By Howard Brammer
Three regional conferences instead of one national gathering were history-making events for the North American Christian Convention. There has been, and there will continue to be much evaluation of this experiment. Attendance, offering, speakers, flow of the service. And occasionally at a North American there are couple of comments about the music.
But the true evaluator and the most important one is this: Did God show up? Did we encounter the Presence of the living God?
After bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, Moses was concerned about the Presence of God. He had a face-to-face encounter with God in the Sinai desert. He said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. . . . Remember that this nation is your people.’ The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you.’ Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here’” (Exodus 33:12-15).
Then Moses raises another crucial issue. “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (v. 16).
Moses knew his people were not the biggest group or the strongest nation. “Lord,” he wanted to know, “what is to be our identifying characteristic if not your Presence”
What is it today that should distinguish God’s people from all the other people on the face of the earth? Civic groups meet weekly, sing, and have a speaker. They are good people, caring and doing good things for others. What makes us different from them?
Moses says it is the supernatural Presence of God.
But isn’t God always among us? One of the great attributes of God is his incredible and indescribable omnipresence—he is so awesome he can be everywhere at the same time.
The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me” (Psalm 139:7-10).
God is everywhere! As air is to the birds, as water is to the fish, so the omnipresence of God is the environment of mankind. “He is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27, 28).
But elsewhere, the psalmist says, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1, 2). This desire is intensified when he says, “Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you” (Psalm 63:1). The Message translates it, “I can’t get enough of You.” “Apart from you, I have no good thing” (Psalm 16:2).
What both Moses and the writer of these Psalms were desperately pursuing seems to be something more than God’s omnipresence. They didn’t want bigger armies or better weapons. Nor were they passionately seeking more facts concerning God. They were seeking a deeper and more intimate personal encounter with the Presence of God.
They wanted to experience what many ancients such as Brother Lawrence along with A.W. Tozer, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, and more currently Sally Morganthaler and others term the “manifest” or the real Presence. Robert Webber speaks of the “evident” Presence.
Is this not the promise Jesus makes when he says, “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show (manifest) myself to him” (John 14:21)? Then he adds that when anyone loves and obeys him, the Father and I will “come to him and make our home with him” (v. 23).
Short of Heaven, there is no greater joy for the believer than to know and experience the manifest Presence of the Lord. “You fill me with joy in your presence” (Psalm 16:11).
Alan Fleece put it this way: “The knowledge that God is present is blessed, but to feel and experience his Presence is nothing less than sheer joy.” William Law said, “Intimacy with God is not the spice but the essence of Christian existence.”
Marty Nystrom said he had talked to many people who said, “I’ve tried church, but it’s not my thing. I like the Bible, but the Koran has some good teaching also.” But he said he has never talked to anyone who said, “I’ve experienced the Presence of God, but no thanks I don’t want it.”
Not only is the Presence the most joyous place; it is also the safest place to be. The conscious awareness of his Presence is the greatest deterrent to sin. The old hymn says, “Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.” Another song puts it this way, “There is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God, a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.” Talk about an accountability partner!
We are to “resist the devil” and “flee temptation” and build discipline into our lives, but there is nothing that can protect us from sin like the Presence. Augustine said, “The joy of the Presence so far exceeds the pleasure of sin that we give them up readily.” Author Gary Thomas said, “It is God’s overwhelming Presence in my life that causes me to do what he wills for my life.”
We need his Presence. The Presence can change everything about us, the way we serve and the way we treat others. The Presence will change how churches deal with ministers and how ministers deal with churches.
Chuck Smith Jr., pastor of Capistrano Calvary Chapel, did a roving microphone survey in a Sunday night service where hundreds of the people were unbelievers. He asked one question: “What do you expect from the service tonight?”
The majority of the people responded by saying they expected some kind of an encounter with God. Beyond the music and the message, they came to church expecting God to show up.
The sad reality, however, is that the Presence of God is missing in many churches today. The preacher shows up; musicians, technicians, and drama people show up, but is God present?
A Barna Research Organization survey asked, “How often has a worship service brought you into the Presence of God?” “Always,” said 27 percent of the respondents. “Sometimes” said another 27 percent; 34 percent said, “Never.”
R.C. Sproul said, “We are so used to not sensing or having the Presence of God that we don’t miss it.”
Have we gotten too caught up with organization, management, and leadership style? Are we too mesmerized by Hollywood and the way Fortune 500 companies do business? Are we so focused on the hottest video clip, the tightest worship team, and the “best” worship style that program replaces Presence and Jesus becomes the mascot of the church rather than the Master? Are we more concerned about the seeker than the Savior?
If so, is it any wonder that many church members can name the reality-show survivors but not six of the 12 apostles? Is it any wonder that they spend more time watching American Idol than reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that they know more about Darth Vader and Han Solo than discipleship and holiness? Are we more stirred by Fear Factor than by the holy awe and Presence of God?
