Sometimes God isn’t very subtle. Today was one of those times.
I’m nearing the end of an Old Testament reading plan, and I came across a sobering passage this morning. In Zechariah 7:5 God expresses His disappointment in the fasts of Israel with these words: “When you fasted…was it for Me that you fasted?” Less than ten minutes later, reading along with my church’s New Testament reading plan, I read these hard words from Isaiah that Jesus throws at the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8 – “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” The connection between the two, a kind of Scriptural double-whammy, was impossible to miss (“Lord, are You trying to tell me something?”), and it got me thinking about a very real danger.
Israel and the Pharisees fell into a trap that still has its jaws open wide today. They did the right things for the wrong reasons. They followed the form, checked the boxes, kept up appearances, and looked like they were doing great. But they forgot to put their heart into it. They got wrapped up in the practices, and forgot the Person who was meant to be the center of it all.
How free am I from that danger? Not free at all, I have to admit. Looking back, I know there have been days in this Bible reading plan where I paid little attention to what I read, and even less to the Author of what I read – I was just checking off a box. I have taken Sabbath hikes that were more hike than Sabbath, especially when the hike was strenuous or the weather was hot (both of those were true of today’s hike). I’ve sung powerful worship songs in a room full of Christ-followers while my mind wandered toward our lunch plans and I glanced at the clock. No, I’m far from immune to the failings mentioned above.
I find that the solution to this kind of sterile routine is to follow the advice of the 17th-Century French monk Brother Lawrence, who learned the art of practicing the presence of God. As we read His word, we need to make Him the conscious focus of our attention, thanking Him for what we learn and asking for His help in understanding and applying it. When I go for walks with Him, I need to remind myself that I am, indeed, with Him – a privilege I never want to take for granted! When we’re fortunate enough to gather with others who love Him and sing songs that bring Him pleasure, we need to direct our hearts toward His presence, revel in the fact that we are welcome there, and sing with gusto to the only Audience that really matters.
I mentioned in a sermon last weekend that I have no desire to be omnipresent, because among other things, I’m afraid people would get tired of me (quickly – guaranteed!). But I am so glad for the unavoidable presence of God. And even more glad for His patience when I forget He is there, and fall into sterile habits that look spiritual, but aren’t.
I’m making a fresh commitment to practicing the presence of God. Wanna join me?