The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner's circle. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same government, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.
The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we take, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.
(Pastor and Author Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on Psalm 121)
To demonstrate the reality of God's presence, Francis Schaeffer used to ask gathered students to place the palm of their hand to their cheek, as close as possible without touching, so close that you could feel the warmth emanating from it but, again, without touching. And then he would say something like "there is God with you, infinite and yet personal." I've taken to using this tactile reminder of God's presence of late, particularly when concerns, specific and ephemeral, press in on me. Just this morning, waking in the dark, as I felt a heaviness resting on me just as I awoke, so I freed an arm from the warmth of the covers and brought it to my face, thanking God for His nearness, that not only is He there and not silent but He is ever-present, ever-powerful, and ever-knowing. Really, it is He who presses in, who hems me in on all sides.
I cannot say that I always feel that nearness of God's presence, but I am thankful for the times that He does something to remind me of just how close He is, of how my life is superintended by Him, how every choice, whether bad or good, which I have made have been in the end mysteriously caught up in what He is doing. As a young child of maybe five, riding with my mother to see my grandmother, I saw an African-American woman standing in the door of a very modest house, and I believe God opened my eyes then to the realization that human beings were different and yet the same, and I began to see the world with a larger sense of its humanity. In elementary school, lying in bed at night, certain I would never go to sleep, I watched the lights cast by passing cars as they moved across the walls, and God made me wonder about the people in the cars and where they were going and where they lived. Later, while in junior high, awakening suddenly in the night, I was convinced that God said something audible to me, said my name. That's all, just my name.
And those moments are just for starters. I seem forever to be looking back for these reminders so as to be more deeply rooted in the present and more assured of the future of a God who is present, who, as He promised, will never leave us.
Rummaging through some books rescued in the cleaning out of my mother's home, I found one my father had given her on their anniversary in 1961. It's called The Art of Living, an inspirational book full of maxims organized by topic. The one that caught my eye was "The Art of Traveling." One such maxim said this: "Travel hopefully. 'To travel hopefully,' writes Robert Louis Stevenson, "is better than to arrive.'" It reminded me of how living existentially, or moment by moment, is really a pilgrim's state of being, constantly practicing the presence of Christ, remembering that He is at work keeping us. He guards, protects, and preserves. As Eugene Peterson said, we "travel the same ground that everyone else walk on," and yet each step we take and breath we breathe we can know He is present and, in the words of the doxology, "is able to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] before the presence of his glory with great joy. . ." (Jude 1:24).
This may not be a quiet garden but Heaven's noisy anteroom. And yet He keeps me. He watches over me. Every breath I take, and every move I make. With that thought, I sit back in my chair, bring my hand to my face, just so, and know: He is near.