Friday, September 29, 2023

The Middle of Nowhere

Last Sunday a friend of mine quoted me in his sermon to his church in North Carolina. He introduced the quote by saying that I lived in the middle of nowhere. I kidded him about it later, but then I pondered the phrase and decided I liked it. I like living in the middle of nowhere. More people should try it. Just not in our stretch of nowhere. Then it might become somewhere.

I dwell in a very small town as far as human population is concerned. One hundred square miles of forest, lakes, mountains, ponds and rivers. One blinking light. No gas station. No grocery store. Not even a convenience store. Our house is within sight of the blinking light in the center of the village, so we are literally in the center of nowhere. Yet our town is not entirely off the beaten path. Every four years at least one presidential candidate finds his/her way to our corner of the first primary state. This year it was Robert Kennedy.

The other day my wife and I decided to get out of nowhere. It was getting busy. Usually our busyness has to do with our grandchildren, which is a wonderful type of busyness. We love seeing them. I love that they will have memories of walking to their grandparents’ house after school. We are blessed. But sometimes it is nice to get off to a quiet spot by ourselves for a while. So we went to a state park in a neighboring town to sit by a quiet lake ringed by mountains.

It was a calm, sunny, warm autumn day. Not a ripple on the lake. The mountains were in a haze. For over an hour we watched a pair of loons diving for fish, occasionally flapping their wings. Exciting stuff. Exactly what we needed. There were other people at the lake, including some kids, but it was not noisy. I commented to my wife that the quiet was so deep that it absorbed sounds like a sponge.

The silence was so powerful that I could feel it sinking into me. City folk think that quiet is the absence of noise. It is not. Silence is a tangible presence. Noises may be present, but the silence beneath the noises is stronger. Noises do not stand a chance in the presence of silence. Silence pervades all.

That is the way it is with the Presence of God. God’s presence pervades everything. God is palpably present inside and outside me, like space inside and outside a jar. The apostle Paul calls us earthen vessels. He calls us temples of the Holy Spirit. These are accurate analogies. We are Spirit-filled and Spirit-immersed.

The Bible likens the Spirit of God to the breath that we breathe. The biblical words for spirit are the same words translated breath or wind. God is the air we breathe, as the song says. God is breathing us. We are the lungs of God. Without God there is no life in these bodies. The divine name YHWH has its origin in the sound of breathing. In and out. God is as close as our breath.

I hear fellow Christians talk about coming into the presence of God. That language is popular in worship settings. People think that by coming into a church building, or into a worship service, or entering into an attitude of prayer that they are coming into the presence of God. Yet how can we not always be in the presence of God? If God is omnipresent, where else could we possibly be but in the presence of God?

The churchly way of talking about the presence of God is really about feelings. People need to feel the presence of God. I understand that. Feelings are nice. Spiritual experiences are edifying. But they have nothing to do with the presence of God. God is present whether we feel God’s presence or not. If we ever feel like God is not present, we do not need to perform religious rituals to recapture the feeling. All we have to do is pause to notice what is always present, and God is instantly here.  God is never not here.

God is not a thing and therefore not in some special place. God is nothing (no-thing) and nowhere, which is another way of saying everything and everywhere. Language collapses into paradox when speaking of the Divine. Sometimes we may feel like God is absent, like we are in the middle of nowhere. At such times we are exactly where we ought to be. God is in the middle of nowhere. So are you. Welcome to nowhere.

1 comment:

ernest boyer said...

Thank for your missive from nowhere. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, which often feels like the center of everywhere. That has its advantages, but its disadvantages are unmistakable too. My only complaint regarding what you said results from the dismissive tone I sensed when you spoke of feelings, specifically the feeling of the presence of God. Christianity has a long history of dismissing feelings, and I believe that is a mistake. I have learned a great deal from the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher who is probably most famous for the claim that religion IS feeling. I have spent a long time reflecting on that claim, and I think he's right. He's right because, at its heart, religion is all about relationships. It is about relationships with those closest to us. It is about relationships with those new to us and those who challenge us. And of course it is also about our relationship with that which is infinitely beyond us (and intimately within us) -- a presence we can sense but whose reality we can never know. Feelings are how we both notice and gage all of these relationships. Thought concern objects. Thoughts tell us ABOUT things. Feelings concern relationships. They tell us how we ourselves are either tied to or in tension with all those around us. It's true that our thoughts can tell us that God is always present, but it is in the moments when we FEEL that presence that our relationship comes alive. I often pray to feel God's presence. I pray for it for my parishioners too. I believe it is one of the greatest gifts we can receive.