Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Lord is Near

     Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice! 

I’ve never liked it when people say “smile!” As if somehow smiling will make things better. If I’m not smiling, maybe there’s a reason?

So I confess, I also don’t much enjoy the song “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” Repeat. And once again. And … again.

Yet Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, said “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice!” This is just a few words before that other impossible instruction: “don’t be anxious about anything.”

What interests me is that we hear the instructions, but rarely hear the reason nestled so quietly between them: “The Lord is near.”

Paul was writing from prison, or house arrest, most likely in Rome, and addressing Christians in a doubly hostile culture: a young congregation in a wealthy, isolated Roman outpost in northern Greece, struggling with opposition and disunity. But his message, repeated through the short letter, is one of joy in the face of difficulty, danger, doubts about God’s provision and purpose.

For Paul, prison, pain, persecution, all the troubles he and his friends were facing, were welcome opportunities to press in closer to Christ, to know him better, to be more like him: “The Lord is near.”

Those little words, to me, are the key to the Christian life: The Lord is near. Because Christ is with us, we’re able to obey, to walk in grace, to love people who drive us crazy, to trust in God’s abundance when we’re told, from every direction, that we need to fight for our rights, our stuff, our fragile place in a fragile economy.

We can stop fighting, stop worrying, and despite all arguments to the contrary, we can rejoice. The Lord is near. It's in his hands. He's the one in control.

If those are just words, we should give up now. If they’re just a promise of the second coming, then the life Jesus describes in the sermon on the mount is impossible, an intolerably heavy burden we should throw off fast.

But Jesus said he would be with us, in the way that God the Father was with him while he was here on earth. Actively guiding, guarding, leading. Moving in power. Speaking words of love and peace. Providing wisdom, resources, rest.

The Lord is near.

This became real for me when I was sixteen. At the time, I lived with my grandmother and two brothers - one older, one younger. We had moved several times in my high school years but had settled into a two-family house on the edge of town and things seemed to be going smoothly, even peacefully, for the first time I could remember.

The day before finals began, my junior year of high school, my grandmother had a heart attack. She was complaining of nausea, feeling uncharacteristically tired, and asked my older brother to take her to the doctor’s office. He came home late that evening to report that an ambulance had taken her to the hospital, that she was having a heart attack, and that she might die. He and my younger brother went in their room and closed the door.

I was terrified. My fragile life had become even more fragile, and I felt very much alone. I sat in my grandmother’s room, then knelt on the floor by her bed, crying, praying, sobbing, praying. I’m not sure how long I had been kneeling there when I felt a strong presence in the room. The door was closed, no sound of my brothers. Yet I felt someone very near, very warm, and I heard, very clearly, “I will be with you.” Did I hear an actual voice? I’m not sure. Were those the exact words? That’s hard to say.

What I know for sure was that God was present with me, promising to stay with me. And promising that whatever happened, it would be all right. The Lord was near.

I stopped crying, dried my face. I wasn’t sure my grandmother would live. I wasn’t sure what the weeks ahead would bring. I was almost certain my life would change again, in ways I couldn’t foresee. But my sense of despair, that heavy load of worry, was totally gone. I went to bed and slept soundly, secure that God was near.

As it turned out, my grandmother lived, although she was hospitalized for months, and out of work for almost a year.  We lost the place where we lived. I spent the fall semester living with a family I didn’t know well, in another town, attending a new school my senior year. There were some very low moments along the way. But the Lord was near.

That summer, working as a counselor at a Christian camp, I faced challenges I wasn’t prepared for. When I asked for help, God was near.

The following fall, facing questions about college, and how to pay for it, God was near: the promised Father, the needed counselor.

At another camp, another summer, I found myself in the middle of a racially-motivated fist fight. At what I felt sure was God’s prompting, I put a hand on each angry girl and started praying – out loud – and God was near, his love and peace pouring down my arms so powerfully they shook, his warmth and grace so physically present that when I said amen and dropped my arms, both startled girls said “Okay.” “Okay, what?” “Okay, we’ll be friends.” And they were.

The Lord is near. Near the day my husband waved good-bye to start a new job in a new city, while I stood on the porch of the old Victorian twin the realtors said we’d never sell, watching him go, our two-year old daughter in my arms. The next car down that one-way street held the buyers God brought to buy our house, the only people to look at it in the months it was on the market. God’s promise to a worried young mom. The Lord is near.

Near years later when our youngest baby struggled for breath in a hospital bed, and the doctors sent me from the room while they tried one last, experimental procedure. Crying alone in the hospital chapel, I felt his presence in two hospital workers, praying out loud together, and asked them to pray with me. I'll never know the names of those two women, but I know, from the x-ray results, and the doctors’ puzzled responses, that the Lord pressed in close to hear their prayers. He answered them with a sudden peace guarding my heart through the exhausting days ahead, and an unexpected recovery for our daughter.

The Lord is near.

Near the night we realized he was calling us to move from a place we’d come to love, to a lower income, less definite salary, challenges we couldn’t even imagine. The Lord was near: confirming the call, bringing his unexpected peace.

The Lord has been near, in predicaments too many to number, at times when I’ve felt so far beyond my safety zone I can’t even see what safety would look like. The Lord has been near, when asked to pray and words don’t come, when asked to serve and the gifts are beyond me, when asked to lead in places where following would be too frightening to consider.

He’s been near too many nights to mention, at 3 AM, when I’ve found myself sitting on our couch, asking yet again: Did you call me to this? Did I hear you right? Are you who you said? Will you lead me once again?

The Lord is near. 

That reality makes me rejoice. Again, and again, and again. And again.

The Lord is near.

His presence makes anxiety irrelevant. Insolent. Absurd.

The Lord is near.

And in his presence, peace that passes understanding. That transcends understanding. That takes our understanding, sets it on its head, and shows how far beyond our simple calculus the God of the universe stands.
 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.