In his book for pastors, "The Living Reminder," Henri Nouwen coins a remarkable and daring phrase: "the ministry of absence." Ministers do a disservice, he says, if they witness only to God's presence and do not prepare others to experience the times when God seems absent.

"It is for your good that I am going away," Jesus told the Twelve at the Last Supper, surely confounding the already dazed disciples. How could it be good for the visible presence of God in flesh to depart from them? Jesus answered their blank stares with a promise: "Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."

In other words, God's presence on earth was changing form: from the flesh-and-blood body of a Palestinian Jew to a Spirit, who would prove to be more intimate indeed, but also more subtle and easier to ignore. Commands in the Epistles--"Quench not the Spirit"; "Grieve not the Holy Spirit" (KJV)--hint at the profound change.

I marvel at a God who puts himself at our mercy, as it were, allowing himself to be quenched and grieved--and even forgotten. For this reason, we need the ministry of absence.

Nouwen's phrase struck me with some force because, frankly, I struggle with the problem of "forgetting God." Was it Yogi Berra who claimed to experience amnesia and deja vu simultaneously? When it comes to God, I too forget the familiar all over again. For example, wrenched from my normal routine on a trip somewhere, it will suddenly occur to me that, except for a cursory blessing before meals, I have not given God a single thought all day. Forget the essence of the universe and the central focus of my life? Yes, I do.

Apparently I am not alone. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses pleads with the Israelites not to ...

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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