Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28
God be with you (and also with you). Someone pointed out to me not that long ago that we really should change those words in our liturgy – for after all, we trust that God is always with us – that we can never be absent from God. So some have changed those words to: “God IS with you; and also with you”. I’m not quite sure about the change. It doesn’t have the same character somehow – that sense of invocation, of calling on God’s presence. It’s not that God isn’t always present; it’s that most of us live our day to day lives without paying much attention to the presence of God around us or within us. The invocation at the beginning of worship, or communion, or baptism, is a way of saying “We know God is present, with you, and with me – and we’re going to pay attention to that presence, and give thanks.” The writer of a book I’ve been reading lately says his understanding of the traditional invocation is that it actually means “God, help us to be at least a little bit as present with you as you are with us.” I like that – “be as present with God, as God is present with us”. (Gerald May, The Awakened Heart, p. 171)
The readings for today made me think about the presence and absence of God. In that powerful reading from the book of the prophet Amos, the cost of turning away from justice and compassion is to seek God’s word but be unable to find it. The cost of turning away from what God wants for us is to not be able to hear clearly what God wants in the moment when we finally get around to asking! I wonder how many of us see a reflection of that prophecy in our own experiences? I wonder how many have stopped paying attention to God for a while and then found that when they started paying attention that discerning God’s will was pretty darn hard!
We are so busy being busy. We fill every minute of our days with things to do and stuff to look after. Even many of you retired folk find yourselves busier in retirement than you were when you were working for a living – or at least, sometimes it can feel that way. Some of that busyness is necessary: it puts food on the table and a roof over our heads. Some of that busyness is ministry: it feeds others, clothes others, creates a place to worship and programs to learn about God, heals the sick and cares for children and the elderly. And some of that busyness is recreational: things we do because we enjoy them, because they feed our bodies, our minds, perhaps even our spirits. And probably, some of that busyness is unnecessary: time-wasters, fillers of empty hours, doing just for the sake of doing. In the midst of that, are we still seeking the word of God? And how will we “be as present with God, as God is present with us”?
Let’s keep those questions in the back of our minds as we take a little jump over to the passage from Colossians. This is a very grand vision of who Jesus is – what us theologically-trained types call “high Christology”. The point of the argument is that these Christians in Colossians have been taught by some unknown person that in order to be acceptable to God they have to jump through all sorts of hoops laid out for them by angels or heavenly powers of some kind. To assert that Christ is above all else (all heavenly or earthly powers) is to say that nothing matters but to choose Christ and to be chosen by him. Christ living within us is what matters. As commentator William Loader puts it: “We don’t need to embark on heroic journeys of achievement to make ourselves acceptable to God. We can stop that religious enterprise, start trusting, and be free to live life for ourselves, for others and for God. “ The focus of Paul’s ministry was to declare the inclusion of non-Jews – us!- into God’s redemptive plan: not to replace the people of Israel, but to make us, also, a light to the nations and an expression of God’s love in the world. Paul has, in a sense, a prophetic role: “to make the word of God fully known” when it has seemed a mystery for so long. And this word is that Christ’s presence in us is our truest hope.
So, let’s go back now, and think about those questions about hearing the word of God, and about “being present” with God. In the last few years I’ve been trying, here and there, through study groups and worship and at church meetings, to introduce some of the spiritual practices that have helped others, though the centuries, become more aware of God’s presence in their lives, and more able to hear the word of God speaking to them. With Colossians ringing in our ears, we can’t say that these exercises or practices are required to maintain relationship with God. They are not programs for – or promises of – righteousness. What they are, are ways of “being present to God’s presence”. When we are present to God’s presence, God can speak truth to our hearts and to our community.
Every religion I know of teaches its followers ways to be more aware of the holy in their lives. Christianity is no exception, though Protestant churches, especially in the Reformed tradition, have neglected those practices until recently: mostly because of an emphasis on the importance of grace alone, and because of scepticism about practices associated with Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions. Some of the spiritual practices we have retained are music, and especially congregational singing, as a form of devotion, and intercessory prayer (prayer for others). Much of our spiritual practice also revolves around acts of compassion – which is a perfectly legitimate way to connect with the holy, and one of which Jesus would approve. The danger, of course, is when any of our practices become rote, and we forget that they are intended to point us beyond ourselves to the divine: to Christ, to God. They can simply become more “busyness”, and end up dulling our awareness of Christ within us, rather than deepening it. How tired are you of doing the work of God? Is there some way to become “present to God’s presence” once again as we continue to be in ministry together?
Here’s a fairly simple process we might follow. Feel free to adapt it to your own situation, to any moment of the day. This particular practice is for “set-apart” times – a simpler version may carry you through shorter times in the day. It is adapted from a practice created by Gerald May. But before we do that, I’m going to invite you to find the next hymn, so that when we are ready to move out of prayer, we won’t have to fumble for our hymnbooks. It’s #44 in More Voices.
1. So I’m going to invite you to begin by doing whatever you need to do in order to “centre yourself” – to simply be in the present moment. Take a few deep breaths, maybe shift and stretch a bit, until you’re comfortable and aware.
2. Offer a little prayer in your heart for your hopes for this time of awareness.
3. Is there someone or something you can dedicate this time to? Situations in need of grace and healing? You might dedicate your prayer to them.
4. You can keep your eyes closed, or you can look around. See what is before you, pay attention to a sight or sound you may not have paid attention to before.
5. Notice what’s happening in your body. If your body is relaxing, let it. If not, let the tension be.
6. Be aware of your breathing, without trying to change or control it. Just let it be. Watch and feel as your breath moves in and out of your body. Simply be aware of your chest expanding and contracting, of the movement of air through your nostrils, of the sound of your breathing.
7. As you practice that awareness, add a prayer of offering and consecration: “Take, O Take me as I am” or simply, “I am here, Christ is here.” Keep it simple, so that you don’t need to think about the words, but can simply continue to follow your breath, and so that the prayer can move in you with your breathing.
8. If you feel ready to do so, you might ask God’s spirit to speak. As much as you are able to do so, try to keep yourself in a spirit of hope, rather than expectation. Be gentle with yourself, and be gentle in prayer. Whatever you find, treat it with reverence. This time is holy, an offering. (Pause for several minutes)
10. As you prepare to leave this time of prayer, try to let your prayerful time flow into the present moment as the river flows into the sea: the prayer does not end, but becomes part of the time that surrounds it.
We’ll sing our prayer response two more times, to help us move out of prayer and into music. Then we’ll sing hymn # 44, staying seated. May we be, just a little bit, as present with God, as God is present with us, and may we be open to God’s voice, in this time and in all times. Amen.