Damon was a sharply dressed man in his late twenties with a look of desperation. I noticed him fidget as he stood waiting in a line of people who had just heard me speak. He asked me for prayer and an appointment to meet to talk about his life and the message I gave, “Slowing Down Enough to Go at God’s Speed—the Speed of Love.”
He kept the appointment. A few minutes into our time together, it was obvious to me that he definitely needed some slowing down. His driven life, full of compulsions and an addiction or two, would teach me something about God. Even our out-of-control behavior and the “speed” of our furious appetites can be used by God to bring us to an end of ourselves and ultimately to slow us down.
Damon was caught up in the midst of a raging storm in his life, a storm of chasing dollars and his elusive career dreams—a storm that included the shock of his wife’s announcement that she and their little girl were moving out because of his explosive anger, stressful lifestyle, and emotional unavailability to them. He knew he needed to slow down and was hungry for the “peace and quiet” of a “normal” life. But the man who talked to me was careening and crashing in a fast-lane crisis of his own making.
Contributing to his stress was his failure in the frenetically paced job he held in finding financing for IPOs (Initial Public Offerings, or first sales of a corporation’s common stock to the public). His sales had trailed off to almost nothing, and he was going down the tubes, fearing the loss of his employment. He was now desperate and suddenly alone. He wanted things back where they had been as soon as possible—with God’s “just-in-time inventory” of quick help and my speedy intercession for it.
You’ve seen people like Damon pacing down airport halls with their cell phone headsets, microphone, and earpiece headgear plugged in, occupied in some out-loud conversations with no one you can see. This is not your average kid or mom on the phone, but a person who has become constantly available for the next deal, the next dollar, effectively tuning out everyone and everything around them. It’s a way of being for many in our consumer culture.
That picture had become Damon’s life. Talking unceasingly, making deals with no one he could see, and missing his loved ones, who had been right in front of him every day and were now leaving him and a life that was just out of cell phone reach. They had received his attention only when they expressed their needs to him, and most of the time his only response was an angry rejection.
After our initial session, which ended in prayer, we agreed to meet for coffee the next day. We met downtown on his turf at a Starbucks Coffee Shop. After buying me my favorite latte and taking a few sips of his own, he began filling me in on more of the details of the problems we had prayed for at church. He added, “And by the way, I want to quit smoking too.”
Wow. I had already felt overwhelmed with his situation, and now he wanted to do what most people can’t do in the best of circumstances. He was going for the whole enchilada. He wanted to reform himself all the way and get his life back where he wanted it—if possible, in the time it took to make one of his IPO deals!
I felt as if I were facing an impossible challenge. Without letting on that I was overwhelmed by his situation, I tried to find some way genuinely to help him. I kept asking questions, stalling for a flash of insight or a comforting word that would connect him with God and some kind of help. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to let him down easily from his expectations for a quick fix.
And then it came to me…God spoke as clear as a bell: Tell him not to try to stop smoking. Tell him to use the cigarette as a way to remember to take the whole situation to me and leave it there.
After asking God to “say that again” a few times, I sheepishly obeyed and found myself saying these unconventional words of pastoral advice: “Damon, why don’t you go to God like you go to your cigarette?”
He looked at me, rather dumbstruck. I thought I was going to lose him, but I pressed on, more out of obedience to God’s clear instruction to me than out of confidence that Damon would ever try what I was telling him to do. But Damon was desperate, and my sermon had intrigued him; he was more ready than I gave him credit for.
This advice came to me as a consequence of both my own efforts at practicing the presence of God and my shooting up one of those “Help me, God; I don’t know what to do” prayers. I had been struggling with constant pain in my head and neck due to nerve damage from an operation and had found a way to take every pain event and accompanying thoughts of anger, sadness, and fear for the future to God, with the pain being a kind of prayer bell. As I did this casting of my cares and pain on God, he brought me a profound sense of peace in the midst of the pain.
