When I was in elementary school, at the beginning of every day’s class the teacher would call the roll. “Olivia Bigger,” she would say. And Olivia would answer, “Here.” And so on through the alphabet: “Clarence Crittenden.” “Present.” “Leanne Davidson.” “Here.” “Naston Manley.” “Here.” “Richard Neal.” . . . “Here.” But was I really there?
Physically I was present, of course, but my mind was almost anywhere else: sailing boats with Tommy Eaves in the bayou at the end of our street; collecting insects in a neighboring field; hiding in the bushes behind the Dacus mansion with a copy of Treasure Island.
There are many times when I’m not really here. Instead of savoring the fresh peaches on my breakfast cereal, I think about all that will happen later in the day. Instead of being completely present in my walk with the dogs, my mind turns to household chores and projects. Driving through the autumn countryside, I scroll through a mental list of a hundred things to do when I return to my desk.
Sometimes I go farther afield. News broadcasts and entertainment programs draw me away to many places, few of which have any connection with my life in the moment. I catch myself thinking about tomorrow or next year or life after retirement, and it’s the nature of my profession that my mind often turns to the end of life, toward which every day runs. The past, too, is a favorite escape. You wouldn’t believe – or maybe you would – the long mental journey I made into the past while looking at that photo of Mrs. McGinnis’s fourth-grade class. The past is a sticky thing from which it’s hard to escape.
Call the role almost any time during any ordinary day and ask if I’m here, and only rarely could I answer, “Yes, I’m here.” Most of the time the answer would be, “No, I’m there,” wherever “there” is at the moment, past or future. But as Gertrude Stein wrote, “There is no there there.”
She was writing about her childhood home. Forty-five years after moving away, she returned to find everything changed. The house where she grew up on a sprawling ten-acre lot surrounded by orchards and farms was no longer there, replaced by dozens of houses, all urbanized and changed from the pastoral place she remembered. There was no longer any there to return to.
Her experience is always ours. The little county-seat town in Arkansas where I was schooled with Olivia, Clarence, Naston and the rest is no longer there, replaced by something I’d hardly recognize. My family home in Cape Girardeau, where I came of age, is gone, too, swept away by change. There is no there there; it exists only in memory.
Nor does what I expect or plan for tomorrow exist, except in my imagination. All my appointments and plans, hopes and expectations, even those for later today – every one is only imaginary. The only real thing is what is now, in this present moment. Now is the only time and here the only place where we will find pain or pleasure, disappointment or happiness, frustration or fulfillment in life.
And only in this present moment and only in this very place – in this family, in this community, in this job, in this congregation, in this state of health, among all the burdens and challenges of this life, in the debris of all these failures – only here and precisely here will we find God. To believe in Incarnation is to quit the journey to God or to heaven, and it is to take up life’s journey with God, in God (cf. Acts 17:28). The past, every moment of it, is finished and gone; and the new and perfect life in the future we’ve been dreaming about has already begun (2 Cor. 5:17; Mark 1:15).
So when the Pharisees asked when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus changed the basic assumptions of the question and of life. The kingdom of God is not coming, he said, it is no longer in the future; it is here and it is now (Luke 17:20-21). The goal of Christian discipleship is not to one day in the future get to what we call heaven or paradise or eternal life. The aim is to discover how that quality of life is already here in our every day and to be present to it and start living it now.
That’s why I find silence, the first pillar of faith I wrote about last week, to be essential to a life of faith. Silence, I said, is more than the mere absence of sound. Silence is the removal of all the external and internal noise – physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – that keeps us from experiencing directly the life Jesus lived and invites us to live with him.
Silence can produce lots of things at first. Instead of the peace and calm you might expect, silence can produce impatience, anxiety, confusion, doubt, even fear. But the first real fruit of silence is presence, the second pillar of my faith. The more I allow silence, the more I strip away everything that is not God, the more I become present to the God at the heart of life. And the more present I become to the God who is completely present here and now, the more I create a holy silence in which I can experience God directly.
How do I practice presence? I practice it the same way I practice silence, by letting go of the distractions and being fully present to what is here and now. The ringing of the phone, the next appointment or person in line waiting for attention, the sudden memory of my mistakes in situations just like this, my longing for a solitary place of rest, my fear that I won’t find the right word to say at the right time – all these stand in the way of my being present to Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Even church, sometimes especially church, can keep us from being present to God. When administrative tasks or committee work loses a vital, direct connection with making disciples, it’s harder to be present to God. When bureaucratic busyness takes the place of birthing new life, it’s more difficult to be present to God. When being nice and nurturing comfortable social relationships takes the place of being holy and serving the marginalized and powerless in our communities, it’s harder to be present to God. When maintaining a bricks-and-mortar facility consumes more of our resources than transforming society does, it’s harder to be present to God.
Practicing presence to God is hard work. There’s no end to distractions that stand in the way, often pretending to have great value, but there are ways to avoid being stymied by them. One way is described in a little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century monk who described himself as a servant “who was clumsy and broke everything.” Brother Lawrence may have been a clumsy servant, but he left us a beautiful, simple, effective way to practice the presence of God continually, regardless of age or circumstance in life. It’s a book worth knowing and reading again and again.
“The real voyage of discovery,” Marcel Proust wrote, “is not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” To discover the God and the life we seek, we need only be present to what or who is right in front of us. As Jesus might ask, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear” (Mark 8:18)?