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God Is Closer Than You Think

I pray that I may speak and that you may hear, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

The readings we have heard this evening made me think of a book I have been reading. It is John Ortburg latest – “God is closer than you think’ in which his main premise is just what is says in his title God is closer than we think! Sometimes it is quite difficult for us to remember this. Sometimes we are quite convinced that he is nowhere to be seen, but he is always there, and he longs for us to be in constant touch with us.

The book begins with a description of Michelangelo’s ceiling painting in the Sistine chapel which is usually called the ‘Creation of Adam’. I am sure you have seen photographs of it, if you have not actually been to the Vatican. Adam’s arm is stretched out towards that of God, and their fingertips almost, but not quite, touch.

Some scholars say that the painting really should be called ‘The Endowment of Adam’. - He has already been given physical life, his eyes are open and he is conscious – what he is being given is the chance of a life with God. It is God reaching out to Adam, he is as close to him as he can be, but having come that close, he allows just a little space, he allows Adam to choose, he waits for him to make his move.

Adam, although his arm is partially extended towards God, reclines in a lazy pose, leaning backwards as if he has no real interest in making the connection. Maybe he assumes that God, having come this far, will make the connection, maybe he lacks the strength, maybe he really is indifferent – all he needs to do is lift his finger!

And so it is with us. God is always here, he is with us right now, here in this place. He is with us at home, on the bus, in our car, at work, in Tesco's in the Cross Keys, and he has a burning desire for us to reach to him, but like Adam, we have the choice – to lift our finger and make the connection, or to ignore God’s offer of life with him, and turn away.

Many have recognized that God is everywhere, but Ortburg brings these strands into sharp focus. He quotes an old song “This is my Father’s world,” it goes “He shines in all that’s fair ……. In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”

The scriptures are full of what might be called the everywhereness of God’s speaking. He talks through burning bushes and braying donkeys; he sends messages through storms and rainbows and earthquakes and dreams, he whispers in a still small voice.

God speaks, in the words of Garrison Keiller the American writer in “ordinary things like cooking and small talk, through story-telling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids – all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.”

The primary promise of the Bible is not, as we might surmise, “I will forgive you”, although that promise is there, of course, the primary promise is not that of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise found in the Bible is “I will be with you,”

Before Adam and Eve ever sinned or needed forgiveness they were promised God’s presence. He would walk with them in the cool of the day.

The promise of God’s presence came to Enoch, who “walked with God” It was made to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David and Amos and Mary and Paul and to many, many others, too many to tell you about today.

It is the reason for their courage: “Do not be terrified….. for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” It kept them going through darkness: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

God gave Israel the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant, and manna, and the temple, and a pillar of cloud, and another of fire, like so many post it notes on the fridge or the computer screen saying “Don’t forget, I am with you.”

Ortburg goes on to quote an ancient sage Theophan the Recluse who says this – “Find a place in your heart, and speak there with the Lord,  it is the Lord’s reception room” and says that it seems that some people find that room easily. The Ortburgs have friends that have a daughter who, when she was only five years old said “I know Jesus lives in my heart, because when I put my hand on my heart I can feel him walking around there.”

In the Education Department of the Diocese, where I work, we have had access to some research which said that children developed spiritually much earlier than we imagine possible. Little people of three and four can have a spiritual perception far beyond what they have ever been taught or heard from their families.

The book quotes a little three year old girl raised in a family of atheists. She had no contact with any church, and there was no Bible in the house. She asked her Father “Where did the world come from” and he explained it to her in strictly scientific terms, as an atheist would. But, anxious that his child have a balanced and comprehensive view of the world, he added “Some people believe that a very powerful being created the world, and they call him God.”

His little girl began to dance around the room saying “I knew what you said wasn’t the truth, it’s him, it’s him.”

Some people are, apparently, born with a kind of inner radar for detecting the presence of God, just as some people are born with perfect pitch. They are as aware of God as we are all aware of gravity. We know that if we drop an apple it will fall to the ground (unless we are an astronaut in flight of course), they know, with at least as much certainty, that if they speak to God he will hear immediately, because he is right there with them, longing for them to speak.

Dallas Willard writes of a little boy whose mother died when he was very young. Not surprisingly, he was especially lonely and sad when it came to bed-time. He would wander into his father’s bedroom and ask if he could sleep in his bed. Even then he could only rest if he knew that his father was lying with his face towards him.

In the darkness he would ask “Daddy is your face turned towards me now?” “Yes,” his father would say, “I am facing towards you, you are not alone.” Thus re-assured, the little boy would go to sleep.

Dallas goes on “How lonely life is! Oh we can get by in life with a God who does not speak. Many at least think they can do so. But it is not much of a life, and it’s certainly not the life God intends for us, or the abundance of life that Jesus came to make available to us.”

