Practicing the Presence of People: An Introduction

A group who is studying my book Practicing the Presence of People asked me to provide a short video introduction. Watch the result on YouTube. I’m not a dynamic speaker, so if you’d rather read than watch, I’ve added the script.

 Greetings to all of you who are about to embark on a study of my book Practicing the Presence of People. I pray that our God, out of the riches of His heart, may open your eyes to new dimensions of His love for all people, so that you may see yourself and one another as He does, in Christ. 

The night before I made this recording, I had a dream in which I told a joke. I can’t remember ever telling a joke in a dream. It was a pretty good one too. But I’m not going to tell it to you because it doesn’t fit this topic. But here’s a joke that I hope does fit. 

A rabbi falls on his face before the altar and says, “O Sovereign Lord, I am nothing before You.” 

Seeing this, the cantor falls on his face and says, “O Sovereign Lord, I am nothing before You.”

Then the janitor does the same, falling on his face and saying, “O Sovereign Lord, I am nothing before You.”

Seeing this, the cantor pokes the rabbi, points to the janitor, and says, “Who does he think he is?” 

A bit strange telling a joke and not being able to hear if anybody’s laughing. But “Who do we think we are?” is a good question with which to begin a discussion on my book about people, which is really a book about love. Who do you think you are? Who do you think your neighbor is? Your answer will determine how well you learn to love. 

The thing that inspired this book was my realization—which struck me quite profoundly—of the intimate connection between relating to God and relating to people, between prayer to the Invisible One and interaction with those we see, hear, touch. If I’m in an art gallery, standing before a great painting, in order to properly experience that work I must, ideally, completely relax, in effect go out of myself and enter into that other world. Well, people are made in the image of God, so how much more, when confronted with a person, a unique and divinely created masterpiece, should I completely relax in order to experience that person just as they are. 

So that’s one answer to “Who do you think you are?” You are a masterpiece. A masterpiece. The person beside you is a masterpiece. 

Wouldn’t we all love to see God? Meanwhile we’re surrounded by examples of His image, and relating to people is the closest we’ll get in this life to meeting God face to face. So involvements with people give us a chance to practice for heaven, and they also show us graphically why, perhaps, we are not yet ready to meet God Himself. For at whatever point we may struggle with people, or fail to love them purely and unconditionally, that is where the spoiling of our own divine image is revealed to us, and we have a chance to change and grow. The goal, always, is the pursuit of the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourself.

Through many years of pursuing the first commandment—to love God with all my being—I realized that the only way is through total self abandonment. As with enjoying a great painting, I’ve learned that prayer begins with completely relaxing in God’s presence, and letting go of everything that might interfere. Prayer is essentially—before it is anything else—enjoyment. We talk of ‘art appreciation,’ but in prayer we mean appreciation of the most beautiful, most amazing phenonmenon we are capable of experiencing. And the odd thing is, we can have this same profound enjoyment not just when we pray, but every time we meet another human being. It is not quite the same, perhaps, but it is almost the same because here we approach, pure and simple, love, and God is love. That is why the two great commandments are paired, because they mirror each other and are mutually indispensible. To the extent that I have trouble in my relationships, I will have trouble in my prayer life. It’s as if I told God, “I want to know You,” and He said to me, “Here, get to know this person, get to love him or her, and then you will know Me.” 

Let me get practical. I have a very close friend with whom I do not share the same politics. At a certain point, this friend took a hard turn in an unexpected direction, and the change in him made me angry. I thought I had dealt with anger years before. Because you can’t practice a person’s presence when you’re angry. It’s impossible. Anger is very self-centered. So I thought I had gotten to the bottom of my anger and gotten rid of it, as the Bible says to do. Yet here it was again, years later. I longed to be close to my friend, but here was something that separated us. And he felt the same; he longed for me to come over to his side, and to see things his way. Is this not symptomatic of so many relationships in our society today, whether with friends or family? What to do? Well, as I resorted to prayer, I felt the Lord challenging me to behave just as I do with Him: to completely relax, let go of all my need to control, or to try to make reality other than what it is. In short, I needed to enlarge my heart to become big enough to practice my friend’s presence, to accomodate him, to enter into who he is at this moment, and to who I know him to be. 

It’s like standing before a painting and letting it speak to me. I cannot think of many paintings—even great ones—that are perfect. But if I focus on whatever it is I may not like about a work, I will never appreciate it. I need to let go of my own prejudices, preconceptions, self-centeredness, restlessness, and simply enter in as through a doorway into another world. In love, the door of the heart opens and we enter into another person, and there we have communion. And so I have come to love my friend more because of our political differences. Unlike God, of course, another person’s heart may not be open to us; over that we have no control. But if I relax and open my heart, all things become possible. 

Does this work with a very difficult or even an evil person? Absolutely, because we are called to love our enemies. In fact only love will give us the necessary caution in dealing with those who are dangerous. Love is not a matter of being passive but of becoming wise. 

Thus practicing the presence of people will transform all our relationships, and to the extent that it does not, we simply need more practice. All the people in our lives have been given to us so that we might grow in love. For this reason, we can truly give thanks for whatever relational difficulties we face. For love is the ultimate goal of life, the central purpose; nothing is more important. And love doesn’t just happen, it is learned, through one step, one choice, one realization at a time. 

So loving people is a kind of prayer. Like prayer it is a calling out, a desire, an opening, a sacrifice, an enjoyment. We need a view of human love that preserves the sacredness of people, and if this sounds sacrilegious, it’s because it almost is. To love well, we need to approach the same self-abandonment we have with God. Being with people is holy ground; it calls for taking off our shoes: our hardness, our defensiveness, our means of retreat, all our self-protective weaponry. We cannot love without laying everything on the line. 

Over twenty years after I wrote my book, this theme still thrills and challenges me. And so, I pray every blessing for your small group as you journey through Practicing the Presence of People. I wish I could be there. 

Next Post:  My New Motto: Anticipate Adversity

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