The God who is here

We seek him here,
We seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere,
Is he in Heaven?
Is he in Hell?
That demmed elusive PIMPERNEL

With qualifications to the last few lines, and apologies to Baroness Orczy and her Scarlet Pimpernel, these words could just as well apply to our current dilemma over the presence of God. Yes, I mean dilemma—even a fixation, as we try to nail God down to being present somewhere somehow.

On holidays recently, I took the unprecedented step of attending no less than six different congregations out of interest and personal obligation: several Anglican services, a Baptist meeting, a Catholic Mass, and a charismatic celebration. But what struck me, much to my surprise, was the essential similarity, not the dissimilarity of these various Christian groups. What did they have in common? The quest for the presence of God. They all understood God to be present differently, but they were united in elevating the quest for the presence of God to the level of their prime concern. Two key places they were searching have stuck in my mind.

In ‘praise and worship’

One meeting we attended was superbly run by a charismatic Baptist group. Hundreds of people, a school auditorium, a contemporary feel, contemporary music well presented, and a senior pastor dressed like his ordinary, contemporary, fellow Queenslanders (thongs and boardshorts?). There was much that was inviting and compelling. But it soon dawned on me that what was most inviting, most compelling, was the music, or rather the ‘praise and worship time’. We began with 35 minutes of chorus singing. After some announcements, we continued for another 10 minutes. After a talk from the senior pastor and some prophesies delivered from the front, the meeting closed with another 15 minutes of praise and worship. 35 + 10 + 15 = 1 hour of praise and worship. The Bible was neither read nor in my opinion, expounded.

Now, I’m a musician by background, and the conduct of music in church is something I am particularly interested in. That night, it was just so well done. And, like the John Wimber Conference I attended in 1990, it was continuously done. Continuously: there is virtually no break between one song and the next. Very cleverly, the music fades, but never disappears. There may be a tempo or key change while the next song is introduced, but the business of sound is never stopped. I marvel at the skill and application of such ‘praise and worship leaders’; they manage to do what composers rarely could: sustain interest and attention within the one movement for 30 to 50 minutes. (Roll over Beethoven!)

But I’m wandering down musical alleys. The real point of that musical/performance prowess was the cause it was serving. The leadership of that church hadn’t poured time and resources into praise and worship for no good reason. What was their good reason? The penny dropped for me with some introductory comments from the praise and worship leader.

“God is enthroned on the praises of his people,” he declared loudly and passionately.

“Of course,” I thought. This is why it is so important to them. What for me is an impressive exhibition of song leading is for these brethren the means by which God is present among them. No wonder they employ a full-time praise and worship leader! He is their devotional medium, the lynch pin of their connection with God.

But the use of those words from Psalm 22:3 left me troubled.

“You are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” (RSV, NASB)

“You inhabit the praises of Israel.” (RV)

“You are the praise of Israel.” (NIV)

Psalm 22 is a psalm of the righteous sufferer, the man for whom the presence of God is, at the very least, an elusive and ambiguous reality. He’s the man who begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1), and continues with “I cry by day, but you do not answer” (v. 2). And the words about God’s presence in the praise and worship of his people are prefaced by the simple, but apparent contradiction, “Yet you are holy”—that is, separate, removed (v. 3a). It all smacks of a familiar biblical sentiment: how can the transcendent be immanent? How can what is totally removed be involved? In the words of Isaiah 57:15, how can the exalted one who dwells in a high and lofty place, also manage to be present with the contrite and lowly of spirit?

But the psalmist is convinced that God can do this. He can be with his people because in the Exodus and the covenant, he has shown himself to be for them. The covenant with Israel enshrines both the transcendence and the immanence of Yahweh. Hence the unique expression in Psalm 22:3 is a refashioning of a familiar biblical metaphor—a metaphor of God’s covenant condescension. We see it in Psalm 80:1 and 99:1 where God is invoked as the one “enthroned above the cherubim”. We have the basic pattern preserved in the directions for the construction of the ark of the covenant:

And there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel. (Exodus 25:22)

Back to Psalm 22. In despair and anguish, David draws strength from the reality of God’s covenant approachability. God is holy, yet he is enthroned upon the praises of his people; he is intimately involved with their plight. The Exodus shows that.

