Take It To Heart: Presence
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Back a few years ago, I heard about a struggle going on in an office between employees and their supervisor. The employees felt that the supervisor was failing to offer good leadership to his team. They questioned his gifts for supervision and suggested that he was ill suited for the role. The supervisor, interesting, did not completely disagree with their assessment. Instead, his argument was that he had never claimed to have the skills of a supervisor in the first place. He pointed out that he had been hired years before to do a very different job but that over time the business had grown, roles had shifted and he had agreed to take on the new responsibilities that we assigned to him.
It was a interesting dilemma for that organization for in essence both sides were right. The supervisors accusers were right in that he was failing to live up to their expectations. But, the supervisor was also accurate that it was not entirely fair to hold him accountable for failure to do things well that were not even a part of his original job.
No illustrations that we use on Sundays are perfect and this one is not, but, in many ways it offers a good way of thinking about one of the struggles in the relationship between human beings and our relationship with God. What I mean is that like this story, sometimes, we have created a job description for God that is very different from the one that God has for God’s self and that is also very different from the claims made about God in the Bible.
More specifically, I feel confident in saying that for the vast majority of us, we see as part of God’s job being the responsibility to deliver us and our world from the rampant justice that we regularly see and experience both in general and on a very personal level.
Similarly, our verse for today, comes in the midst of a larger Psalm, Psalm 94, which is a lament regarding this very thing. The writer, speaking on behalf of the larger community of faith, can’t figure out why the evil around them is allowed to continue without God’s intervention. It is so concerning, that the Psalmist reaches the point of pointing out in verse 9 that God has not only failed to intervene but that it feels like God doesn’t even care.
God isn’t living up to God’s end of the divine-human bargain. And, yet, as painful and as persuasive as the Psalmists words may be, God has never promised to deliver us from all of the evils of life. God has never said that this was part of God’s own job description. What God has promised and what God clearly says over and over again in scripture is that we will not be alone but that the spirit of God, which is to say the presence of God will be with us whatever it is that we face.
Now, let me be clear that this is a complex thing for us to talk about for just as Psalm 94 points out – there are times where God does directly intervene, where God does bring justice, where God does in a clear way right the wrongs of our world and bring His power to bear – but, the times when God chooses to do this and the times when God chooses not to intervene is such a way are shrouded in mystery and are far beyond our ability to comprehend. Yet, what is always true, what always happens, what we can count on like the sun coming up tomorrow is that God will be with us even when God does not directly or immediately intervene and this is the hope that verse 19 gets at…
When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer. In the midst of my struggles, your comfort through your presence, gave me peace. You didn’t take all of my cares away but you were with me every step of the way.
To me, perhaps the best parallel here is the parent/child relationship. Parents don’t always protect their children from all of the injustices in life. Sometimes they do and at times they don’t. When you are a child it can be difficult to understand why our parents choose to intervene in our lives as they do and in particular why they sometimes choose not to intervene at all Yet, what most children can depend on is that their parents are going to be there with them, to accompany them as they seek to navigate through the ins and outs, ups and downs, as the well as highs and lows of the human experience. Our parents may not always remove life’s struggles but they generally do not abandon us to live through them alone.
When we think of God this way, I think we are better prepared to think in this year about God but I think that we are better prepared to think about ourselves. Let me quickly mention what I mean.
First, understanding one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity or one of God’s top job descriptions as being the gift of God’s presence, helps us to focus our minds on what to expect of God and what not to expect which I really think is half the battle of our faith struggles.
Next week, will be our churches third trip to Haiti. Adair has done a beautiful job of leading our group there and of preparing this year’s group. As they get ready to go, one of the great assets that Adair and some of team members who have been before will offer to those going for the first time is their knowledge of what to expect. They can tell them what the food will be like, what their accommodations will be like, what they need to pack, about the ride from the airport to the ministry site is like and about some of the people they will work with while they are there.
It is always easier to prepare for what is ahead if we know what to expect.
I think Psalm 94 is a good preparer for us too. We can expect at times that in this year we will feel a sense of injustice at work – in our world or in our lives. And, we can expect that at times, God will not intervene as we would like or want. We can know for sure that this is going to happen. But, we can also expect God’s presence, guidance, and companionship every step of the way. If we allow it to, just as our verse says, this can and will be our source of peace. In turn, this beautiful words focus us on what to expect and on what not to expect and prepare not totally but at least in part for the journey to come in this year.
At the same time, understanding God’s gift of presence also, I think, frees us to understand our role in the lives of others as they too walk through the hard places of life. What I mean here is that sometimes, our idea that God is going to right all of the wrongs of the world leads us at times to think that as God’s representatives on earth, our job is always to right the wrongs for others too. In turn, not only to we expect the wrong things of God but we also come to expect the wrong things of ourselves.
I see this very often with people who feel compelled to go and see someone who is going through a difficult time such as a death, an unexpected illness, a family crisis or the loss of a job. Their anxiety comes out in statements such as this, “I feel so bad for Joe and his family. I wish I could help. But, I don’t know what to do for them and I don’t know what to say to them.”
What is behind such a statement is our belief that our primary job is to go and fix things. Now, again, as with God, sometimes, we can indeed help to right the wrongs. Sometimes we can do something or say something that is a concrete, real and undeniable way of addressing the situation just as God does indeed at times intervene.
But, much of the time, we are clueless as to what to say or what to do. The good news is that these are the very moments where God wants to free us from the overwhelming sense of a responsibility to do anything by reminding us that are top priority, one of our number one job descriptions is to simply go and be present. When we are simply there as a representative of God’s love and care, we may feel like we are not doing anything, but so often, so often, we are helping out in a way that is hard to quantify or understand.
During my last two years of seminary, I served a congregation in Greensboro, North Carolina as their pastor. It was a good place to be but it was also a challenging place. In truth, the job was a little much for someone who was still a full time student. At the same time, the congregation had some big challenges. It was not as big as it once had been. The facility was only partially used and some of it was in bad shape. And, we had very few children and youth and thus struggled to reach new families. Again, it was a good place with some good people, but it was among the most challenging of place that I have personally ever been as a minister.
In my first month there, I met a minister who was about 10 to 15 years older than me who served a church on the other end of the same street. When we met, he made a suggestion to me. He suggested that we have lunch once a week. From that invitation came our weekly ritual for the next three and a half years of lunch every single Wednesday. Almost every Wednesday morning, I couldn’t wait until lunch time. It was such a good hour or hour and half. We talked about life, sports, our families, hobbies, our faith, church, our dreams and lots of other things. He never fixed one issue our church for me. He didn’t get me out of any of the situations or struggles that came my way. He didn’t do my job for me, save me from my enemies or solve my problems on my behalf. The only thing he did was be my friend, spend time with me and be a present figure in my life. Truth be told, he could not have done anything more valuable. I didn’t need him to solve my problems, I needed him to be my friend and I lived through them.
When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer… in 2017 let us focus on God’s presence as God’s greatest gift to us in the months ahead and in light of what God does for us, let us be freed of our needs to solve problems for others to simply be present with them in a similar way… Amen.