Dwelling with God
Yesterday I was fortunate to participate in “Zoocharist” at the Oakland Zoo, an event sponsored by an Episcopal group called Holy Hikes. Once a month this group meets outdoors to conduct a service. The idea is for people to experience God outside the walls of a church, and to feel connected with creation. For Zoocharist we started with opening prayers at the flamingos, then on to hymns and scripture readings at the elephants, prayers of the people beyond the grizzly bears, and concluded with the Eucharist in a grove just past the chimps.
As we processed, I noted that some creatures looked content and at ease, like the sunning lion who gazed with great dignity over his patch of savannah. Others, like the wolves in the new California exhibit, seemed more restless and shy, still getting used to their surroundings.
At the end, as I partook of the Eucharist amidst the squeals of children and monkeys, it felt clearer to me than usual that God’s presence isn’t a theological abstraction. Jesus lived—and lives—in the thick of our creatureliness, in our ease and in our restlessness alike.
Just like those new zoo animals, I myself have often felt uprooted. I have moved more times than I can count just around the Bay Area, and currently I go nomadically from petsit to petsit. I’m not too unusual. According to a Gallup survey in 2013, the average American will move 11.4 times in their lives. While we can’t deny that modern transit allows for more life possibilities, all this disruption can also be very stressful on our relationships and our health. Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1908—long before the construction of super-highways—“It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth . . . There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous.”
With this bustling epoch and transient city as our context, today I would like to ask what it means to dwell with God. First off, what does it mean to dwell in general? I think most people would agree that it means sticking around for a generous length of time, and that it also means that while you do so you really show up—you’re present, active, and participatory.
The old-fashioned word “dwell” has an unexpected history. The Old English meaning was “to make a fool of, to lead astray,” related to a similar word which meant "error, heresy, or madness." In Old High German “twellen” meant "to hinder or delay," which is the meaning the word took in Middle English. By around 1200 it meant simply “to linger,” as in the phrase, “to dwell upon,” and only in the mid-13th century did it come to mean “to make a home.”
So It turns out that in times of old, dwelling with someone actually meant making a fool out of them, driving them mad, and getting in their way. I’m sure most of us can think of a living situation—I hope not your own current one—in which this is a pretty accurate description. But instead of focusing on all that, I’d like to look at the later meaning: “to linger.”
What is the opposite of lingering? Rushing off! Being restless, uninterested, dissatisfied. To linger is to appreciate and focus. To feel fascinated, awed, entranced.
Indeed, that is the other part of the etymology of “to dwell”, which helps us make more sense of its evolution: Middle Dutch “dwellen”: "to stun, make giddy, perplex; Danish “dvale”: "trance, stupor." “Dvaelbær”: "a narcotic berry.”
So “to dwell upon” means that here is something that has so arrested your attention that you can’t move on. To “dwell” is to fall into a sort of trance. You suddenly have nothing else to do, nowhere else to be. This is it. So you stake your claim, take your burdens off your back—you’ve come home.
Now think for a moment what words you associate with ‘home.’ Perhaps comfort, respite, and love. Perhaps you have two very different sets of associations: the set that describes the real home you grew up in, and the set that describes the archetypal home you always longed for—or the home you had the good fortune to create as an adult.
Our passage in Ephesians tells us that whether by virtue of our birth or our baptism, Jews and Gentiles together are God’s house. But we also know very well that a house and a home are not the same thing. What does it take to become at home with God? For us and God to become at ease with each other? To feel we truly belong to and with God?
Researcher Brene Brown writes that “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” You could just as easily say that we only truly belong to God when we stop trying to seek God’s approval, and instead bring our authentic, imperfect selves to the throne of grace. As one of my spiritual mentors pastor Dale Fincher asks, How can God heal our wounds if we won’t let Him look at them?
“Sin” is the word we Christians use for something in life that is diseased or decayed. The term adds moral weight to tragedy. Picture a grand, once glorious house, the paint now chipping, the grass overgrown with foxtail, a window smashed in—this is so often our offering to God. The Holy Spirit’s conviction continually calls us to a more beautiful life, whispers, How could this be? You were made to be God’s temple.
Fortunately, God has told us, as He told King David with a sense of humor in our passage from 2 Samuel, that we do not have to face this fixer-upper on our own. “Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” In this stern but playful passage, God reminds David that the Holy One is the one who provides for us, that God has not yet commanded a temple to be built, and cannot be contained in one. God pervades all space, yet transcends them all, a doctrine reflected in one version of the catechism: “Where is God?”
