Posts Tagged ‘presence of God’

EPHESIANS 5:15-20

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

There must have been a problem with drinking in the Ephesian congregation, seeing as how the author singles out this vice from among all the others. ‘Don’t get drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit,’ he admonishes. There is something about drunkenness, and about addiction in general, that makes it stand out in the list of harmful behaviors. Research into the so-called diseases of addiction has revealed that the ‘cure’ lies less in successfully breaking the habit, than in recovering a deep faith in reality as a whole – or perhaps discovering that faith for the first time.

What the addict first found in the seductive power of the addictive material was an experience of rush, exhilaration, and release from their usual inhibitions. The person psychology of the addict is characterized by high levels of anxiety, abnormally high in many cases but not in every case. In their attempts to cope with or defend themselves against this paralyzing insecurity, these individuals become as it were tense and ‘clenched’, emotionally as well as physically, which is typically displayed in nervous and compulsive behaviors. Use or performance of the addictive material releases the tension, opens up the constricted channels of energy, and makes the user feel free and alive.

Underlying the addiction itself, then, is an issue of spiritual concern. Anxiety arises when we feel isolated and estranged from the ‘will of God’ – or, in other words, from the deeper principles and gracious support of a holy presence.

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2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

The God of the Bible is a God more of time than of space, which has meant that the preferred means of contemplating the divine is the word rather than the image. Words are composed into stories, and stories tell us of events that happened and will happen, catching our present experience up into the rolling wave of destiny.

When David offered to secure God an architectural space where He could dwell among His people, God responded by recounting for David the sacred story of his personal rise to political power on the advancing crest of divine providence. This has, in fact, been the strategy for recovery used by the Jewish people down through history when in the midst of various persecutions or exiles: they’ve told the story of God’s mighty acts of mercy and deliverance, and have found their hope for the future renewed.

When life gets us down, we are sometimes unable to see much of God around us. Our experience is of a divine absence, and there seems no way out. It is precisely then that a personal life review can be most helpful. As we remember the many events along the way of serendipitous grace, unexpected strength, and deliverance from what could have become incredible disasters and personal blunders, our awareness grows of a provident and guiding hand helping us through. We can hope again because we know that, even if at present all seems dark, God is with us even now.

PSALM 131

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.

It is easy in life to let your focus slip from the moment at hand and drift away like a loosed balloon into abstractions, reveries, and daydreams. This ability, in fact, is one of the distinguishing talents of the human mind, making possible the countless achievements of culture. If we were not able to detach our focus from the urgencies of animal survival, our species would never have advanced to the point we are today.

Along with this wonderful talent of ours comes a terrible liability, of removing our conscious engagement from where we are and ending up lost and disoriented. We get so caught up in our high hopes and big ideas that our tether to the present moment is forgotten.

For example, the idea of God in religion is a very “high” thought – so high, in fact, that our minds put God up in heaven and far above where we are in this moment. Once we get lost in this idea of God “up there” we proceed to invent ways (prayers, rituals, sacrificial offerings) of getting him to pay attention to us and condescend to our need. Religion thus becomes a complex (and many would be quick to add complicated) system of utilities for keeping God interested and favorably disposed toward us.

But take another look. Who put God up and away in heaven? Who kept qualifying the divine nature in theological terms and supernatural categories that he ended up so far away? We did. The truth is, God is just a name for the present mystery of life, grace, and provident support that is always right here – within us, alongside us, and all around us.

The psalmist knows how his heart (the Hebrew word for our deep center of longing) can quickly look to heaven or over the horizon for the assurance it seeks. Like a nursing lamb that anxiously scurries after its mother and is always vigilant to her whereabouts, we can busy ourselves looking for God – and in the process overlook his presence! A weaned lamb is by contrast calm and quiet, set free from urgency and able to fully rest in God’s care.

PSALM 16:1-4, 12-19

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.
16 Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

You have loosed my bonds. There are many metaphors used in religion to represent what is commonly called “the human condition,” but the most popular by far is that of captivity, bondage, imprisonment, and oppression. Salvation in light of this metaphor can be understood as escape or emancipation if the accent of meaning is on the circumstances of bondage, or as awakening, empowerment, and transcendence when the liberative move is more about an inner shift of consciousness.

What is it that holds us in bonds? Repressive governments do this, but so do the heavy circumstances of poverty and economic hardship. The prison of consciousness that we call the status quo can keep us in a consensus trance our entire lives. And we cannot forget the multiform delusion of orthodoxy, where the mind is strapped and chained by convictions that hold captive an otherwise creative intelligence.

