Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Promise of Presence

He shall call upon me and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
Psalm 91:15 Book of Common Prayer

The Bible is full of some very extravagant promises. As my faith has aged along with my body, I’ve learned not to take these as literal guarantees. Promises of long life, of healing, of moving mountains—all these I regard as just whistling in the dark, the writer hoping against hope that they were true, the way that verifiable statements such as “The sun rises in the east” are true.
            I’m not sure it matters whether or not they are literally true, and for every instance in which they appear to be, I can find two examples of where they clearly are not. Yet, faithful to my earliest training, I find it difficult not to “cling to the promises,” as we used to sing.
            Psalm 91 is one of my (many) favorite psalms. This morning when I reached verse 15, I was ensnared by the promise of presence.
            What I want—and what I think most people want—is the sense that we are not alone as we struggle with our disease and its ramifications. Those of us without spouses—or with partners so hurt and sad and scared by our illness that they have no comfort left to offer us—may feel especially vulnerable. How much can and should we burden our friends or our children? Who will accompany us to surgery, to treatment?
            Those are questions with which we may need to wrestle. Still, we can rest in the reality that God does not abandon us in trouble; God is an all-weather, all-terrain friend. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is frightening, but it’s not a solo journey. We are not asked to be Lindbergh or the other early pilots flying alone through the night, unsure if we will survive the journey. We have company.
Some people can sense the presence of God or angels; one friend hears an audible voice. I don’t often hear God’s voice; nevertheless, I am aware of God’s being present in the actions of my friends, who begin offering help almost before I need it. Prevenient grace, the Anglican priest John Wesley termed it—the grace that goes ahead of us, getting things ready. Though we may be solitary, we are not alone. We are accompanied by one who has walked a road of anguish in a human body, one who knew fear and the hardship of a prayer that didn’t receive the hoped-for answer. We are not alone.

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