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Practicing the Presence of God
Written By Bobby Schuller
This morning, the title of my message is "Practicing the Presence of God." When I was talking to (interview guests) Sterling and Lindy just a moment ago, they were reflecting on a horrible experience (mass murder in Aurora, CO, movie theater) that both of them shouldn't have gone through, something that has rocked our whole country. I can't imagine what it would have been like sitting in the theater, experiencing this horrific scene, and yet out of that, God was able to produce inside of them something very rich and meaningful. The thing that I distilled most from our conversation was that, now, they view each "today" as more special. Being young, they had assumed that they would live long lives, but in that moment, they realized that anytime something could happen to end it all. That caused me to think, also, that maybe today is a lot more important and a lot more special than I thought it was before because I might not have as many todays as I thought I did.
In history, every great leader, every great speaker, every great teacher had a message. About the greatest ones, with little reflection or thought words, you could say very simply describe what their message was. If I said Martin Luther King, Jr., you would say his message was one of egalitarianism and equality. If I mention Mother Teresa, you would say her message was care for the poor, the needy, the dying. If I mention Billy Graham, you'd say his message was to repent, to be saved, to enjoy the fruits of heaven when you die. If I said Dr. Schuller, my grandpa, you would say possibility thinking, hope, healing, and encouragement. "If you can dream it, you can do it," right? All great teachers, all great speakers have a predominant message that reflects their core belief.
As Christians, we ought to be able to simple describe Jesus' primary message. When we read the gospels, and study them, and go all the way through them over and over again, we walk away with one theme - the kingdom of God. In fact, we would say something like this: It was incredibly important to Jesus that He impress upon His listeners that the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is present right here, right now. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven was a theme that had already been worked out. You can see it throughout the entire Old Testament. It's the idea that God is working to set things right in a broken world, to restore everything, and to bring into the life of the believer, a centeredness of peace, joy, fulfillment, and a flourishing life. And that the kingdom of God is the fullness and the completeness of this happening in the individual. Jesus comes on the scene and shared that the kingdom of God is present right here, right now, it's at hand. It's here. Today! He said that people will look around, they'll say the kingdom of God's over there, and the kingdom of God is over here, and the kingdom of God means this or that. And He would say, no, the kingdom of God is within you. In Luke 17, Jesus says the kingdom of God is at hand.
So, we're supposed to experience, today, a pervasive sense of joy, of life, and above all, of love and the presence of God. However, most of us don't really live in the today. A lot of us look to yesterday. We think about all the things that we missed in the past. We think about how things aren't the way they should have been. We think, "Oh, maybe there was a relationship that, if I'd just done this right or that right, it would have worked out. There was a job that was perfect, but I lost it. Or, there was a school I didn't get into.
So we think about the past, but, very often, we also dwell on the future. We think about how someday this will happen, someday that will happen, and when that happens, I will be a happy person. Of course, you won't be happy if that's the way you think. That's because the fullness of life and the fullness of the kingdom is not yesterday and it's not tomorrow. It's right now. Amen? This is Jesus' message: The fullness of the kingdom of God is not just something that you're going to get when you die, and you will if you trust in Him. The fullness of the kingdom of God is something that's available today in this very instant, right where you are in the monotony, rhythm, ongoing, day-to-day stuff of life. Right now in the midst of what you think is a very normal, simple, and basic life, the kingdom of God is present and available.
There's a story in Luke chapter 14. Jesus is invited to a party of a prominent Pharisee who was considered a great religious teacher. When Jesus comes to this party, the whole house is filled with wealthy, well-known, successful religious guys. Everybody admires these men who have more than they need. Jesus was invited because, by this time, He had become famous. He's a healer, some are saying. He's a prophet and they want to be near Him to get some clout and improve their reputation. They want to get some respect by being friends with this new up-and-comer, Jesus, this young guy.
So, Jesus comes to the party, and the Bible says that these prominent Pharisees are all sitting around when a sick man, a man with dropsy, comes up to Jesus asking to be healed. Jesus looks around at all of these religious guys, who have said that you're not supposed to do anything on the Sabbath, and He says, "Is it okay to heal a sick man on the Sabbath?" Nobody says anything. He looks around and says, "Which of you, if one of your ox or even your son fell into a pit wouldn't go and pull them out on the Sabbath?" Nobody says anything. Then, I love what He does next. He embraces the man. He takes hold of the man in His arms with the embrace of a loving brother or father and heals him. A miracle happens - something amazing, something that they should have blown their minds. They should have celebrated that the kingdom of God had been fully realized in the miraculous healing of this man, and in the work of Jesus. Yet, there was silence - no joy, no celebration, and we presume that, instead, there was an uncomfortable anger because Jesus went against what they believed was legally right.
Then, all of a sudden, people are fighting over places of honor at the table, all fighting for their reputation. Jesus is now starting not to fit into this group. When He says to them that, when one comes to a party, one ought to sit at the tail of the table - at the lowest end, not at the high end - they all start to grumble.