Now you might be one of the ones with radar. If you are, I hope you realize how lucky you are, I envy you. I am an Adam, like Ortburg, I believe sincerely that my life hinges on the presence of God. I know that courage and guidance and hope all reside with him. But I am aware of the gap – even if it is only a hairsbreadth – and in the midst of all my concerns, my weaknesses and occasional spiritual indifference, I long for the touch that will close the gap.

Like the little boy, I long to live with my father’s face turned towards me. I want to experience – in the dark of night as well as in the light of day – the reality Moses prayed for: “The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face to shine upon you.”

But who is a candidate for such a life with God? Saints and mystics, of course: the devoted and the wise. But not just them. God also longs to touch the chronically unsatisfied; restless and demanding people; whiners and complainers; the impossible to please; and those who do not believe he exists.

Consider Jacob for a moment if you will. He was no spiritual giant, his father didn’t care much for him as he was what we would call today a couch potato, the kid who spends six hours a day in front of a screen playing computer games.

Their father preferred Esau who, though not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and with a serious body hair problem, was at least an outdoor, hunter gatherer type of guy.

Now we all know the story. Jacob conspired with his mother and cheated Esau out of his birthright. He is running away from Esau, who wants to kill him, one night when he stops at a certain place, which in Hebrew means nowhere in particular, Watford possibly. It was a spot by the wayside with nothing special about it.

Jacob – conspirator with his duplicitous mother – jealous rival to his elder brother – brazen liar to his father, was not an obvious candidate for God’s favour, but in his dream that night he saw a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending and God spoke to him:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac….. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go….”

Jacob awoke and realized that God was right there with him in that nondescript place, although he “was not aware of it”, “this is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven”

There is more than one form of sleep. Sometimes we are asleep to God. Many things can wake us – the birth of our first child, a seemingly miraculous recovery from an illness, the healing of a marriage that was on the rocks. We can see God’s hand in this sort of thing.

Sometimes suffering awakens us. Remember God touched Jacob again by wrestling with him and dislocating his hip. The soul is touched by both beauty and suffering. Each day we live outside the awareness of God’s presence is a kind of sleepwalking.

The key phrase in Jacob’s story was that he “was not aware of it”. Somehow he was looking in the wrong direction and, often, so are we. At least I know I am. It is possible for God to be present without us recognizing that he is there. God is always nearer than we think.

And so, often we don’t have much sense of God’s presence. Now this is no surprise since we really don’t want God around all the time. It is too inconvenient to have him with us all the while because it restricts what we do.

Dallas Willard writes about a little girl who, playing in the back garden after some substantial rain, discovered how to make mud pies. She called them ‘warm chocolate’. Her grandmother, who was looking after her spotted what she was doing and, seeing her covered in mud, told her stop and cleaned her up. She had been sitting in the garden facing the house but turned her chair round so she could see what the child was doing.

The little girl couldn’t resist the ‘warm chocolate’ game and went back to it saying ‘don’t look at me grandma’. This happened two or three times and, eventually, doting grandma gave up and the game continued.

And so it is with us Willard says. Like the little girl, we need to be unobserved in our wrongdoing, particularly unobserved by God. Any time we chose to do wrong, or withhold from doing right, which is as bad, we choose this hiddenness as well. It may well be that the prayer we make most, even if we don’t acknowledge this to ourselves, and the quietest one, is ‘don’t look at me God!’

It was the first prayer ever prayed in the Bible. God came looking for Adam and Eve in the garden, to be with them and walk with them. ‘Where are you?’ he called and Adam said “we hid from you because we were afraid” “Don’t look at me God.”

A businessman on the road, checks into a hotel. He knows what kinds of movies are available to him on the in house menu. Know one will know -  his wife and kids, not even the office when they check his expenses, because the hotel say that the name of the movie will not appear on the bill – go ahead, no-one will know, but first a little prayer. “Don’t look at me God.”

A mother with an anger problem finds that if she bawls at her kids, berating them for every little misdemeanor, then it relieves her frustration, but first a little prayer. “Don’t look at me God.”

An executive doing her company expenses who finds she can bolster them by adding in false receipts, and no one at Head Office notices.

An employee who finds he has the chance to make a fellow worker look bad in the boss’s eyes.

A student who gets the chance to look at a fellow students answer during an exam.

A church member who has the opportunity to gossip about another member of the congregation

All of them must first say a little prayer, they probably don’t even admit it to themselves, but it’s the choice they make, we make, in our hearts. “Don’t look at me God.”

After a while, this prayer becomes so ingrained that we don’t even realize we are making it. The story of Samson is perhaps the best example of this, a man who had enormous potential for good but became a pin up boy for impulse control problems and broke almost every vow to God he had ever made. At the end of his life there came this very sad sentence –“but he did not know that God had left him!”

