“Life In The Presence of God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 7, 2016
Psalm 91 & 1 John 4:7-21
Mary Margaret Dobbs was born in Ackerman, Mississippi on December 11, 1913. On February 14, 1934 she married Alston Jones McCaslin, IV. After they married, Alston and Mary moved to Eupora, Mississippi, where they made their home and had two sons. On July 8, 1952 Alston was killed in a farming accident. On the one year anniversary of her husband’s death, Mary Margaret wrote to C.S. Lewis to notify him of her husband’s tragic death. C.S. Lewis, other than being the master-mind behind the Chronicles of Naria series, had a tremendous impact on 20th century Christian theology in the way that he spoke about God in his poetry and fiction without, most of the time, actually speaking about God. Why Mary Margaret wrote to C.S. Lewis is unknown; nothing indicates that the two had ever met in person or had any other correspondences than this one.
In his response to Mary Margaret, Lewis writes, “I can well believe that you were divinely supported at the time of your terrible calamity. People often are. It is afterwards, when the new and bleaker life is beginning to be a routine, that one often feels one has been rather unaided. I am sure one is not really so. God’s presence is not the same as the feeling of God’s presence and He may be doing most for us when we think he is doing least.” It is that final sentence that I have been asked to reflect on today as part of our Summer Sermon Series: God’s presence is not the same as the feeling of God’s presence and He may be doing most for us when we think he is doing least.
All of us, at one time or another or even at this very moment, have been in Mary Margaret’s position. All of us have experienced the loss of a loved one, a spouse, a friend, a sibling, or even the loss of health or security. All of us have experienced the outpouring of love that comes from the community when someone dies or when we get sick. There are flowers and sympathy or get-well cards; casseroles show up at the front door and even rolls of toilet paper and laundry detergent, the mundane things that still need attention when the bottom falls out. There are memorial services and visitations and plenty of visitors that keep the mind from focusing too much on the sadness and tragedy. For some time people greet you more affectionately than normal because they know you are hurting, they offer to mow the lawn or watch the kids or pick up a shift until you get back on your feet. It is in this time, with the food and the flowers and the hugs and expressions of love, that the God who promised to wipe away every tear from our eyes is tangibly felt and clearly seen.
But then the inevitable thing happens: time goes on. Mary Margaret wrote to C.S. Lewis a full year after her husband’s death. She wrote, I gather from Lewis’ response, because she no longer felt or saw the presence of God in her life. A year later, the cards and flowers had stopped coming, there were no more casseroles on the front porch, life had settled back into a routine. People had forgotten about the tragic death of her husband, not because they didn’t care, but because life goes on and time marches steadily forward whether we want it to or not. When the dust settled, when the visitors had gone home and she still had to buy milk and eggs and pay bills, Mary Margaret was a widow. And the one thing she wanted the most, the one thing that she knew would bring her comfort in her time of need, was the presence of God, and God was silent and absent to her. I think you can identify…I know I can.
What Lewis offers to Mary Margaret in his response, and really to you and me as well, is not something you are likely to see on a bumper sticker. Lewis does not tell Mary Margaret that God never gives us more than we can handle; Lewis does not tell her that God opens a window when a door closes. Lewis does not tell Mary Margaret that God needed another angel in heaven, or that God’s ways are mysterious. Lewis certainly does not spout off something about God having a plan that Mary Margaret must accept without question. Lewis offers Mary Margaret a calm and peaceful assurance that even though she cannot see or feel God, God is present. When there is radio silence from heaven, Lewis says, Mary Margaret can be confident that God is present beyond anything she can touch or see or feel.
This distinction, between feeling God’s presence and the actual presence of God is important. One is a sensation born of emotion; the other is knowledge born of faith. It is also deeply Scriptural.
When we find ourselves in a place where it appears that God is silent and absent, we have no better companion than the Psalmist. The Psalmist knew what it was like to wait for a word from heaven, for something, anything, to assure them that God was there and interested, and wait and wait and get nothing. The Psalmist knew what it was like to cry so deeply and for so long that their bed was soaked with tears; they knew what it was like to feel God’s absence. Nearly one-third of the 150 psalms are psalms of lament where the main theme is the absence of God. But then there are moments when the psalmist sings of nothing else than the presence of God. Psalm 91 is one such psalm and it drips with praise for the all-encompassing, holistic protection of God that is the property of those who call on God’s name. The imagery is intense and meaningful; deadly diseases, armed enemies, traps laid out to ensnare anything that passes by. Yet the psalmist is sure that these offer no challenge to God. God is described here as a bird, perhaps a mother hen, who spreads out her wings to cover her children from whatever danger there may be. Though the psalmist has their fair share of doubt, they are also confident that God’s presence in their life depends not on their ability to feel it, but on God’s faithfulness and love.
