By Jan Johnson
Honestly, I didn’t mean for it to become a “spiritual” experience. I needed to vary my aerobic workout routine, so I began an arm-swinging, leg-strutting, high-speed walk in our housing tract. But my teenage daughter was embarrassed to have Mom turning nearby corners in workout shorts, so I took to a lonely canyon road, cluttered with garbage and swathes of mud.
Perhaps because practicing the presence of God has been my favorite spiritual discipline, God showed up in everything around me. The roadside tumbleweeds represented the stumbling blocks of my life—annoyances with those I loved, reluctance to do difficult things, yearnings for a problem-free life. So I scooped up those tumbleweeds and hurled them off the clifflike side of the road into the creek below.
Over the years, the mountains in the distance have become massive symbols of God’s presence. I’ve named the peaks for Bible phrases or life lessons God has taught me. During a painful church split, the sharply pointed peak became “Don’t forget to love” (the point of the gospel).
I’ve never thought very hard about these truths because I’ve been too busy panting, chugging water, and heading into the wind. I’ve simply gazed as I’ve walked, and days later I’ve found myself loving those I’ve disagreed with.
Much to my surprise, these minute-by-minute snatches have fed many other spiritual disciplines. They’ve brewed within me a desire to have long stretches of solitude with God. Connecting with God in leisurely Bible reading, prayer, and journaling are nothing like my rigid “quiet times” of old. I understand better how to bare my soul, asking God, “What do I need to know about my anger? What do I need to know, O God, about how to love the world you so love?”
A Sense of Majesty
Because I walk in sync with the worship music on a cassette tape, my sense of God’s majesty is expanding. During certain songs—please don’t laugh—I do a few twirls in the road, watching out for gravel trucks. Also while I’m practicing God’s presence, God reminds me of folks to love and people to pay more attention to. As a result, my service to Christ has become more a part of who I am rather than special moments of being super-Christian.
The walk doesn’t look like prayer, but it is. God speaks to me, giving me creative methods for dealing with my teenagers, new ideas for my work, and just the right words to say to my discouraged husband or friends. Because my job causes me to “live in my head” all day, I need this walk to force me “out of my head” into a rugged, physical effort that clears my circuits. Freed from my own clever ideas and agendas, I can more easily hear God’s unexpectedly practical ideas.
Many times, especially in the earliest years of this walking regimen, I discovered a “committee in my head” that wanted to take over for minutes at a time. One committee member, Ms. Anger, focused on someone I was mad at and what I’d tell him or her if I ever got the chance. Then I’d feel guilty that I’d stolen time from my God-filled reverie.
One day, I stopped, stomped my foot in disgust, and crossed my arms. I demanded that God jettison these negative thoughts from my mind.
Clinging to God
If you’ve ever put God on the spot this way, you know what happened. Nothing. A boulder didn’t fall from the nearby cliff. A lizard with a sign on his back didn’t cross the road in front of me. As I began to shuffle along, I wanted to kick myself.
I looked up at the cliff beside me and thought of my son, who taught rappelling. He could have shimmied up and down that cliff with skill, but I would have been stuck on a ledge somewhere, clinging for life and breath. The word clinging stuck in my head. I thought of that psalm: “My soul clings to you” (Psalm 63:8).
Suddenly the point of my canyon road walks (the aim of my life, even) became clear—to cling to God. Striving to do a spiritual discipline perfectly or even to live life perfectly was about me. I needed only to cling to God with everything I had. As I connected to God through disciplines such as Bible study, prayer, and service, God would change me. I invented my own little saying: “As I do the connecting, God does the perfecting.”
Armed with this insight from God, I’ve learned to usher other committee members (Ms. Victim, Ms. Rescuer, Ms. Perfect Christian) to the door of my mind gently whenever they appear. Getting frustrated with them doesn’t help—it just gives the enemy more airplay.
The more I’ve practiced God’s presence, the more I’ve seen God “show up” in all kinds of settings—in the classic novels I read or in the brief remarks of my teenage son’s friend. This surprises me because the idea of “finding God in the mundane” sounds like it should happen on a sunny afternoon while watching geese swim in an idyllic pond. Sometimes it does, but I’ve had to remind myself that God often shows up in unexpected, gritty situations when I’m feeling edgy and sweaty.
Others have verified this by telling me of their close-to-the-bone conversations with God while mowing the lawn, shooting hoops, or creating a compost heap. Why does it surprise us that God’s presence becomes obvious in such vigorous and tactile situations?
If you’re a shepherd, God might show up in a bush that burns too long. If you’re a hardworking, water-toting Palestinian woman, God might show up as a thirsty out-of-towner at your well. If you’re a swindler and manipulator, God might show up as a wrestler who makes sure your hip socket is never the same. The lives of Moses, the Samaritan woman, and Jacob demonstrate to me how God appears in mundane moments and unexpected places, and that God wants me to respond.
Moses had to ponder the bush and walk over to it. The Samaritan woman had to keep herself from smarting off to the Jew who didn’t belong in her neighborhood but requested her help anyway. Jacob, desperately stuck between a rock (Laban) and a hard-hearted brother (Esau), had to wrestle his way into a blessing along the River Jabbok. God wants me to respond by participating in conversation with him.
Sometimes I worry that this approach is too outlandish—not concrete and rational enough. So I’m relieved that even the intellectual C. S. Lewis said that God “walks everywhere incognito.”1 Lewis advised his readers to “remain awake” to God. That’s what I do when I walk.
Staying alert this way makes life much more exciting. I keep my eyes open for this incognito constant companion, anticipating his next move, looking for his invisible kingdom. God’s companionship becomes the most pervasive thing in life.
1C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1964), 75.
Jan Johnson is the author of Enjoying the Presence of God and When the Soul Listens. Her Web site is www.janjohnson.org.