But I become very uncomfortable when a metaphor of God’s condescension is used as a blueprint for our pretension. That God must be present as we ‘praise and worship’ him is a hop, skip and a very big jump from Psalm 22. The ethos of the Christian celebration we attended that night was a long way from the humble piety, the ardent, searching faith of the psalmist whose words were quoted. It’s the mechanistic and compulsive air that disturbs me. An understanding has developed in Christian circles that God is somehow obliged to be present because of the sheer inventiveness, fervour or tenacity of our ‘worship’. 1 Kings 18 and the full-on worship of the prophets of Baal appear to me to be waiting in the wings.

In the Lord’s Supper

But it’s not just those at the charismatic end of the spectrum who exhibit this confusion over the presence of God. At the more mainstream meetings we attended (Catholic and evangelical Anglican services), I noticed the same phenomenon dressed in different theological clothes. What a profile the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist has in both these liturgical traditions! What an elevated place it has in the space of the Christian meeting! To put it bluntly, how long it takes! What a sizable slab of the weekly gathering together is devoted to this eating of bread and drinking of wine!

Now, of course the Lord’s Supper has, in the Reformed tradition, been infused with a radically different understanding from that of our Catholic neighbours. But a different understanding does not necessarily mean a different profile. This is what worried me on our holiday pilgrimage. Radically different understandings were producing radically similar profiles! Indeed, the concern to correct a false position often results in a disproportionate overstatement of the position one is trying to affirm. Polemical contexts lead to overweighty corrections. So here we are as 20th-century evangelicals at the Lord’s Supper, sounding as though we are fighting the battles of the 16th century. Indeed, we should be fighting battles over justification by faith and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. My question is simply this: is the Lord’s Supper the forum within which to fight them? Or do we unwittingly give to this aspect of our Protestant tradition a profile it should never have had?

Try as we may to justify our liturgical portrait of justification, I’m forced to ask what the man in the pews, Edward Anglican, is picking up. Exhibit A is the almost tangible difference in the feel of the service at the time of the Lord’s Supper. It can be seen written on the faces of those present, and heard in the music that is being played. Christ is somehow thought, felt or assumed to be more present at the table than he is in the pew. Exhibit B is my personal testimony, as someone converted into an Anglican church at the age of 20. It was obvious to me in those first few years that the demeanour of my fellow Christians changed noticeably at the ‘Lord’s Supper Time’. One did not have to be a theologian to pick up that this was the most sacred event of the morning’s activities. The holy of holies was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. God was thought to be present there in a qualitatively different, perhaps superior, way to other components of the service.

But is he? Why is the presence of God tied so tenaciously and so peculiarly to that one ceremony? The question I long to ask is, what is the comparative expectation we have of God being present in the preaching of the Bible? The answer, I suspect (and dread), goes something like this:

“Oh yes, God is ‘involved’ with the preaching of the Bible. But that supplies the intellectual component in the Christian meeting. For the experiential component, the existential meeting with God, the real presence, it’s to the Lord’s Supper that we turn.”

The God who is present as promised

It’s not my intention to provide answers to all the questions I have raised, but merely to sketch a way forward. Certainly the assumed place and significance of the Lord’s Supper in Protestant church life warrants a good deal of attention.

One thing that is striking about the New Testament is that God does promise to be present. But the contexts in which these promises are couched are sobering, to say the least. A few examples will make the point:

For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matt 18:20)

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor 5 :4-5)

And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:20)

The Matthew 18 passage is not a blank cheque for the presence of God in corporate prayer. The context is the church’s obligation to discipline the sinning brother. Similarly with 1 Corinthians 5. The common denominator of these and similar texts is the assurance of Christ’s presence in the context of the discharge of his rule. The gathering (the church) is to be the place where Christ holds special sway. He gathers his people to address them. He gives a royal audience, and with it a piece of his royal mind.

We seek him here, we seek him there, we seek him everywhere … Have we sold out? Have even we Protestant Christians joined the mad search—the search that is dishonouring to God and unworthy of his people—the search that smells more like the bad breath of natural religion than the spirit of the New Testament?

The earliest Christians, through their distinctly secular ‘religious’ practices, earned themselves the label ‘atheists’. The God whom they worshipped and the manner in which they worshipped him were like nothing the pagans could categorize as ‘religious’. Would we were more like them!

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