Then He says to them, that at this table, they are all religious people, spiritual leaders, whose job it should be to care for the poor, the sick, and the needy. That they should have cared about the man with dropsy who was just healed, but they hadn't. "You ought to invite that guy with dropsy to this meal," He said. Still silence. "If you were to invite the unwanted people, the people you dislike to this meal, you would experience the kingdom of God and you would be enriched with God's goodness and the resurrection of the dead."
Then one prominent Pharisee says to Jesus, "Blessed is he who will eat and feast in the kingdom of God." Of course, what this man is saying is that he's already feasting at the kingdom of God, and that he doesn't need them.
This is where Jesus loses it. He tells them this story about this great wedding that a king is throwing for his son. Now, back then a wedding was an amazing thing. They would go on for days. There would be tons and tons of money spent. It was a big deal. To go to a wedding was an awesome thing. So, this king is going to throw this incredible wedding and he decides to invite all of his friends. This is going to be the biggest celebration, the most important, exciting, festival, party, whatever you want to call it, in the whole land. So, he sends out a servant with invitations for all of his friends.
One man says to the servant, "Oh, I can't go. I just purchased a plot of land. I need to go look at it." Of course, this is a joke because in those days you would never spend money on a plot of land before looking at it.
Then another man says, "Oh, I can't go either. I purchased some oxen and I need to go look at the oxen." Back then, purchasing oxen was a huge investment. You would never buy oxen without looking at them.
One after another, the king's friends make excuses, ridiculous reasons why they couldn't go. So, the servant comes back to the king and says, "All your friends have made excuses; they can't come."
The King says, "Fine! Go invite the poor, go invite the needy, go invite the hungry, and go invite the starving.
The servant does as his king asks, and then he comes back and says, "We've invited all of them. They're all here and they're excited, but there's still room for more.
The king says, "Go into the gangways, go into the streets, go everywhere you can. Invite everyone this party. Everyone is welcome now. It's not limited to just this group of people. Invite everyone!"
The question you're supposed to ask when you're reading this text is why on earth would somebody not go to that wedding? Why on earth would someone make an excuse not to go to the most fun, exciting, interesting, joy-filled, money-rich celebration ever? How would somebody make excuses for that?
You know what Jesus is saying? He says that this banquet is going on right now. This festival is going on right now. It's the kingdom of God. It's the fullness, the joy, the life, the flourishing of the ongoing pervasive presence of God all around us that is available right now in Him, Jesus Christ. And you should ask why. Why would people make excuses? I think what He's saying is that many of us, especially those who have grown up religious, are doing that every single day. That, like the Pharisees, it is so easy to get caught up in the monotonous humdrum, busy, day-in-and-day-out things of life that we forget completely that today is important and special and valuable; a gift from God. It's so easy to be caught up in paying bills and driving through traffic and checking the e-mails that we forget that today is a special, wonderful gift from God. We forget that the festival, the banquet of the kingdom of God is happening right now and you're invited. You are! But too often we make excuses.
There are so many things that can fill our lives and distract us. Too many people go out to lunch with a friend and, through their whole time together, they're on their cell phones, texting, or sending e-mails to other people. Too many people are never present. They're always thinking about tomorrow. They're always thinking about the next thing, the thing that is to come, and not thinking about today. It's always tomorrow. It's always something else. It's always somewhere later. And so they're never present, which means they're never whole, which means they're fractured and broken.
One of my favorite delis here in town has this hilarious sign. It's a picture of a woman holding a tray filled with beer, and it says, "Free beer tomorrow." So, you think, oh, I'll come in tomorrow and get free beer. The next day, you come in and it says, "Free beer tomorrow." In this way, tomorrow never really comes. That's why it's funny. Because all you really have is today and someday tomorrow won't come. We just don't know when that is.
Many of us think constantly about the next thing. We're at dinner and we think about the errands that we have to run later. When we're running the errands, we're not thinking about the errands but about the e-mails we need to check. Then, as we're checking our e-mails, we're thinking about getting the kids to bed. And, as we're putting the kids to bed, we're thinking about other things we need to do. We're never present. We're always somewhere else. Always thinking about the next thing we need to do. We're always looking to tomorrow and never living in today.
The kingdom of God is not tomorrow and it's not yesterday. It's right now. It's happening right now and, too often, we live these fragmented lives. We should be people who joyously, in the moment, right now practice the presence of God, not allowing this stressful monotony, the day-in-and-day-out -things of this world to take away the flourishing life that God gives us.
I did this one time. I was with my wife Hannah, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Haven, and my six-month-old son Cohen. We're at the Irvine Spectrum sitting around While the kids are playing in the water. Hannah's talking to me about something, but I was thinking about something else. I had a lot of things I needed to do the next day. There was so much work I had to accomplish. There was an awkward silence, Hannah put her hand on my shoulder, and she said, "Bobby, do you remember when Haven was Cohen's size, when she was just a little baby?"
And I said, "Gosh, it feels like it was just yesterday."