There is, of course, a connection between our character and our ability to perceive moral and spiritual reality. Misers are incapable of recognizing generosity in anyone. They will interpret sacrificial giving as naiveté or in some way self-serving. Cynics are unable to recognize that anyone is truly altruistic. Everyone, they believe has an angle.

Ortburg gives this story as an illustration of this hiddenness in which we deceive others, ourselves, and, most significantly, God. It is the story of the oatmeal brush, and he tells it against himself.

He says that he has tried, for some years, to direct his thoughts toward God in the early morning, before the onrush of the day’s happenings beset him and distract him.

One morning he decided to have porridge and some toast for breakfast and, having done so, duly washed up the dishes using the usual washing up brush to clean out the residue of oatmeal from his bowl. Know we all know what the brush looks like when you have done this.

His wife asked him “are you done with the brush, because it would be a good idea to give it a whack against the sink to get rid of the muck in it!”

He was feeling defensive. He was actually quite proud that he had, unusually, washed the dishes instead of leaving them for his wife, he didn’t want anyone telling him how to do it.

What he said was “No, I’m all finished!” The washing was done, but what, he says, did he think he was going to do with the oatmeal brush, brush the muck through his hair? It wasn’t only a lie it was a stupid lie. Even he couldn’t pretend he believed it.

But as long as he tried to maintain the lie, a strange dynamic was at work. He had to muster enough hurt and pride to justify the deceit. He had to cut himself off from God. “Don’t look at me God.”

Now he says that every morning when he goes into the kitchen, the sight of the brush, and the oatmeal brush episode, as he calls it, reminds him not to say, “Don’t look at me God.” But to say ‘Here I am God, search me out.’

So we have seen that God is desperate for us to reach out to him. We have seen that we would prefer not to be seen by God when we are doing something we know God would not approve.

Now Ortburg comes to the hardest condition of all. It is when we really are searching for God, but cannot find him however hard we try. He says, and I can really identify with this, that sometimes when he prays, the ceiling in his room seems like a physical barrier, bouncing back his prayers with “no reply” stamped on them.

He thinks of times when he has had important decisions to make, when he has said to God that he would do whatever he wants as long as he tells him what to do, and he has had no guidance.

He thinks of times when he has had a hard ball of anxiety in his guts, and asked God for peace, but the pain has continued. And this guy is a long term Baptist minister. I should worry.

But there is deliverance. He quotes the story of a young woman called Nancy who was in a long term relationship that she was absolutely sure would end in marriage, but it didn’t. She prayed to God to ask why this had happened, but got no answer, she got mad and stopped eating, losing two stone and got no comfort. It was difficult for her to see God in this picture at all. But it didn’t last forever and, eventually, she gave up on the relationship altogether, and later married someone else (Ortburg as it happens, which is why he knows the story)

God is always there, but sometimes we have so alienated ourselves from him by our own indifference, and our constant praying of “Don’t look at me God.” That it can take a while to find him again. It is our fault, not his.

But is there some purpose in God’s hiddenness? Maybe, even in this God is up to something. George MacDonald writes of a pastor named Thomas Wingfold who, racked by doubts, and his inability to know, with absolute certainty, that God is there, decided to live his life as an experiment, simply seeking to follow Jesus in spite of his doubts.

At one point he is caring for dying man who had come to faith through his influence. “I wish I could come back after I die” said the man., “so you could be delivered from your doubts and be absolutely sure about your faith!” Wingfold replied with these amazing words “No, even if you could, I would rather that you didn’t. I’d rather not see him one moment before he thought best, I’d rather have the good of not knowing.”

If any of you follow American Football, you will know that the Superbowl Final is the equivalent of the FA Cup Final here. Mary Levy, the coach of the Buffalo Bills got her team to four consecutive Super Bowl finals, all of which they lost. She was asked by a radio interviewer “How did you manage constantly going onto the field not knowing what the outcome of the match would be, how did you cope with the anxiety?”

Her answer was unforgettable; she said “If you’re looking for certainty, you’re at the wrong game. It’s one of the differences of going to the Super Bowl and going to the Theatre – everyone knows Hamlet’s going to die!”

Welcome to the human race my friends. It is somehow essential to human life, as God has ordained it, that we can know the final score of yesterday, but not of tomorrow. I t doesn’t mean we are condemned to anxiety, but it does mean that if you are looking for certainty then you have chosen the wrong species. You can walk by faith, but not by sight. Not down here anyway.

Thomas Merton once said “If you can find God with great ease, then maybe it is not God you have found.” It must, and always will, take a lot of effort on our parts. It is not meant to be easy. Amen.

Ron Upton 
September 2005

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