The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Here and Now
Today's Gospel ends with Jesus asking the crowds: “But why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I think the answer is actually quite simple: the present time is the most difficult time to interpret. It's just so close; we lack all perspective. The past is done, frozen in time – ready to be examined and dissected. The future is formless – a land of hopes yet unrealized, a playground for our imaginations and fantasies. But the present: it is slippery; it keeps moving. And it contains everything – all of the stuff of life, joy and pain and everything in between – all of it at the same time. It is much easier to escape or avoid than to interpret and embrace.
And perhaps that is why the crowd kept their heads in the clouds. The clouds distract us with the past and future. They float on the winds of anxiety. That original audience of Jesus, the ones addressed in today's Gospel, they kept their eyes on the skies because past experiences taught them that the skies might just tell them the future. And so rather than stay with the present, they gave into the distraction, pulled by the past and future, but never in the moment.
We're not so different. Most of us fumble through life juggling nostalgia and prognostication – longing for anything other than the present moment – toggling between the good ol' days of the past and what we hope might be, could be, just has to be, a brighter future.
And so we miss it; we miss the here and now. We dream of the heavens and we miss the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives and into our world. We close our eyes and escape into the past and never see what God has for us right now. We struggle and strive for a better, more secure, more prestigious future and yet as the prayer says, “It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.”1
Waking or sleeping, there is no moment outside of the presence of God. The present is always in the divine presence. In fact, we're in it right now. This moment is holy. Witness the miracle happening in this place, in your life. Right now you are feeling, touching, breathing, alive. So breathe it in, this moment, full of the ancient Spirit of God. What was and is and is to come is flowing through you right now, in this moment.
But soon you will leave this place. And your mind will try to pull you back or forward or pull your head into the clouds. And your mind will sow these seeds of discontent and anxiety – as if there is something better than what God is giving you right now. And then you'll miss it: you'll miss the moment.
Which isn't to say that we shouldn't plan for the future. Of course we should. And it isn't to say we shouldn't value our history. Of course we should. But Henri Nouwen reminds us that, “To live in the present, we must believe deeply that what is most important is here and now.”2 Of course the God named “I AM” longs to meet us in the present. Our course a Savior named Emmanuel, “God with us” would challenge us to stay with the present time.
But in the midst of so many distractions – distractions from within and without – staying in the moment, staying present, is hard; it takes discipline. Nouwen calls prayer “the discipline of the moment.” What we call “pray without ceasing.” Now, I want to be clear: I am not encouraging you to read Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book while driving to work or to chant a psalm in the middle of a business meeting. Instead, think of prayer as simply opening your heart to God in each and every present moment. “Pray without ceasing” is living in the embrace of God-with-us. Richard Rohr says, “[Prayer] is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. [Prayer] is much more like practicing heaven now.”3
Whether we feel it or not, and sometimes we can, sometimes we can't, we live, and move, and have our being in the very presence of God. Right here and right now. We're living into the Kingdom come. We're being embraced by the ever-present love that is God. And because of that, this very moment is infinitely precious, blessed, holy.
It is hard to pull our heads out of the clouds; it is hard to shake off the distractions circling around us; it is hard to resist the tempting allure of past and future. But when we do pull heads out of the clouds, we see that the present time is all we really have. What is most important is with us. Right here and right now.
1A New Zealand Prayer Book, 167.
2Here and Now, 21.
3The Naked Now, 23.