In the summer of 2003, I had one of those jobs. I was the house-boat trip leader for camp EWALU. Basically, I got paid to cruise up and down the Mississippi river with a bunch of high school students – while chatting about God. For the whole summer! It was a pretty sweet job.
But there was a difficulty. The theme of the summer was the Holy Spirit. It was a pretty abstract concept to teach youth. And I gotta say that I was pretty nervous. Especially the first week. But each night at sunset, my co-counselor and I led a Bible study about the Holy Spirit to the best of our ability.
Everything was going okay until one of the boys began speaking up more and more. He was a smart kid, but always took the conversations in strange and nuanced directions. We were prepared to go from here to there in the conversation. But this kid was all over the place. It was interesting, thoughtful stuff he was adding. But he made it hard to facilitate a conversation – and tie in everything he said. We weren’t sure if we should kick him out of the Bible study, or make him the leader. It was a strange situation.
Then one evening on the beach, during the invocation to worship, this kid interrupted with the question: Why do we invite God into our presence? Shouldn’t we be the ones who invite ourselves into God’s presence? We’re the ones that need the reminder – not God. And without a pause he told us a story about his mother. It went something like this:
My mother often told me that God is always present in our lives. When the wind blows, a flower sprouts, a friend smiles. The Spirit is always present. She had told me this so often that I began to believe it.What do you say to a story like that? Especially coming from such a passionate 16 year old? Seriously, I didn’t know quite what to say. The only thing I could think of was just to say “amen”! It was one of the best invocations I’ve heard.
But when my mom got cancer, I questioned her about God. Where is God now? I feel empty. But she reassured me that the Spirit is still just as present as ever. She then told me that no matter what happens to her that she will always be with God. And God will always be with me. So, I believed it. So much so, that I began getting irritated when people prayed for God to be present with my mom. Wasn’t God already there? It felt as though they doubted God – and my mom! But I never questioned them aloud when they offered their prayers. I stayed quiet. I kept the annoyance to myself.
Then my mom’s cancer got worse. And worse. And worse. Yet she continued believe that God was present in her life through the day she died. And she always told me that with a smile. And I’ll never forget that.
Nor will I forget what the pastor said at her funeral. “Gracie is now safely with God.” For some reason that was the last straw. I broke down and cried. My mom isn’t with God now. God has always been with her. And continues to be with her right now. And through God, I know I am still connected to her.
Because of my mom taking the time to point it out, I know – I know for sure – God is always present. She opened me to God’s ongoing presence in my life. Honestly, sometimes I still I need a reminder.
We are the ones that need the reminder. Not God. So, why do we invite God into our presence when we should be inviting ourselves into God’s presence?
What I know, is that this teenager taught us more about the Holy Spirit in his short story than our carefully planned out Bible study would have. And the other kids got it. They understood. It was incredible. It definitely felt like the Holy Spirit was speaking through this kid on the roof of that house-boat. He gave a powerful invocation. Inviting us all into God’s presence. Reminding us that God is present. And that rings of Psalm 139:7-12:
Where can I go from your spirit?God is here right now, just as God was on the roof of that houseboat, and with the mother of my camper.
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
God is with us when we rise into the heavens of life – the good times. When our eyes tear up with joy at weddings, God is there. At the beach watching a beautiful sunset. At the hospital when a grandparent holds their newborn grandchild for the first time. God is there. And God is even present when we finish big projects at work (that we, maybe, waited until the last minute to finish yet still managed to get done). God is indeed with us in all of the glorious moments of our lives.
And God is with us when we descend into the Sheols of life – the tough times. When we tear up with pain at a funeral, God is there. When we spend sleepless nights worrying about our friends and family in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. During the oil spill in the Gulf. And during these uncertain economic times. God is here.
God’s abiding presence is always with us. Even in the common ordinary, everyday parts of life: God is here. Making every moment of our lives sacred. Not because every moment of life is good or easy, but because in every moment we are drenched in God’s presence and activity. And when God is present, amazing and creative things are possible.
Admittedly, sometimes we may feel more connected to God – sometimes less. But the connection is always the same for God. I heard the following story a while back:
There was once a son of a rabbi who would only pray in the woods. One day, the rabbi asked her son, “Why do you go outside to look for God, when God is the same everywhere?” Her son thought for a moment and then said, “I know God is the same everywhere, but I am not. So, I go where I can feel God and listen to God best. I go into the woods to God a chance with me!”God is always present with us, but we may not always be open or receptive to God’s presence. Perhaps the business of everyday life gets in the way. Possibly we experience God best outdoors and remain inside most of the time. Or maybe we listen for God only in the big “burning bush” or “mountain top” moments. And we know from the Bible that the place to go to hear the booming voice of the Lord is a mountain top – especially Mt. Sinai. But in I Kings 19:11-13, Elijah has a different kind of mountain top experience. The Scripture reads:
There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.Elijah’s encounter with God did not include divine fireworks like Moses’ experience with the burning bush. Instead of the traditional Old Testament symbols of God’s voice coming in earthquakes, winds, and fire; Elijah heard God through God’s “still, small voice.” Or some translations say “God’s sheer silence.” Either way, Elijah heard God’s voice in the quiet, and responded to God’s call. And came out of the cave.
God may speak to us in dramatic life experiences – the highs of heavenly experiences or lows of Sheol experiences. And God may speak to us in the quiet and the ordinary – planting flowers, mowing lawn, or driving to work. However God may speak to us – wherever God may speak to us – we are to called to listen, respond, and come out of our caves like Elijah.
As we listen for God’s voice, we, in the words of Marjore Thompson, “attune ourselves to the gentle stirrings of the Spirit within and around us.” We attune ourselves to God. We open ourselves to God’s presence. We invite ourselves into God’s presence. And, we mindfully give God a chance with us.
As we pay attention to God’s presence, we can increase the “vitality and sway of God’s Spirit within us.” And since God’s presence and voice are in every aspect of our lives, we can take the advice of my camper, and practice opening ourselves to God in every aspect of life. There is no sacred and secular. There is only sacred, because every moment is graced by God.
Each moment is a holy moment; a moment to mindfully open our sails to the wind and work of the Spirit among us. For the pastor’s son, that meant being outdoors. But for each of us, it may be something different. Maybe it’s nightly prayer, silent meditation, singing hymns, going to outdoor concerts, etc. No matter what we do, the important thing is that it works for us. It just needs to remind us to be open to God’s presence in our average daily lives. And help us to listen for God’s continually beckoning voice.
God is still speaking! God is still present! God is still active!
As Peter Mayer says, "Everything is holy now." Amen.