And so, I had been trying to go to God repeatedly or obsessively myself throughout my day, trying to be open to his voice and receptive to his leading and direction. But “go to God like a cigarette” was not what I was expecting from God as an answer to this man’s need for connection with Divine aid.
I explained that God was good, really good—in fact, better than we can imagine and much more interested in Damon’s trusting his goodness than concerned about Damon’s temporary (we hoped!) cigarette habit.
Addiction might not seem a proper way to describe what is often called “practicing the presence” or “unceasing prayer” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17) because addictions are seen as negative attachments with destructive results. “Going to God like a cigarette” was a way for him to have a good addiction, one that provided attachment to God with the result of a life filled with God’s presence and peace.
Cigarettes were certainly bad for Damon, but not as bad right now as the way Damon was losing himself and his family in the rat race of the pace and direction of his life—going to his cigarettes instead of going to God. In the context of his life and addictions, the suggestion to go to God as he went to his next cigarette was probably perfect timing because the stress that caused him to reach for the next nicotine relief was the very stress that he needed to bring to God. And God was not so stingy with his mercy that he would wait until Damon stopped smoking to offer his help and grace. God would even use Damon’s smoking habit to grace him into God’s love and peace.
The goal was for Damon to be actually breathing God’s presence in with each drag from the cigarette, and, instead of obsessing in worry, he would now inhale God’s peace and release anxieties and fears as he exhaled the smoke.
He said he’d try it for the next two weeks and let me know what happened when we met next. I didn’t think he would do it—it certainly was the strangest advice I’d ever given as a pastor. But two weeks later, Damon couldn’t wait to tell me what had happened.
His wife and little girl were still gone, and his job situation was still looking bleak, but to his surprise, our little experiment in practicing God’s presence with the help of several packs a day had resulted in some amazing “peace” for the first time in his life. A sense of quietness and well-being was becoming a bottom line for him and allowing him to stop obsessing about his family and job. He was beginning really to trust that God would take care of them. He stopped badgering his wife about returning. He began sharing his newfound peace, learning to trust in and practice God’s presence throughout the day.
And then, with an awe that most reserve for describing a trip to the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, he said that as he sat in his office and smoked and prayed, he had noticed for the very first time that a beautiful tree grew outside his office window. And as he took in the beauty of the tree, he saw a squirrel! It was amazing! All this had been right outside his window all the time. All those times, he had sat there looking out that window, unaware of the beautiful creation all around him.
We talked at length about how his slowing down had opened him up to a world bigger than the cramped, busyness world to which he had reduced his life, out of which he had cut his family. He was seeing God and even God’s creation. And maybe, soon he could see his family back with him again because he would be “seeing them” with the kind of attention and engagement he had reserved for making deals.
I even wondered whether some day—if he kept up the constant turning to God in prayer—the cigarette that most smokers can’t release would eventually “fall out” of his hand because his hand would then be fully grasped in God’s gracious grip.
Some Less Unconventional Ways of Practicing the Presence of God
- Every time you catch a red light, take it as an opportunity to experience a 60-second vacation with God. Slow your breathing and remind yourself each time you inhale that you exist in an ocean of God’s love and presence.
- Every time you visit a water cooler at work, take an extra 15 seconds to say the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)
- Let each hunger pain you feel be a reminder to stop and pray, “God, teach me how to feast on you.”
- Each time you experience yourself feeling weighed down with anxious thoughts or whatever is pressing in on you, lift it up to God in prayer, and keep lifting it up until you feel lighter in his presence.
- On a much more personal note, and as someone who has suffered with chronic pain for years, I’ve learned to allow the experience of physical pain to be an occasion to pull a small cross from my pocket, place in the palm of my hand and grasp it firmly while meditating on the promise that Christ, too, bears my suffering.
Dr. Keith Meyer has been executive pastor at Church of the Open Door for the past fifteen years. He is also visiting professor of formation in the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary and serves on the board for Spiritual Formation and is a frequent presenter at national and regional conferences.