But doesn’t this talk of the Presence of God have a mysterious, mystical, experiential, emotional tone to it? Absolutely! It is dealing with what theologian Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendum, the terrible mystery.
But we should not shy away from talk of spirituality, the supernatural, and the mystical. Our culture certainly doesn’t! Surely this is part of the explanation for the fact that the latest Star Wars movie earned $50 million in the first 24 hours in theaters. The series awakened a sense of the mysterious and the transcendent in Generation X and Y.
A Gallup poll showed that in the past year, 54 percent of the people surveyed claimed an experience with the supernatural. With the occult growing, New Age flourishing, and the gospel according to Oprah sweeping through many households, this is not the time for the church to shy away from a biblically based, experiential encounter with the supernatural Presence of the living God.
Of course the Word of Truth sets parameters for experience. A person dares not build doctrines to fit whatever experiences he may be having. But Jack Hayford noted that spirituality is more than the mind thinking right things about God. “It is the heart hungering for God.”
Someone says, “You start talking about the mystical, the contemplative, and the experiential, and you know what might happen? Things will get wild and out of control.”
The church in Acts was so in tune to the manifestation of the Presence that some people made fun and accused them of being drunk (Acts 2:13). Has anyone ever visited your church (or mine) when the worship experience was so powerful and the presence of God so evident that the visitor said, “The people down at First Christian must be on something”?
I’ve been preaching for 40 years, and never have I needed to go before the people and say, “Folks, we’re going to have to hold it down. Stop jumping over the pews, quit swinging on the light fixtures. We don’t do that here.”
But there have been times in church when I’ve tried to raise the dead.
Charles Spurgeon was once being challenged on the boisterous way some were acting during worship. He said, “I would rather deal with a fanatic than a corpse any day.”
One man prayed at the beginning of a church service, “Dear Lord, please let something happen today that’s not printed in the bulletin.”
Journey to the Presence
How do we get there?
In Psalm 100:4 we’re told that the first leg of the trip is to enter his gates with thanksgiving. Sometimes I have thanked God by saying, “Thank you for everything” or when I’m feeling more spiritual, “Thanks for your blessings.” I wonder if God might ever wonder, “Do you have anything particular in mind?”
What if we thanked him very specifically like this: “Dear Father, I thank you for the rest of the night, the bed, the temperature in my room, that my eyes opened and I could see. Thank you that I could get out of bed without assistance, walk to the bathroom, brush my teeth without help, use hot water. Thank you for this closet so full of clothing that I’m not sure what to wear today. Thank you for the fact that I can dress myself and drive my car to church.” We have so much for which to be thankful.
When we sincerely thank him for what he has done, that will inevitably usher us into his courts with praise for who he is.
I like the thought that God “inhabits the praise of his people” (see Psalm 22:3). He is worthy of praise. That’s not up for debate. He commits himself to show up in the midst of praise. We invite the Presence of the Lord when we praise him. I don’t mean simply singing songs or making joyful noises. I’m speaking of genuine and sincere vertical praise. Torrey calls it “adoring contemplation.” Tozer speaks of “gazing at God.”
It doesn’t matter whether the musical style is Bach or Gaither, Fanny Crosby or Steven Curtis Chapman. It doesn’t matter whether you call it contemporary, traditional, blended, bridge or cross-generational. If the focus is on the musicians, the style, and self, call it what you wish; it’s not praise and it’s not worship and it doesn’t invite the Presence.
What helped Moses to have an intimate, face-to-face dialogue with God was his humility. The Bible says he was more humble than any man on earth. You simply cannot get to his Presence with pride. “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence” (Psalm 5:5). That’s equally true of those who sit in the pew and those who stand behind the pulpit.
John Climacus said, “A proud monk needs no demon. He has turned into one—himself.”
The tabernacle’s table of shewbread (table of face) speaks of the deepening passion on the journey. “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek.” (Psalm 27:8). We’ve all heard someone say, “Get out of my face.” But God says, “I want you to get in my face.”
Once again we go to the psalmist to discover the attitude God desires. Hear his passion for God when he says, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:2).
Such passion will be rewarded. As A.W. Tozer has written, “We have only to want Him badly enough, and He will come and manifest Himself to us.”
One of the reasons I don’t live in the Presence more than I do is because of the time issue. I’m not saying I don’t have the time, but that I don’t always take the time. It takes time to catalogue and thank God for what he has done. It takes time to sincerely and wholeheartedly praise him for who he is. It takes time to sing to him, to confess my sins, to be still and know him. But can we imagine time any better invested?
In our Christian lives, as in the Christian conferences we shared this summer, we can travel on a journey together to the very Presence of God. It can happen as we thank him . . . praise him . . . humble ourselves before him . . . passionately pursue him . . . and spend time with him.
And then we will experience the joy of the psalmist, who said, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. . . . They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion” (Psalm 84:5, 7).
Howard Brammer is minister with Trader's Point Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. He served as president of the 2005 NACC. This essay is adapted from the sermon he preached at the three regional conferences.