Emptiness versus God's presence

Exodus 32:1-14

Week 48 (late November / early December)

When our two children were young, Barbara and I would join the kids every night for a devotional time together.

I found those times of Bible reading and prayer with a four-year-old and a seven-year-old affecting my praying aloud. I knew from the beginning, of course, that for Rachele and Matthew to participate meaningfully in the prayer time, I would have to use relatively simple words uncluttered with "stained-glass language."

One night, however, I thanked the Lord for His "presence" in our lives that day.

Immediately after my "amen" Rachele looked up at Barbara and asked, "What did Daddy say? Presents?"

What was I trying to say? Well, I was trying to thank our Creator for the greatest blessing mankind can receive, a blessing that Adam, for instance, enjoyed to its fullest. It was such an important thing to Moses that he told the Lord at Sinai, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here" (Exodus 33:15, NIV).

That evening as I tried to answer my little girl's question, I inwardly asked the Lord never to let me ignore the wonder of my communion with Him. I asked Him never to let "thank You for Your presence today" become just a stock phrase I put in every prayer without really thinking.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung once said, "The central neurosis of our time is emptiness." We Christians would put it another way: it's the lack of the presence of God.

One day I stood in the aisle of a train from Rome to Florence talking with a businessman. A devout Roman Catholic, he was frustrated with what was happening in his "Christian" country: rising crime rate, political violence, corruption in government.

Why is there emptiness in a country that professes to be more than 90 percent Christian? What would cause Cardinal Benelli, then archbishop of Florence, to admit: "We Christians are in a minority in Italy. This country has returned to being a mission field"?

Well, one reason for lament by the businessman and by Cardinal Benelli is that Christianity in Italy failed to displace the traditions and customs of ancient Rome. In many cases, the Italians' Christian beliefs are but a thin veneer over pagan ideas handed down for centuries by the inhabitants of that peninsula. For instance, several of the "saints" venerated as powerful protectors of this or that city or town are really nothing but old Greek and Roman gods in disguise.1

The church, Italian observers have frequently noted, knows or at least suspects such syncretism, but allows it to stand as long as it doesn't interfere with fundamental doctrines. [ Missionary stories from Italy ]

Perhaps the reason for the emptiness in a land considered Christian is to found in the conversation between Moses and the Lord in Exodus 33:12-15. Here is a church that has lost the urgency of having the presence of the Lord.

It can happen not only to the mammoth Roman Catholic church, but also to any other group of believers as well. May we ever be like Moses. May we not even be interested in starting toward heaven if God's presence does not go with us. May having the presence of the Lord be our all-consuming passion.

1St. Janarius, patron of Naples, is the most prominent example. Others include St. Liberata (patron of Ceretto Guidi) and St. Brigid (of Cassago Brianza). All these are examples of ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic gods and goddesses that became venerated as saints.

I wrote these devotional thoughts while we were missionaries in Italy. They originally appeared in the November 30, 1980 edition of Standard to correlate with the Enduring Word Bible studies.

The contrasts of Psalm 1

NextBlessed is the man . . . not so is the ungodly: two different lifestyles [ read more ]

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