The God of the Scriptures—the God of the psalmist and Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Ruth, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul and you and me—is a God completely free from the rules of the world, more powerful than any barrier or wall we might construct, and utterly uninterested in how we think God should be and act. On one hand, this God can be frightening; we are a species that relies on structure, craves order, and craves control even more. God does not easily, or ever, fit into our boxes. On the other hand, this God we learn from people like Moses and Sarah and Jesus Christ and Paul is a God of unbroken faithfulness to his people, unreservedly in love with this world and all of its creatures. This means that even though God does not work according to our plans, according to our timelines, or in ways that we think we need or want, God works in and through and around us according to God’s faithfulness and love. It is in this that faith and hope are born, confidently assuring us at all times that God is present, when we feel it and when we don’t…God is there. This is not a doctrine or a theology or the thought of a good Christian thinker. It is God’s promise to you and to me and it sounds like this: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”
I believe that God brings this promise to life, and lifts us to a place where we know God is present no matter what, in many ways. One of those ways, I believe, is by bringing us into community with one another, in the Church and in the places where we live our daily lives. I believe this because of something another great Christian theologian said, another Christian thinker and writer who spoke a lot about God without actually speaking about God. Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian minister and Children’s TV extraordinaire, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” The news was scary when Mr. Rogers was a boy, and it still is. The world is scary, in places we may only ever see on TV and right here in our own community; we are afraid for our health and our security and if this life means anything at all. And yet, there are always helpers. Where there are helpers, whether they are in Greece caring for Syrian refugees or in Enid where they educate children and feed the hungry and offer companionship to the lonely, God is there…God is present. God doesn’t need our help, but God invites us to be helpers whose lives bring God’s presence into the world. When we help, when we work in our community according to our faith, God’s work to transform the world ripples out gently from us like a stone thrown into a glassy lake; the effect is small at first, but then the ripples get bigger and bigger and wider and wider until the whole lake has been disturbed. For those who sit in darkness, a word from God is a matter of life and death, and your kindness, your compassion, your love and your presence speaks that word and it is a word of life.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I want you to know two things today. First, if you have experienced God’s presence in your time of need, only to have it disappear as time goes on, you are not alone; you are not alone in feeling alone, you are not alone in thinking that God has gone away, you are not alone in wondering if God is even there. Know and believe today that God is present in your life, and God’s presence if yours, because God is faithful and God loves you; it may be that God is doing most for you when you think he is doing the least. And if today you are not in a place where you can believe that, where you can know and find comfort in it, let me believe that for you, let this community believe it for you. Allow us to carry some of your burden and allow us to carry the hope, too; allow us to help. When you are ready to take on that hope and live as fully as God intends, we’ll be there to pass it on.
The second thing I want you to know is that God is depending on you, and on me too, to do everything in our power to be God’s presence in the world. God is calling us to be helpers. This is not an easy calling. God is depending on us to be people of great love and faithfulness whose every act and every word points to the love and faithfulness of God. God is depending on us to speak peace into situations of violence, truth when there is nothing but lies. God is depending on us to put down our weapons and solve our problems with the intelligence and ingenuity we have been given. God is depending on us to be Christians, not just on Sunday but every day of the week, people who hear the Word of God and then act on it. God is depending on us to approach one another without fear, without prejudice, without judgement, because in God’s image we are all created. God is depending on us to stop the name-calling and the partisanship and the fear-mongering, because we are all in this together and my life is dependent on yours and yours on mine. God is depending on us to be people of love, because if we profess belief in God, if we claim to follow the crucified and risen Christ, there is nothing else we can be. If we say we abide in God, and God abides in us, everything we do must be done from love because God is love.
So today, may we all live in the shelter of the Most High, in the shadow of the Almighty; God is always with us. And with God’s help, may we be people whose great love for one another and this world speaks God and shows God here in this place and to the ends of the earth. Amen.