God Is Only Ever Here

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All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.
— Barbara Brown Taylor

I recently moved.  That feels a little too small.  I recently packed up 14 years of life from one state with my wife and three kids and moved into to another state.  Loaded two U-Hauls and a trailer headed east for open country.  We bought a farm, not a working one (thank God), but one with the old barn, the acreage, the unfinished back lot and the spread of climbing trees.  We went in search for a sense of place that matched the movement of our hearts.  No guarantees we found it, but we’re hopeful.  Though none of that is the point of this essay.

It was time to address our sense of place.  We had settled into a good life: nice house, big yard, great school, friendly neighbors.  We had a muchness life and were grateful for it.

As time went on, and we attempted to throw our roots deeper into that life, it was like the soil wouldn’t take.  We lived in Colorado at the time, and anyone who lives in Colorado knows that it has a very opinionated climate.  One of the things the Colorado climate abhors is grass—at least the kind we make into lawns.  Great effort (and great cost) are required in fertilizing, treating, watering and caring for a lawn in Colorado for it to survive, much less thrive.  The grass, in its deepest places, simply cannot thrive in that place without tons of artificial help.

As I looked at my life, I started to see the same trend.  I saw that it was possible to “be” there, but the amount of care and conditioning it required to thrive there was costly and effortful.  I was like a Kentucky Bluegrass sitting atop Colorado clay, neither me nor the soil was overtly wrong, we just didn’t belong together anymore.

This may seem like an essay that’s headed toward an admonition to travel, to reach, to go places, and to break away from the world you know.  It may seem like we are trending toward me saying you should do what I did and go for a new place.  But that is not the point of this essay at all.

The point is not the move itself, but what it taught us about place—here-ness.  The after-effects of our remain to be seen, and the practices and rhythms we build here will be telling of how our roots and this soil combine.  I feel a deep spiritual confidence that the reasons we had for making our move were sound, prayerful and thoroughly vetted.  And perhaps someday it is worth writing an essay on how to know it is time to make a big move.  But it is unlikely you are making a big move. 

What is more likely is that you are here.

Look down at your feet.  Observe the ground underneath them.  Consider the room in which you sit and the land which sprawls underneath it.  Find the nearest natural object: a tree, a blade of grass, a bird, an insect.  They are all here.  With no effort whatsoever and no intent on going somewhere else.  I suspect the longer you observe the unforced here-ness of the natural world around you, the more you begin to feel how difficult you find it to do the same.  Your mind sprints ahead to to-do lists and won’t-it-be-better whens.  Or you find yourself rehearsing and rehearsing a past experience wondering what you could do to repeat it (if it was good) or repair it (if it was bad).  You imagine yourself in your office tomorrow or dropping the kids of later this week.  You are thinking about your next vacation or your last vacation. 

Journeying-ish

Because we see life as a journey we are always thinking about the stops we’ve already passed or the ones we’ve never reached, but to the extent that life is a journey (and there are many ways that it’s not) we are not people traveling between destinations.  We are here.  And for those of us who wish to live deeply with God, expressing the character of Jesus into the world, we have only one option: to be where we are, because God is only here.

Regret tells us to obsess about how could have improved the past, and fantasy imagines a future where we finally get it right.

God is never in the future you are imagining.  Because that future will never exist.

God is never in the past that you are regretting.  Because that past has been manicured of its truth, simplified, in order to match the narrative of your regrets.

God is never in some next place waiting for us to arrive.  And he is never parked in some past version of ourselves waiting for us to get back there.  God is only ever here.

One of the great so-called “journeying” metaphors of Scripture is the wilderness wandering of the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan.  You have heard it said that “getting the people out of Egypt was easier than getting Egypt out of the people.”  It is a nice, pithy saying, if only it were true.  God had brought them through so many places, enslavement, Red Seas and the walls of Canaan itself.  The place they had found themselves was wrought with challenges and inconsistent with the future they’d fantasized about.  And when faced with the reality of here versus the fantasy, they balked.  It was not that they were too Egypt or too enslaved to be Promised Land people.   It was that in all of their experiences of God’s presence in the least likely of places, they couldn’t see him in the place after that.  They couldn’t be here.

Flying into a sea of regret they then manicured the past of its truth and imagined the wonder of being somewhere else, the wilderness, back in Egypt, anywhere but here!

But God is only ever here.

