Return and Presence

Door of in-laws house
The house of my favorite in-laws in the world

Return almost always catches me by surprise. Of course I know that I will be coming home. But I’m never quite prepared for what that may mean. 

A few weeks ago, my wife, two sons and I traveled from our home near Seattle to visit my in-laws and extended family near Los Angeles. I love both my own family and my wife’s family deeply. But fortunately or unfortunately, both families are made up of people. You know, human beings; those creatures who can endure great pain to go nobly above and beyond themselves for others and yet who can also become a great pain that goes above and beyond anything you’d ever hope to endure. People. Just like you and me. Only in this case, related.

This particular trip was filled with more than its share of people issues. I knew that would be the case before we left, so in anticipation I prayed about conversations and situations I knew would be difficult but important and necessary. Not all travel thrills and excites. But even trips like this one are deeply meaningful when we are present and enter into the lives of others, sharing ourselves in ways we might not at home.

Presence, however, takes its toll. Being present requires effort and energy, often in ways we don’t realize. It’s like riding with a driver who has hidden NASCAR aspirations. You only realize after you’ve mercifully arrived at your destination that your right hand has cramped from throttling the coward bar (that hand grip above the passenger door that doubles well as a hanger for your dry cleaning). In this case, I didn’t realize just how much I had tensed up or how much the trip cost me emotionally until I returned home.

On Sunday, two days after we get back, I am in church singing along with everyone else when suddenly, I become acutely aware of the words we’re singing. The song is an old hymn. The words are familiar. They speak of God’s deep love for us, for each one of us. And today, these words devastate me – in a good way.

All this last week on our trip, my prayers have been expeditious, cries to God to resolve difficult situations, to bring health and healing, to intercede in places where things feel stuck. These were “doing” prayers, requests (or, if I’m honest, sometimes orders) to God to fix things for myself and for others. I was present to God and to others, but in a way that happens frequently on trips, a sort of task-oriented approach where presence requires keeping up with all that is going on.
But here in church, the words of this hymn remind me that returning home can bear with it a different kind of presence, a reminder that God isn’t just my cosmic order taker but my heavenly Father. He knows my needs better than I ever will. I realize now that during the entire trip I had few if any “being” prayers, ones where I just accepted the fact that I am God’s. And here, in this moment, in this awareness of belonging and love, I find a rest that I didn’t realize until now I so desperately needed.
On the trip, I had to make an effort to be present. Here in church, God’s presence and love overwhelm, nurture and comfort me through no effort of my own. Two very different situations. Two very different ways of being. One common element:

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