I couldn’t sense grace at that time, yet I needed a spiritual life. Mindfulness and Buddhism were attractive because there was no deity to judge me.
I learned meditation to deal with my anxiety when I had several surgeries and ongoing problems with my intestine bursting. I read studies about how meditation and therapy treat anxiety and depression. I decided that I wanted to be a therapist and a Buddhist. I planned to focus my therapy practice on people with chronic health problems to help them combat the emotional side of illness. I spent three years in night school, getting a master’s degree in counseling at Marist College. About a year before my program ended, I was meditating one day. After spending time getting silent and focusing on my breathing, I felt remarkably still. I was enjoying a deeply tranquil moment when an image of the Buddha was before me in my mind’s eye. And the Buddha was smiling and motioning for me to follow him. He said, ” I want to show you something, to meet someone. So, in my mind, I followed along down a forest path until we came to a little campsite. A man was sitting at a fire with his back to me. Then the Buddha says, “I think you will know this man. I have enjoyed getting to know you, and you can be with me any time, but here is where you belong.” He then introduces me to Jesus, who gives me a big welcome hug.
When this episode ended, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Grace doesn’t bring immediate peace; it can be a little overwhelming. I had been wrong about God, and I don’t like being wrong. But it appeared that both the Buddha and Jesus wanted me to be Christian. What was I supposed to do now? My response to this vision was to start attending Quaker meetings. I felt that the Quaker meeting, where everyone sat in silence and meditated, waiting for the inner light of God to speak to the community, was the closest Christian expression to Buddhism. I loved this. I could have meditation and Jesus. But the Spirit wasn’t done yet.
I was still planning to be a therapist. But a few months later, I had a strong sense that I would preach again. I thought that was highly unlikely, but it’s what I sensed. A few months later, in 2009, I got a phone call. A Lutheran church had fired their pastor, and they needed a supply preacher for three weeks. I had not preached for five years. But they were in trouble, and I figured I could say something for three weeks without doing too much damage. After three weeks, they said, what are you doing for the next three months? That became three years, and I found Sundays to be my favorite day of the week, so by 2012, I was back in full-time ministry in Northampton, MA.
When I say that I believe God is present, this experience informs me. It doesn’t mean that I always know where or how God is present. I don’t get secret messages all day long. “Look, there is God, there is God again, and over there too,” as if I’m bird watching. If anything, I notice a ripple of the Spirit after the moment. The next morning, when I pray and realized, “Oh yeah, I think that was a sacred moment. The Spirit is stirring here. I need to dwell on this a little more deeply.” I still struggle with doubts, get frustrated that things aren’t more apparent, and get exasperated with people who offend me. I am not on a path to perfection. But I do believe that as we walk with God, we are accompanied, we are searched and known, and we are loved because God is present.