I was a guest musician at a church in Winnipeg, engaged in the familiar liturgies of a pre-service prayer huddle. One person prayed for the congregation's safety in inclement weather, another for the technical aspects of the service, and a third kindly remembered my family back home.
When my turn came, I must have used a phrase like, "God, we invite you here among us." I clearly recall the minister's prayer, which followed mine: "We know we do not have to request your presence, because there is nowhere you are not. So we celebrate the fact you are already here with us now."
My head stayed bowed, but my face burned. This guy is correcting my theology with his prayer!
The service went as planned. But throughout the evening, I was mentally defending my choice of words. Of course I know God is everywhere—I've read Psalm 139! I was requesting an extra measure of his presence, an outpouring of his Spirit. Or, if you want to be more precise (and clearly you do), I was praying that God would help us to be open to him. Aren't we just arguing semantics?
I never articulated any of these thoughts to the minister. But the dialogue I've had with him in my head ever since has gradually refined my thinking—a case of iron sharpening particularly dull iron. I now believe that pastor's gentle correction was necessary.
If the psalmist is right—that there truly is nowhere we can go to flee God's presence—why do we act like his attendance is intermittent? And why do we assume it's dependent on us?
"Halfway through the retreat, God showed up," we say. As if he wasn't there before we were, drawing us to that time and place.
"Lord, we welcome you to come," we pray. As if he needs us to usher him into the world he created. As if we do not "live and move and have our being" in him alone (Acts 17:28).
In the Gospels, Jesus makes a simple proclamation with seismic implications: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 4:17). For those of us who grew up in the hot, scary shadows of brimstone pulpits, the command to repent causes an involuntary shudder. But the Greek word is metanoeite, which is more invitation than threat. It means "change your mind" or "reconsider."
Reconsider what? According to Jesus, everything you thought you knew about reality. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven is near.
Most of us think of heaven as somewhere out there, the place where God watches from a distance and we will one day join him. But for the biblical writers, heaven is close. In fact, the "first heavens" is a term used to describe the earth's atmosphere. So when Jesus describes the invisible (but very real) realm that God inhabits, he lets us know it's not only out there, but also as near as the atmosphere surrounding our bodies and the air we breathe.
That Winnipeg minister was calling me to repent—to reconsider what I thought I knew about reality and the way God pervades it. I don't have to invoke God's presence. I only have to attend to it.
This change of heart and mind alters the way I approach discipleship. I suspect I have sometimes unconsciously used spiritual disciplines as smoke signals to get God 's attention. Now I am learning that they are simply ways of letting him capture mine.
A similar change has occurred in my orientation toward evangelism. I don't have to give a nonbeliever something I have that she doesn't. I need only invite her to open herself up to what God is already doing all around her.
The other day I was trying to describe this shift in my understanding to my friend Roy Salmond. He ran to pull out an article he'd read in Time magazine more than a decade ago. It's an eloquent piece called "The Game of Catch," by Roger Rosenblatt, about baseball, parenthood, and the wordless communication between a father and son tossing the ball around. While the article is in no way religious, one thought in particular has permanently changed Roy's view of life with God.
"They do not call it a game of throw," Roy quoted, grinning. "They call it catch."
Oddly enough, I understood exactly what he meant. Spiritually speaking, I've been preoccupied with throwing the ball; this turns out to be a case in which it would be better to receive than to give.
God is the initiator. We love because he first loved us. We're here because he thought of us and welcomed us into his world. Yes, he stands at the doors to our hearts and knocks, but we need only let him in. We don't have to summon him from another country or galaxy. The kingdom of God is already near.
Repent. It's time to play catch.
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More Christianity Today articles by Carolyn Arends are available on our site, including:
Matter Matters | Lessons learned between the couch and a 10k race. (July 27, 2009)
Saying More Than We Can Say | Why the arts matter even during a recession. (June 22, 2009)
Hiding What They Seek | In my desire to be 'seeker-friendly,' I'm often guilty of concealing Jesus. (March 30, 2009)
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