Surely The Presence

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Power Is In The Words, Not The Sound Of The Voices Singing Them

by Eric Elkin

Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
— Jeremiah 29:7

Growing up Lutheran, I always assumed God favored beautiful singing voices. Everyone is saved by God's grace, but those who could sing about it were more saved. Even though this makes no theological sense, if you grew up Lutheran, you know what I am talking about.

Most of us have a certain point of view shaped by our life experiences. Based on these experiences, we believe for something to have meaning, it must happen a particular way. Singing is vital in most Protestant churches. As a result, many Protestants believe authentic worship is not possible without great music. A church musician once told me, "No one cares about the sermon. People only come to hear music."

My expectation that great singing was essential for a powerful worship experience was challenged the first time I heard a group of Catholic men sing, Surely the Presence of the Lord. I was attending a men's spiritual retreat held by a local Catholic parish. They used the singing of this hymn to introduce each speaker for the weekend. 

Wonderful men sang the hymn with deep passion and conviction. Unfortunately, very few of them were blessed with the great vocals chords. The song sounded more like a funeral dirge than some spiritually uplifting melody. I had to fight from laughing out loud. The Lutheran inside of me thought, "The Lord is definitely NOT in this place. I can hear his absence in the sound of these voices." 

As a strong believer in the power of dialogue, you have persistently worked to create spaces where people of different faiths can meet in peace and develop mutual trust.
— Bishop Munib Younan

That first experience continues to shape how I hear this hymn, even when it is being sung by great singers. Then one day I realized, the power of the song is in the words not the notes, nor the voices singing them.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

I can feel His mighty power and His grace.

I can hear the brush of angels' wings.

I see glory on each face.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

The words proclaim a reality most of the men gathered were longing to hear. The weak voices singing the hymn gave those unable to sing well permission to join in. The sound produced by these men was not even close to being significant. What was important was the proclamation, "The presence of the Lord is in this place…I see glory on each face."

A song like this makes sense when people are gathered for a specific religious reason. I wonder, though, can we sing this song when the presence of the Lord is less visible? When our purpose is coping with a challenging world rather than finding a sanctuary away from it all.

I thought about this as I read the words of Jeremiah today. He writes to an exiled community removed from their homes, their country, and the Temple. For the exiled people, these three things were all conditions necessary for God to be present. Now Jeremiah tells them God is present in their isolation. He invites the exiled to see the glory of God in each face and know the presence of the Lord is with them in a foreign land.

The words of Jeremiah breathe life into my soul. It feels like the enormous political and social divide in our country is about to get deeper, broader, and more painful. The conflict will inevitably lead many to proclaim, "God is not in this place." Yet Jeremiah reminds me, much like the voices at the Catholic men's retreat, the presence of the Lord is surely in this place. Only those who intentionally seek it will be able to see it.

As I was praying over this text, I received an email from the Catholic Messenger, the newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport, IA. They were announcing this years' winner of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, Bishop Munib Younan, a Palestinian Lutheran. Bishop Younan has spent his life working with Christians, Jews, and Muslims to foster dialogue and understanding.

In the article, he is quoted as saying, "It is imperative that all religions teach their adherents to see the Image of God in those who are different." His words made me want to sing, Surely the Presence. They also resolved me in the days ahead to pray for the welfare of my enemies. For in my enemies' welfare, I will find my own.

Click to read Jeremiah 29: 1: 4-7

Reflection Questions:

  • Where do you find the Lord most present in your life?

  • When was a time you struggled to see God in your life?

  • How can you start seeing glory on each face?

  • How might seeing glory in each face help your own welfare?

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