“Everywhere and nowhere.”
And yet God has freely chosen to dwell with us, to make us anew into His home, that we might turn to God as our Home wherever we are. The Israelites were a nomadic people, and yet they dwelled with God. They lived in attunement to God’s presence; they trusted God to bring them into a place of rest. They knew that wherever they wandered, God wandered too.
So in one sense, there is no such thing as wandering away from God. The Psalm we recite each Sunday asks rhetorically “Where can I hide from your presence?”. God is here in this space now, and God is at the zoo. Even the most ardent atheist is upheld each moment by the ruach, the breath of God coursing through her own body. And yet our hearts can wander from God, far from the truth of the love of our Creator.
To dwell with God then is a choice. It is a shift of attention. It is a way of living that experiences all temporal tasks, irritations, and aspirations in light of the eternal. It is becoming entranced by the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
I can tell you it is not easy. Dwelling with God is much harder than visiting God for Christmas and Easter, making therapy appointments with God on Sundays, or calling up God when you have a question or problem and hanging up if God turns the question or problem back on you.
We all know that when you dwell with someone, they are eventually going to get on your nerves, and you are going to get on theirs. Our relationship with God is hardly an exception. God might get all up in your business about habits you had no intention of changing, and you will find you have a few bones to pick with God too.
A typical morning exchange for me goes something like this:
God: Why don’t you try thinking kinder things about your neighbor’s obnoxious dog?
Me: Yeah, well why don’t you try ending the problem of evil?
Like any other relationship, our relationship with God does not mystically sustain itself. To make our home with God requires daily upkeep—fluffing the pillows, feeding our souls, pruning the trees—and not out of mere obligation. This upkeep includes rest. In our passage in Mark, we find out that self-care is not a pop culture add-on to Christianity, but a commandment issued by Jesus himself: “’Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
“Coming and going” is part of life. However, Jesus knew that being a bit of a “homebody” with God is what allows intimacy and insight to grow. To pray, meditate, contemplate Scripture, and listen in love to whatever face of God crosses your path.
When we do, experiences will arise that remind us just how worth it it is. I believe Pastor John mentioned not long ago that when 17th-century French scientist Blaise Pascal died his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat. This parchment described an experience he had never told anyone about. At the top of the paper Pascal had drawn a cross.
Underneath was written this:
In the year of the Lord 1654 Monday, November 23 From about half-past ten in the evening until half-past twelve.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob Not of philosophers nor of the scholars. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace. God of Jesus Christ, My God and thy God. “Thy God shall be my God.” Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God. He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Greatness of the soul of man. “Righteous Father, the world hath not known thee, but I have known thee.” Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Jesus Christ. I have fallen away: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified him. May I not fall away forever. We keep hold of him only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Renunciation, total and sweet. Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth. I will not forget Thy word. Amen.
I would say that Blaise Pascal dwelled with God.
And note where his experience happened: not at church; at home. As Lao Tze reminds us, what matters is what happens inside a space. We must make space in our lives for such experiences to arise. Another translation of the Tao Te Ching passage reads, “We pierce doors and windows to make a house; and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.” I wonder, are there enough windows and doors in our churches and in our lives? Do we let in the light? Do we let in the broken? If not, all our altars and all our busyness shall burn to nothing when we finally do step into God’s presence.
This much I know: God is worth dwelling with. And dwelling with God will change you.
I invite you to ask yourself, “Am I a place where people are encountering God?”
If the answer is no, it could be that we ourselves have not encountered God in awhile. It could be we have forgotten to dwell with Him. We have forgotten to tell God our worries, to be held, to take out our garbage, to set out some china for unexpected guests. I’m preaching to myself.
I would like to close with a bit of commentary on the Ephesians passage, from 18th-century theologian John Gill: “Happy are they that belong to this city and house! They are freed from all servitude and bondage; they can never be arrested, or come into condemnation; they have liberty of access to God, and share in the fullness of grace in Christ; they are well taken care of; they are richly clothed, and have plenty of provisions; and will never be turned out, and are heirs of a never fading inheritance.”
Let us pray: God, thank you for making your home with us. In Jesus, but also long before, in our very breath. You have made your home with your people Israel, and have invited us in also to share in your promises.
You are always with us, but so often we drift into parallel lives. Many of us have never learned to dwell well, especially not with Love itself. And yet where else can we go? Augustine wrote that you’ve made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Please open our eyes to the ways we distract ourselves from you. Show us one way we can make you feel more at home in our lives. As we come and we go, remind us we can always find Home in your heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.