I spent so many of my years in Colorado living like Israel, waiting for my next thing, for my real life to begin.  I took years and treated them as holding patterns for a better life, idealizing seasons I’d lived in the past and fantasizing about ones that I’d never see.  So often we see the here-and-now as punishment for where we were before.  Regret tells us to obsess about how could have improved the past, and fantasy imagines a future where we finally get it right.

When God sends Israel back into the wilderness for 40 years, it is because they can’t be here.  The Promised Land was full of trouble (as all Promised Lands are) and Israel would only be able to live there if they lived in union with God.  They came to the edge of Canaan looking for a world where they wouldn’t need God anymore, not a world where their need for Him was shown permanent.

Sometimes our heres change and that is why, in retrospect, life can look like a journey. 

Too often our obsession with journeying is because here, where we are, is a place where our needfulness of God is too much to bear and we wish away our places and days for a somewhere/sometime that our needs will die down.

Didn’t You Just Move?

It is at this point in the essay that some of you start smelling a rat.  “What a minute, wait a minute.” All this talk of being willing to be where we are—didn’t you just move?”

I mentioned that what is interesting about our move is not what happened after, but what happened before, and this has much to do with here-ness.  At some point, not so many years ago, I gave up my fight with Colorado.  I put down my Kentucky Bluegrass roots to find God in that soil.  And many good things happened.  We studied Scripture fervently with a wonderful community of people.  We laughed late in to the night with friends and neighbors.  We invested in projects we cared about and tried to make a meaningful impact in our community.  I stopped wondering what was next.  I realized that it was not God who was unpresent, but me. 

And to make a long story (somewhat) short, for all the day-by-day providence of God in that season at some point we felt released.  It was the end of that “here” and time for another.  The skills and awareness we had learned in Colorado were buried in our hearts and bodies, and in so many ways, it was those exact skills and awareness which pushed us on.  As we pondered a change and the many reasons we were being drawn to move on, it was easy to fall into fantasy.  Easy to idealize the next place, the next thing and how much better, healthier, wiser, wholer we would be. 

In our best moments, all that forward-looking idolatry would fade, and we would find the courage to be where we were.  “Here” for much of the summer was living in a house that no longer felt like ours, facing complex financial decisions with incredibly daunting consequences, parenting our children through grief, hope and fear, and facing our own anxieties about the future, all in turn.  “Here” for a brief season was a pressurized, unwelcome in-between.  Kind people would say, “it will be better after you get settled.” And “Be grateful.” 

But the kind sayings we say to each other is often not where God is.  I found God more poignantly in the empty feelings of my no-longer home, in the incongruent feelings of hope and terror at the decision I had made, in the absolute exasperation at my ability to help my very sensitive sons metabolize so much revolutionary change.  While my feet felt on firmer ground when imagining a better tomorrow or lamenting a mistaken past, my heart could not live in either place.

Because God is only ever here.

Look Around

Sometimes our heres change and that is why, in retrospect, life can look like a journey.  But the journey-view strings the memorable moments together as if they are the story, leaving out all the days, hours, months and moments which cannot fit the plot.  When we search for plot and ourselves in it, we go looking for Promised Lands that don’t need God and run frantically from the Lands of Promise where He is holding present today.

The fundamental truth of the Passion of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost is that all lands are promised lands.  Every moment, every experience, infused by God to send us deeper into the reality of our lives, time-out on the running, regretting and fantasizing.  All of this over and over and over until our hearts find rest in the words of the Psalmist, “even if I make my bed in hell, You are there.”

Maybe you are in hell right now.  You must look around at the burning pain which surrounds you and the sulfuric smell of loss which fills your nostrils and say, “God is here.”

Maybe you are on the brink of a new place, filled with hope and danger.  You must look at its barriers to entry, its unexpected challenges, and the ways in which it triggers the sin of fantasy and say, “God is here.”

Maybe you are in the wilderness, neither hopeful nor empty, neither steady nor stripped.  You must look at the wide view of impoverished turf.  You must recognize the empty landscape with nothing to set your hopes on.  You must see the bread in your hands that is only enough for this day and no promise of tomorrow and say, “God is here.”

To the extent that we can do that, we can bring the Jesus Way into our worlds.  But we must first recognize and then surrender our pulls toward fantasy futures and simplified pasts.  We must recognize and surrender our pull to other countries and other escapes.  We must put down our phones, cease the Insta-scroll, and look around, look around. 

Here we are.  And God is only ever here.

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
— Walt Whitman
Nick Richtsmeier1 Comment