And she says, "Well, that's what Haven, today, is going to feel like in a couple years from now. And Cohen will be big. Haven will never be this small ever again and neither will Cohen. This is a special day." And she said, "I don't ever want to miss out on my kids. I don't ever want to miss out on any of this." I don't know if she was saying this in a roundabout way for my benefit - I have a feeling she was - but I felt myself instantly think, yes, I don't want to miss a day with my kids. I don't want to miss my daughter being a toddler and my son being a baby, and only wonder, when they become teenagers, what I missed out on during their childhoods, or wonder when they become adults, what I missed out on when they were teenagers. I don't want to miss out on my friendships. I don't want to miss out on my grandparents before they go. I don't want to miss out on all of the gifts that God has given me because I choose not to live for today, but chose instead to spend my time thinking about tomorrow. I don't want to be a broken person anymore. I don't want to be fractured and fragmented, always thinking about tomorrow and not thinking about today. I want to be a whole person that is present. In that moment, I recognize it that God was there in my kids, not tomorrow in the work that I had to do. Of course, until that work comes, right? Until tomorrow is today.
God was there with my children. He was there with my wife. His presence was all around us and His goodness was right there. The banquet was set, the table was there, the food was laid out, the music was playing, and I was thinking about oxen somewhere that I had to check. I was thinking about land I had to visit. I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was in the midst of a banquet, a celebration, something God had given me today! I was somewhere else, fractured, broken. I don't want to be that type of person anymore. I want to live today because someday tomorrow won't come.
I started to think, what if I started to do everything for the glory of God and remembered that God is present everywhere? This phrase, the practice of the presence of God, was a phrase quoted by Brother Lawrence, a famous spiritual writer. His friends said that you could see the glory of God in him even when he would pick up a straw off the ground, or when he would clean dishes. Everything he did, he did in the presence and in the glory of God. His whole life was pervaded with joy and fullness, and it didn't matter what he was doing because he saw himself constantly in the midst of the kingdom, in the midst of this banquet.
I tried it with an orange and it was great. I thought what it would be like to eat an orange from my orange tree in the presence and in the glory of God. I have this tree in my front yard that grows the most delicious oranges. So, I plucked an orange from the tree and I thought, wow, this grew in my yard. Then I ate it slowly. This sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but I was present with the orange. I dug my fingers in and thought about what it feels like to have my finger in an orange. Then I peeled the orange slowly. When I bit into the orange, I really thought about the juice, I thought about what a gift this was, and I was filled with gratitude. You know if you're clothed with Christ, even eating an orange can bring glory to God. Even eating an orange can feel like a wedding banquet to which all people are invited. And when God is in everything, nothing can be monotonous or boring ever again. When the presence of God is experienced and practiced, nothing feels monotonous, nothing feels boring. Everything is exciting and everything is a banquet because it's filled with God's life and God's goodness.
I want to close with this story. A good friend of mine, Jan, who is the Chairman of the Hour of Power in the Netherlands, was very good friends with one of my favorite spiritual writers, Henri Nouwen. When Henri would come out for a visit, Jan would set up all kinds of things to do because he was afraid of Henri. He said Henri had this ability to see into a man's soul and to break through all the masks and all the fronts. Because Jan didn't want to be broken into, he would set up all of these things for Henri to do.
Jan would say, "Okay, Henri, we're going on a bike ride today, then we're going to go have coffee, then we're going to go visit some friends, then some friends are going to come over, then we're going to have dinner, and then we're going to hit the sack."
Henri would put his hand on his friend's shoulder and he would say, "Jan, I came to see you. I didn't come to do all of these things, to be busy and fractured, and to think about tomorrow. I'm thinking about right now, that I'm sitting across on a couch with one of my closest friends. Jan, you're my brother in Christ and I love you. I came to see you."
Henri Nouwen was filled with the love of God so that, no matter what he did, no matter what decisions he made, he knew God loved him and that made him become like God in the way that he lived his life.
Those same words that Henri Nouwen said to Jan, God is saying to you. We do these things in life to keep busy, but God is saying, "I've come to see you and to be with you. I've come to spend my day with you, right now, right here, in the Crystal Cathedral, or out there at a restaurant or wherever you are. There I am, too! And you'll never be alone, because I've come to be with you."
It can be scary because God can see through us and work through all of the wounds and all the brokenness and fear that we have. God causes us to ask questions and wrestle with doubt and all of existence, and yet still, He still wants to be with us. "I want to be with you," God says. "I want to be with you. I've come to see you and to be with you."
Today is a gift. Tomorrow will come, but it really won't because tomorrow will always be today when it's experienced. Today is the gift. Today is the blessing. Today is from God. Enjoy every moment. Practice His presence. Live in His kingdom. Trust in Him and see Him in everything that you do and enjoy.
Let's pray: Father, we thank You that You are with us right now. Many of us are suffering and hurting. Many of us are struggling. You're with us. Many of us feel caught in a quiet desperation. You're with us even there. Flourish inside of us a sense of joy, peace, fullness, and fulfillment that comes from practicing, on a daily basis, Your presence. Oh Lord, how we love You. We celebrate You and give glory to Your name. In the name of Your Son Jesus, we pray. Amen.