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The Presence of the Lord
 

 

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:6-9)

 

Adam and Eve tried to flee God’s presence after they ate the forbidden fruit and discovered they were naked. Like small children playing peekaboo, they assumed if they couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see them. It was a bad move. The Lord quickly took note of their absence and called them to account. They wound up being expelled from paradise.

Similarly, the prophet Jonah tried to flee when the Lord dispatched him to Ninevah to decry its wickedness. The Lord caught up with him on board a ship bound for Tarshish and caused a great storm to blow up. The ship’s crew tossed Jonah overboard to appease an angry God. Jonah wound up in the belly of a great fish until he had a chance to reconsider his position. He discovered that when you are dealing with the Lord God Almighty, you can run, but you can’t hide.

The prophet Jeremiah made clear that there was no escaping the Lord’s reckoning: “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Here we are operating at a disadvantage. Like the small child playing peekaboo, we assume because we are not always aware of God’s presence that he is therefore absent. We tell ourselves God is in heaven and presumably beyond reach, which therefore would put us beyond prying eyes.

Most of the problem is traceable to the moment in the biblical creation story when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and became self-aware. This alerted them to the fact that they were naked. Their self-awareness made them think they existed apart from God, which is why they tried to hide. Like the newborns that they were, Adam and Eve began to develop a mental framework that put “me” here on the inside, and everything else on the outside, God included. As creatures made in God’s image, they had been given dominion over creation, meaning that the world obligingly reshaped itself to their will — or so it appeared.

It was all a self-centered delusion, of course. The tipoff is when an exasperated Jeremiah quoted the Lord as saying, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Is there a God in heaven? Yes. Is there a God on earth? Again, yes. So where is he? The “me” here on the inside may catch a glimpse of God here or there, but in reality the “I” who I think I am is seeing only a pale reflection. Why? Because we are always looking elsewhere for something that can only be found in the last place we would ever think to look, right here at the center our being.

This was the message that St. Paul delivered to seekers gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, which had temples to every god imaginable, even one to an “unknown” God. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,” Paul told them, “nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” Paul went on to explain that this unknown God “is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being.’”

We think of our being as a container rather than as something that is itself contained — in this case something infinitely larger than the self we think we are. “In him we live and move and have our being,” St. Paul said. Or this from the theologian Paul Tillich: “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God.” But where does God’s being leave off and the ground of our own being begin? You’d think there wouldn’t be room enough in the center of our being for both of us. And you’d be right.

Jeremiah 23:24

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