(Lead me Lord,) As a felt Presence
As we begin the third stanza of a pilgrim’s prayer we ask that God lead us as a felt presence. You might be surprised how often the experience of God’s people is the experience of “presence.” We find this throughout both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. Perhaps the most poignant early use of this is in the opening chapters of Genesis where we find the first humans seeking to hide from God’s presence.
Gen. 3:8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
Cain too after killing his brother “…went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” These early stories give the picture of God’s new creatures at times when they know they have been disobedient and they seek to avoid the presence of the Lord. They do not yet know what the Psalmist knows . . . that we cannot successfully flee from the presence of God.
Psa. 139:7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
But we have examples too of people petitioning that God stay close and that they be given the gift and assurance of presence. Moses, for example, seeks this both for himself and for those he is leading.
Ex. 33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
The Psalmist (in this case traditionally understood as David in the wake of his infidelity with Bathsheba) begs that his guilt not create a separation from God:
Psa. 51:11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Jesus, too, speaks of the presence of God.
John 17:5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
At the heart of this petition is the yearning to be in relationship with the person of God. The hope is that our experience of God will not be with the idea of God, but with the person of God. My mentor in faith, Ben Johnson, began one of his books with these words, “Do you know about God? Or do you know God? There is a big difference.” [Calming the Restless Spirit: A Journey Toward God - Ben Campbell Johnson, Upper Room Books, 1997]. Persons can be truly present. Ideas cannot.
The early church was wise in couching the terms of the trinity in terms of “persons,” for the God incarnate in Jesus is fundamentally a God of relationship and any healthy relationship demands a certain amount and quality of presence. Spouses can spend a lifetime together learning to be truly present to one another. And there is more. Human development seems to require consistent presence. How does the child navigate issues of trust versus mis-trust if not through the experience of the reliable presence of nurturing others?
We, as children of God (see Romans chapter 8), naturally seek out the presence of our parent. The Brief Statement of Faith used in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) describes our parenting God this way:
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.
So, we make our petition for presence knowing that we are calling out to God who is faithful still and who will be a presence with us on the journey.
God in three persons, you have made yourself known throughout the ages as a reliable companion walking with us as we make our way in life. Lead us as a felt presence, so that our growing relationship with you might begin to affect our relationships with one another. Having learned forgiveness and mercy from you, we may be forgiving and merciful with others. Having seen your astonishing generosity we might set aside our parsimonious inclinations and share as extravagantly as you. We, who are creatures made in your image, know that we will only become truly ourselves as we conform evermore to the person we find in your presence, so soften our hardened hearts and assist us as we try to discern your felt presence. Amen.