presence, pt. 2

I strained to hear God’s voice as I walked along the quiet coast of eastern South Africa, the star-flecked darkness unbroken except for the rhythmic intrusion of a distant lighthouse signal. Waves, wind, and footsteps, that was all. No divine whisper met me in the night.

I wondered why I kept doing that, kept trying to experience God in a way entirely divorced from material reality, kept trying to collect some kind of paranormal “proof” of his presence. I thought back to that night in the prayer chapel almost two years ago, remembering all the pain, the anxiety, the confusion… Why am I not like that anymore? Is it that I’m free of the depression, or have I simply stopped asking the hard questions and succumbed to an unreflective materialism? Or, somewhere along the line, was I given an answer?

I hadn’t totally overcome the feelings of abandonment and absence that were burnt into my heart when I threw my journal at the painting, and I occasionally battled against that brand of cynicism reserved for only the most tortured kind of jealousy. And yet, somehow, as I looked out over the ocean, I knew I was loved, I knew God was near, and I knew I had nothing to fear from the future.

But what about all the complaints I had? My experience of God still seemed precariously dependent on material things. And what about the hellish scenario of being trapped in solitary confinement, stripped of Bible, friends, music, nature, and, God forbid, soy lattes?

I think I was standing on a barnacle and mollusk encrusted boulder when Matthew 6 came to mind. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (I use the NRSV; Not Really Scripture Version [evangelical humor…slay me, please]).

The verse kept crashing into my mind, in sync with the rising tide. Why on earth am I worrying about solitary confinement?! Why have I let blind speculation about the future dictate my present? But, really, why did the particular details of my current experience have to supply assurance for every possible permutation of my imagination? Isn’t it enough that I can look at my life now, and, if I’m seeing clearly, recognize a million little affirmations of God’s loving presence and trustworthiness?

On days when I’m sane, I think the answer is, “I don’t know, I don’t know, but yes!”

I’ve been perceiving all the physical things that God has used to communicate his grace to me as inadequate or less desirable just because I don’t think God should speak to me so mundanely. And yet wasn’t the most stunning manifestation of God’s love for humanity a physical, tangible, mundane reality? My discontent doesn’t seem to make me much different from those first century Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah and cheered for his crucifixion because he wasn’t the revelation of God that they wanted, because he didn’t arrive with military fanfare and drive out the Romans with a supernatural display of power. He wasn’t obviously glorious enough for them, and, I guess at times, for me.

But what could be more glorious than the hazy swath of the Milky Way as it holds together the night sky, the warm embrace of a loved one, the bubbling laugh of a child, or the humble and holy blood of God congealing into black rivulets outside the city walls for the salvation of the world? Truly they are enough for me. I still have questions, and maybe none of this will be of much comfort the next time my devotion seems more like farce than faith, but for now, praise God, it is more than enough.

And solitary confinement? Who cares. I’d love to know how I would land myself in that predicament, but I suspect that, even there, the hard, stone floor would remind me of Christ’s unfailing power upon which all things are founded, and the urgent cries of my stomach would proclaim the sustaining providence of his word.

I started smiling, enjoying the cold sand as it squished between my toes. Unexpectedly, that slightly trite poem about Jesus’ footprints intruded into my thoughts, and in a last gasp of self-pity I looked back to observe my lonely path. But instead I saw three trails; I’d forgotten about my friends, whose footprints kept good company with mine on the right and left. I was surrounded by two brothers who, in their own unique and beautiful ways, preached Christ to me. I wasn’t alone. I turned into the friendly wind and laughed, content.



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