Is it correct to say that mortality is another form of oppression? Are human beings “stuck” in time and “condemned” to die? Many feel so. But upon closer inspection what we find is that it’s not really the conditions of mortality that keep us hostage, as the widespread fear we have attached to this fact of facts. We are prisoners, then, not of death but of the fear that the prospect of dying provokes in us.

Of course, other animals die as well, but we have no evidence that they worry over it quite to the extent that we do. So much of the world we construct as human beings – at both the cultural and individual levels – are little more than shelter, distraction, and insurance against death, not to mention a major campaign for its denial and temporary postponement.

It’s not long before we find ourselves locked inside a prison of our own making. We invest in layers of insurance that obligate us to monthly payments, which makes it  necessary to pursue higher-paying jobs and work longer. We purchase gym memberships and a growing pharmacy of supplements in an effort to stave off the creeping menace of age, dysfunction, and disease. We might hand over our freedom and intelligence to a religion that promises everlasting life in exchange for our doctrinal consent and a weekly offering.

But perhaps the greatest liability in the construction of this fortress we build has to do with how it prevents us from full participation in reality, constantly shuttling our awareness away from this present moment, from the real presence of mystery. The spiritual traditions name this mystery the ground of existence, the presence of God, radiant being, and Abundant Life – but whatever it’s called, the referent is acknowledged as beyond all names and forms.

When we stop running and hiding, fretting and fighting, looking away and waiting for later, there is in that moment, in that very passing moment, the possibility that we might fall into the gracious support of the present mystery we call God.

EXODUS 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

One persistent liability of religion is that it fosters in believers an expectation that God will always provide what they need. Indeed, this short tether of self-interest, which keeps “juvenile” forms of theism closely tied to an individual’s concern for security, provisions, good fortune and life everlasting, has prevented theism itself from evolving apace with our spiritual growth as a species over the millenniums.

When children don’t get what they want, they will typically fuss and complain. And if the world fails to deliver on their demand, they will pout and mope about, making life difficult for everyone else. If parents aren’t consistent in reshaping this behavior – or try too hard to keep these protesters satisfied – children can grow up with a sense of entitlement, thinking that the world owes them what they crave.

But because the world simply cannot deliver on their every demand, many youngsters grow up with deep discontent and an insatiable appetite for more, fueled by an insecurity that drives them to get as much as they can for as little effort as possible. In short, they grow up to become consummate consumers, with just the right mix of low self-awareness, impossible expectations, and a blatant disregard for how their behavior negatively impacts the larger community of life.

In the biblical myth-cycle, the Eviction from Eden and the Exodus from Egypt are really two angles on the same event, looked at from different elevations along the spiraling course of human development. The surplus provision and instant gratification of Eden in early childhood soon become conditions of captivity for the human spirit in its late adolescence, which must grow up, move on, and start taking responsibility in life.

Adolescents typically want freedom without responsibility, however, and the old securities of Egypt often tempt us to forsake maturity and fulfillment for what we think we really need and deserve.

At yet another turn of the spiral, Exile from Jerusalem, these complaints in the desert wilderness will eventually resolve into a grieving loss, a deeper self-understanding, and a search for God in the midst of suffering.

                                                                                            

How does quarreling with Moses and complaining about not having water to drink amount to “testing the Lord”? When their need for water in the desert wasn’t instantly gratified, the Israelites began to question whether or not God was really with them.

The patron deities of theism emerged as the hidden agencies behind the forces that support and stress human existence. A storm god was regarded as behind the storm that devastated a village, which didn’t fix the damage, certainly, but did provide an explanation for the disaster. That is to say, it was made meaningful.

If the explanation is that god is angry and punishing the village for its sin, then at least it has meaning – and the mind needs meaning like the body needs water and food and air to breathe.

If you believe in a god whose “job” is to provide for you, protect you from harm, or love you unconditionally, then every time there isn’t bread on the table when you want it, rescue from danger when you need it, or the warm feeling of being the apple of your god’s eye, you might well begin to doubt and lose faith.

God had called Abram out of his homeland, liberated the Hebrews out of bondage, and renewed a covenant with Moses – all of it working out a promise to bring the people into a greater destiny, which included their responsibility as “a light to the nations.”  God didn’t say, “I’ll take care of you and give you everything you want,” but rather, “You will be a vehicle of my blessing to all people.”

With the promise still unfulfilled – because they were still only on the way – the people lost focus and started fixating on their immediate needs. In effect, they cried out: Forget the future and your  so-called purpose for us! We’re thirsty NOW and you don’t care!

In doubting God’s covenant commitment and larger intention, they were thereby “testing the Lord.” Because God wasn’t present to them according to their demands, they accused him of being absent.