“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8a)
God wants us to come near to him. And most people who believe in God, in some form or another, want to get close to God. In fact, I believe there’s a cry deep in the heart of every person who ever lived to come as close as possible to God—to embrace God and be embraced by God. Most people aren’t in touch enough with their own heart of hearts to be aware of that desire except in an extreme situation, when they are stripped down to their most basic self and its most basic needs and desires.
Those who seek God, whether Jews, Muslims, Christians, or whatever, have different ways of worshiping—different ways of drawing near to God. Reading and meditating on scripture, repentance, confession, prayer, singing, fasting, kneeling, chanting the names of God or shouting “Praise the Lord! Glory to God in the highest! Blessed be your holy name!”—all these, and many more, are ways people use to try to draw near to God.
We can follow some kind of liturgy, or just follow our hearts in seeking God. We can use religious language—“Oh Lord our God, we beseech thee by thy mercies, that thou wouldst bend the heavens and pour out thy redeeming grace upon us, etc., etc.”—and I’m sure God honors those prayers as well as the “OhGodOhGodOhGod” kind, or just “HELP!!!” We tend to judge others we think are not as spiritual or holy as us, based on their chosen form of worship. People look on the outward appearance; God sees the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
But have you ever had a little child come to you, look up at you, raise his or her arms, and then climb up in your lap? He doesn’t have to say a word. And your heart melts as you reach out your hands to help her up onto your lap. Whatever you were doing, whatever weighty matters were on your mind—all those things just vanish at the opportunity to hold this beautiful little creature and be close to him. Time seems to stop as she looks in your eyes, as he leans his head against your chest.
I think that’s how God prefers that we draw near to him. And I think his response is the same: “Come up on my lap, sweet child, and rest with me. Let the world stand still awhile; you’re here with me, and that’s all that matters. Your hands hold tight to me, my arms wrap around you, and for this precious sacred time, when time touches eternity, we are one as we savor the love we have together.”
Of course, the child understands little if any of this. But it doesn’t matter, because what he or she knows is love, heart to heart, beyond words.
The closest thing I’ve found to this mutual human-to-God drawing-near experience is centering prayer. I don’t want to oversell it, so I admit it’s not always like that, at least from the human side. There are times in centering prayer when I’m feeling nothing, not sensing God’s presence, feeling tired and frustrated, bombarded with thoughts, feeling like I’m wasting my time, watching the clock, or even ready to throw in the towel, end the session early, and hope for a better time with God later in the day, or the next day. There are times of clinging feebly to one scripture, trying to see God in it, trying to connect with him, feeling like the cord doesn’t quite reach.
But that’s seeing things from the human side on a bad day. The illusions of this world can hide God from us, even when we’re crying out to him. He’s there, but we can be blind to his love and gentleness. That doesn’t change anything though. He’s still God and he still loves us.
As I’ve always said, people don’t usually see more than faint glimpses of God during centering prayer; it’s afterward, going through the normal daily routine, when we tend to see God’s hand in the little things of everyday life. It’s then that a scripture you hadn’t thought of in awhile comes to life right before your eyes. It’s then that you recognize that those twenty minutes you spent on centering prayer earlier in the day were a time of lifting your hands to God, and God reaching down to set you in his lap to spend time with him—a time of eternal sweetness unknown to your outer self, but cherished forever in your heart of hearts.