Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Out of Practice

About three weeks ago I began gathering on Sunday mornings with anyone who cared to join me to work through The Practice of the Presence of God. This little book, authored or told by a Carmelite monk known to us as Brother Lawrence, has been around since the late 1600s. I ordered a particular edition for participants to purchase, but apparently I’m not introducing something new to these folks. Many of them have shown up with their own copies, varied editions and translations of the original French.

It’s a modest gathering. Maybe twenty people, hardly a crowd. But what we lack in size is more than made up for when it comes to the level of interest in what it means to live daily in God’s presence. To be honest, our interest is often matched by our confusion. We want to live in God’s presence, but we’re not sure how to do it, and we’re not sure a Carmelite monk can help us much given our hurried, overscheduled, urbanized way of life.

But maybe it’s that very way of living that accounts for our curiosity. Likewise, that desire to understand (dare I say hunger to know) God’s presence probably accounts for the staying power of this little book. The writing doesn’t strike me as particularly artful. The author lived an obscure existence; were it not for this one title none of us would have ever heard of Brother Lawrence.

But the book’s substance, the matter being addressed by this cloistered kitchen-hand, this is what seems to have engaged the hearts and minds of people for more than three centuries.

I offer that as part opinion, part theory, but mostly as confession. I’m drawn back to this little book because I’m not satisfied with my own experience of the presence of God.

The very title of the book exposes my lack. Practice suggests something undertaken with intent and with repeated regularity. That’s not me. There are plenty of aspects of the life of faith that I do practice. I practice the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer almost daily. I practice corporate worship . . . never mind that I get paid to do that. I practice certain virtues but not very well. There’s no lack of practice and discipline in my life with Jesus. I just never actually practice his presence. I don’t work at keeping company with Christ.

When it comes to the presence of God in my life I’ve largely been a passive recipient, perfectly ready for God to show up and be present whenever he chooses to do so. I can’t say strongly enough that I’ve never had a problem believing in God’s presence. God has promised to be present, and so I accept God’s presence as a basic tenet of faith.

But my convictions here are vague. I affirm God’s presence, God's with-ness, in general terms based on the promises God has made. “I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

That’s all well and good until something happens, something is reported in the news, something goes wrong and I realize that I really do fear evil. I can sense my anxiety plugging my throat, picking at my thoughts, chasing my pulse and forcing my heart to beat faster. I know this is happening and it seems as if I really don’t believe “thou art with me.” I affirm God's presence as a theological premise. I'm just not so sure God is here in this place and this moment.

So I want to learn how to practice what God has promised. I want to discover what I need to do, over and over, day by day, to enter into the reality of God’s presence with me. I want to get to a place where I can walk boldly through the valley of the shadow of death because of the Presence. From time to time I’ll be sharing stories about how it’s going. If you happen to stop by, I’d love to hear yours.

1 comment:

Rachelle said...

Thought provoking book, Mark. Brother Lawrence's book is one of my favorites.