How often have I referenced Godâ€™s presence and absence? Iâ€™ve preached those words in tandem, enamored with how melodic they sound in a sentence. Iâ€™ve also cast them onto a computerâ€™s screen, as if skipping two similar rocks across a digital pond.
Presence is a bright hope. Sensed. Glimpsed. Believed. Trusted. Calling. Comforting. Inspiring.
Absence is a dark place where the furniture has been rearranged. Or in a darker space where there is no furniture, no sense of size or shape, entry or exit.
I usually link the two two-syllable words because one makes the other safer. I try to please myself, you see. I try to please (or is it appease) anyone listening or reading, you see. When absence and presence are used, and especially when the climax of the sermon or essay is Godâ€™s presence, I conclude with an upbeat message and then vamoose for the nearest door.
My experiences with Godâ€™s presence have been fleeting but real. Those fewâ€”but preciousâ€”encounters authentically inform my words. And yet, my Holy moments or seconds are chump change compared to others. There are those who have had profound experiences with the Holy. They have humbly and regularly sensed Godâ€™s presence. What do I really know of Mystery?
Wait! Donâ€™t belittle yourself, Larry! Donâ€™t get caught in the human trap of comparing your lifeâ€™s journey with another! Keep your chin up, fella, and donâ€™t ever forget that Godâ€™s loves you. Loves everyone!
Sure. Okay. Fine.
And yet itâ€™s true, isnâ€™t it? There are mystics among us. Shamans and seers and saints. Prophets of justice and servants to the powerless. The holier than thou that really are holier than thou. In my lifetime, even if Martin Luther King Jr. did (so said the FBI) cheat on his wife or spend too much time away from his kids, he clearly stood tall and spirit-filled with his oratory and vibrant vision of a beloved kingdom. Or letâ€™s ignore the famous to recall the spirit-infused â€œcommonâ€ folks Iâ€™ve known. What about Eleanor, the woman who retired and reinvented herself as a champion for the poor? What of Susan, with such a tender heart, who taught her child each day about Godâ€™s beauty and glowed with conviction about Godâ€™s love and Jesusâ€™ way? Iâ€™ll never forget Steve, who in a time when I was low, shared words (and silence) with me that gave me a chance to re-imagine my relationship with God.
These three (and more) seemed blessed. Strong. Faithful. They knew Godâ€™s presence.
But who hasnâ€™t felt the absence of God? Life beats you down, and there are days-months-years when God feels gone. Why does God seem to wander far away as you deal with cancer, divorce, bigotry, job loss, and a legion of other miseries?
Of course, there are those that range from rational agnostics to raging atheists. For them, isnâ€™t any discussion about Godâ€™s absence mostly: ho-hum, who cares? How can God be the proverbial cavalry-to-the-rescue, since what isnâ€™t there isnâ€™t ever going to be there?
What do I believe?
A few years back, some dear friends had a lovely dog named Smokey. We then owned our wonderful golden retriever Hannah. At least a few times a month, weâ€™d take our dog to our friendsâ€™ home or theyâ€™d visit us. The dogs were always welcome. But our four-legged pals had an odd way of dealing with each other. They were friendly, but never friends. While the happy humans chatted, or ate, or watched television, the dogs settled on the floor, butt facing butt.
They literally positioned themselves to not see each other! Out of dogâ€™s sight, out of dogâ€™s mind!
Thatâ€™s me and God . . . too much of the time. Position matters. And if itâ€™s not about turning my back, what about being too busy or too bored? Or Iâ€™m weak, or hypocritical, or lazy. Blame me for my lethargic blasphemy.
How â€˜bout you? Whatâ€™s your convenient excuse for when God doesnâ€™t seem around?
But, by God, if Iâ€™m pondering Godâ€™s absence, wonâ€™t an answer please come to me before this essay is over, so I can give a swell explanation my eager readers?
Why. Does. God. Seem . . .
Meister Eckhart, the German theologian and mystic from the fourteenth century wrote:
If I had a friend and loved him because of the benefits which this brought me and because of getting my own way, then it would not be my friend that I loved but myself. I should love my friend on account of his own goodness and virtues and account of all that he is in himself. Only if I love my friend in this way do I love him properly.
Eckhartâ€™s thoughts on how we treat friends (and, yes, the Mystery) barely, partially, weakly describes why I believe the Divine can feel the most absent for me. How often do I use God, once in preaching, now in writing, for my own trite purposes?
God is Present. And Absent. And Holy. And Holey.
And frustrating. And there. And not there. God, who I have tried to manage and make manifest by words, lives and moves in a wordless Realm. When all I have is words, futility is guaranteed. When I define god, I confine God.
And Absence reigns.
I agree with David James Duncan* . . .
The instant we define this fathomless Mystery It is no longer fathomless. To define is to limit. The greater a personâ€™s confidence in their definition of God, the more sure I feel that their worship of â€œHimâ€ has become the worship of their own definition. I donâ€™t point this out to insult the fundamentalists or anyone elseâ€™s God. I point it out to honor the fathomless Mystery.
Presence still lures me toward Love, but Absence lingers.
*From Duncanâ€™s God Laughs & Plays. (Also where I found Eckhart’s quote.)