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The Nearness of God


When I teach, I often try to focus learners on the problems of our world. We are called, after all, to serve the world's needs.

But I was just reading a book where the author, charged with the same responsibility, asked “Are people aware that there IS a world...?

It got me thinking of a very old, very common human problem. As we live and grow, we create for ourselves a box, a set of ideas and familiar conditions that we extend onto life, without really connecting the dots. We say things like “rich people are selfish...” or “all politicians tell lies.”

The fact of the matter is, these “dots” don't really hold true. People are generally as good and as bad as we are ourselves. Certainly, there are individuals who devote themselves to being bad, and others who devote themselves to being good, with varying amounts of success.

But we live in a world of our own making, a world of presumptions, short-cuts, and wishful thinking. In this world “I” am nearly always right. “You” are nearly always wrong. And “communication” is a way of getting others to abandon their way of thinking and embrace mine. It's not exactly the path of the Gospel.

The problem isn't “right and wrong”. The problem is “real and unreal”. We can choose to live in the real world or we can live in one of an infinite line of unreal worlds, created by our expectations and beliefs, set up as walls to keep the real world out. Who wants to live in the real world anyway...?

A teacher named Tricia taught me about “the box”. She said that if I prayed, the holy Spirit would reach in and help me out of my box, help me see the world as it is: created by God; afflicted by sin; burning with hope; wandering down countless false-paths. What she didn't tell me was that, if I asked for help getting out of my box, the holy Spirit didn't need to move slowly.

I went to Home Depot to buy some washers. It was midday in June. The Arizona sun beat down without mercy. I hurried past a group of men sitting in the shade—day workers who wait from morning to mid-afternoon hoping someone will give them work. I went inside wondering how anyone could live that way.

After browsing for awhile I found my washers and paid at the check-out. Walking outside I forgot about the men, forgot to hurry, to look away, to pull my cap down over my face. One of the men, younger than the others, called out as I passed.

“Mister! Can I have a quarter...?”

I stopped in my tracks. A quarter? Nobody asks for a quarter. It's like asking for a bent penny. I turned around and looked at him. He sat in the shadow of the building, eyes bright. I got out my wallet.

“I don't have a quarter,” I told him. “You can have this...” I gave him a twenty-dollar bill.

“No!” he said. “It's too much...”

Hmm.

“Listen,” I told him. “It's all I've got. I don't need it. If you want it, you can have it.” I held it out. He reached up slowly and took the money as if it was hot. Okay. We're settled. I turned to go.

“WAIT A MINUTE...!” The man jumped up and ran to me. “At least we should shake hands...!” He held out his hand. I took it. The holy Spirit clamped down on me and yanked me out of my shoes. Suddenly there was no rich and poor, no white and brown, no American and Mexican. Just two men shaking hands. Two men sharing the same planet. Two brothers greeting each other after a long time apart. And one busted-up box of useless beliefs.

I knew what had happened. God had brought me out and there was no going back. In the real world there are people who have, and people who don't have. We make people “poor” when we walk away, not seeing, not hearing, not loving. Our boxes make us blind and deaf. Not seeing the world, we can't share our world.

I have spent a lifetime groping around in my box, not knowing what the problem was. In one moment, God brought me out with the suddenness of a stone falling away from a tomb. “He has called us from death into life!” The life of a disciple is a life of rooting out fruitless beliefs and planting the best, the kind that bear fruit for the world. I once believed that people are strangers. Now they are neighbors. I believed that poor people are unworthy or broken. Now they teach me great lessons. I believed that people who are different are dangerous. Now I long to make their acquaintance, to celebrate with them, to anticipate the presence of God in the world, each in our own special way.

Am I a different person? Not really. But I am on a new journey, a journey of discovering who I really am, who God sees when he looks at me. And with this new knowledge comes new responsibility, new accountability. The one who is given treasure must use it to make more treasure. This is what conversion means, to see the world in new ways, not a place of horrible sin, but a place of wonderful grace. Each day, every day, we can meet God! We just need to get out of our box and look for him. It won't take long. He is always near...

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