Present to him and to my self. Absent – for now – to people. That was what it was going to be.
He’s said it clearly enough, after all. And he’s shown me how this thing, because it will overflow in time to others, is not inconsistent with the biggest theological treasure which I have taken from my years at London School of Theology, the undeniable reality that loving God means loving people and working out our faith and theology in community.
But it’s tough. Opposed, even.
I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been tempted this week to become to present to people to whom he was not calling me. Being in college for four days instead of two didn’t help – there’s always someone there who would like a chat or a prayer or a pastoral kick-up-the-backside. (I did administer one of those this week, as it happens. Put on my stern face and called it like the person already knew it was. Sometimes soft gentleness is not as much needed as exhortation to the truth which we already know!) And then there are the requests for my knowledge or skill input. Limited though the value of my potential inputs is for now, they’re still asked for from time to time.
It’s not just college though. It’s church people who come to mind too. People about whom I am concerned because they seem to be drifting from Jesus a bit. And what I used to do at this point was book a coffee with them, make a call. Do something. I’ve been so tempted to that behaviour multiple times this week. And each time Jesus has reminded me: Present to me and to your self; absent to people.
So I’ve been battling this week to preserve the boundaries of my soul. And this unplanned presence to people, beyond my ability to sustain without cost to my soul, has somewhat elbowed out the discipline of presence to Jesus. I’ve become reactive. And in my reactivity I’ve been battling the temptation to work longer and harder and faster.
Not always successfully in the last couple of days.
I’ve said some Yeses which should have been Nos because my heart is soft and I knew the people asking needed help which I could offer. (My coach will be smiling wryly right now: this theme runs throughout all of our conversations and I am so not good at getting this one right. Talking about wry smiles, a precious lady with whom I recently prayed about the boundaries of my soul will be doing the same thing!)
So I’ve said some Yeses which should have been Nos and, in some cases, I’ve paid for that whilst, in others, the person to whom I said the Yes was wise and loving enough to hear the No I should have said. And when this presence and absence thing gets inverted as it has this week, so that I am first present to people and then hardly present to him at all, something changes in my whole being. Even my prayer shifts. I no longer focus on bringing the whole of me to him, listening to what he will say to me, praying for people as he brings them to mind. Instead I focus on the people and the needs and pray for them, almost mechanically. When it’s like this, my eyes are not up. They’re down and, because of this, I have no view of the One to whom I pray. I could be praying to anyone almost. And the needs for which I pray begin to overwhelm me.
It’s not just prayer though. It’s the fact that I start to lose my ability to discern his voice, to sense his presence. I begin to click on to social media almost as a reflex action – having surrendered in the real world to this obsessive presence to people, I now do it in the virtual world too. And so the pockets of silence which have no people in them, times when I could make myself present to him, these too are swallowed up by the compulsion to be present to others.
I don’t want to live like this.
I really don’t want to live like this and I am committed to battle on. I need to carve out the spaces of time and place when it is just me being present to him. Fridays are good like that at the moment because I am home and I practise an empty diary on those days. So also are Wednesdays in my little sub-office because no one else is in the larger room and I can be uninterrupted all day in prayer and reading and writing and worship. I love these days most of all. In them, fruitfulness is sheer overflow because I’m free to touch his wild grace. In them, my thinking and writing output, whether blog or PhD or lectures or MA course-writing, is significant. But, more than any of that, my soul is renewed and I am enabled again to hear him concerning those to whom he is sending me to be present.
The battle does not surprise me. We do not fight against flesh and blood, after all. But I sense also that it is a finite battle, that there is an authority to be won here and that, if I will win it, something will change for me. That the dynamic of presence to Jesus and to my self and, only out of that, presence to others will become embedded in my life, so that it – not the opposite – is the reflex action, the compulsion and the obsession.
I pray that it might be so.