The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.

EXODUS 34:5-8 (ESV)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

JOHN 1:14, 16-18 (ESV)

One of my biggest struggles in life is being present. More often than I’d like to admit (or be able to control), my mind wanders to seemingly unrelated tangents, through long rabbit holes. No amount of caffeine or routine has been able to cure me of these momentary absences, and though I’ve taken steps to address this, I still catch myself in an occasional conversation or a meeting, sporting a blank stare and looking off into space. In moments like this, it often takes a helpful nudge on the arm or kick under the table from a friend to help bring me back to earth. A “gracious gravity,” we might call this.

I’m in my mid-thirties now, so I’ve gone through enough of these drifts and returns to make some solid observations. The biggest lesson for me has been discovering the difference between proximity and intimacy. No amount of love or respect for who I was speaking with – be it my wife, my daughter, my parents, my siblings, close friends – could make merely sitting beside them a mutually satisfying experience. What we are after in our conversations is deeper relationship. We desire bonds of intimacy. And this requires both parties to be active in listening and responding.

Imagine you’re on a bus. You’re headed somewhere across town. The person sitting next to you is a stranger, close enough to see and observe, maybe even brush against as the bus goes over a dip in the road. You are near this person, in close proximity, but relationally an entire world exists between you. Physical presence alone cannot bridge that gap.

Now imagine on this bus ride that it isn’t a stranger but an old friend who comes to sit beside you. You greatly miss this friend who has been away for quite some time. In that time apart you have longed for the simple things, like sharing words and smiles together, and now here you sit presented with an opportunity to do all of that. The relationship you share existed before this ride, but now physical proximity comes to deepen the experience and strengthen the bond. Imagine for a moment the sweetness, the gratitude, the laughter, the tears that would fill that bus. Odds are good you’d probably miss your stop.

From the very beginning we were created to know God and to respond to Him. He desired a relationship where He could walk among us in the cool of the day, as Genesis describes, and we could be present and fully alive with Him. The only way this relationship works is if we can stand sinless before this holy God, but the Fall changed everything. Adam and Eve took intimacy with God for granted and lost sight of His holiness in the process.

God didn’t settle for casting us aside. Holiness and love have always been a part of His nature, and His desire for us to know Him and abide with Him remains. This is why God’s mission of restoring communion with us started quickly after man left the Garden.

The God of the Old Testament is often reduced to the stereotype of an angry taskmaster, consistently displeased with people He struggles to love. But the God we actually see in Exodus 34 is quite different from this description, coming down to introduce Himself by name – a staggering thought in a land populated by hundreds of rival, voiceless gods – and show His heart. Moses asked to know who this God was, and God answered. I am the Lord, merciful and gracious and patient and forgiving and nurturing. I am righteous, and I am loving. Moses’ response to this incredible revelation was to worship. God would later give the Law to the Moses so the Israelites could know Him more and worship in a deeper way. This wasn’t quite the close intimacy of the Garden, but once again God was manifestly present so that His people might bow down and abide.

Still, mankind couldn’t help itself. Eventually we ruined this arrangement, too. But God would not relent or abandon us. So He sent His Son to comes to us, to show us the glory of the Father, to once again walk and dwell with us, to reveal in greater depth this God of mercy and grace and patience and forgiveness we encounter reading the Old Testament. In the life and work of Jesus we have the clearest picture of the divine there could ever be. And from this picture flows limitless knowledge of God, to guide us to intimate relationship and lead us in deeper worship.

God is always with His people, though we often struggle to be present with Him. What greater grace could there be than this God, who is holy and beyond our understanding, refusing to be a stranger to us? Mere proximity won’t do for the relationship He wants with you. Jesus comes to sit beside you on this journey, to greet you as a dear friend and share in your laughter and tears. Don’t settle for a quiet ride alone.

God, thank You for loving me as a friend. Thank you for creating me to know You. You are always here. You are always moving and speaking and working for Your glory and my good. Send Your Spirit today to nudge me awake, to draw me to the Son, in whom I hear Your words and see Your hands. Don’t let me settle today for mere proximity. Draw me close today. AMEN.

When do you feel your mind drift or your attention wane? Is it while you’re getting dressed for the day? Maybe on the drive to work? Do you feel it happening in the post-lunch haze? During couch time when you get home? Take these moments as opportunities to return to the passages above. Reflect on the nature and goodness of this God who is never absent or reluctant to be with you.