My husband, Doug, and I landed at St.B’s, the first Sunday of Advent, three years ago. In that service, I felt hope – something I had not felt in church for a very long time. The welling up of this felt sense of hope is one way I experience God.
Over these past days, months and years, though, I have encountered God most deeply through the doorways of my longing for God and my felt sense of inner poverty and need of God.
My longing for God has been with me for a very long time. It seems to ebb and flow – or at least my awareness of it does. Sometimes intensely felt, mostly barely a whisper which I can easily ignore in the noise of life.
I recall, as a teen, the intensity of the longing propelling me to desire deep experiences OF God. My early Christian formation taught me the outward expressions of devotion including worship, daily quiet time, prayer (which was mainly about the request list), bible study (being a student of the book) and I jumped in with both feet wanting something of God in all of this. And if I’m honest, I was wanting to do it really well so that I would hear “well done, good and faithful servant”.
Many, many years later, when my dad was dying and I was reflecting on my priorities and all of what I was doing, I realized my RELATIONSHIP with God was more important to me than many of the things I was juggling. But my life showed something else. I was up to my eyeballs in DOING ‘for God’, including through the church, but it didn’t feel like there wasn’t much actually nurturing this relationship with God.
Sometimes death has a way of bringing focus and clarity.
That time of reflection began a movement in me choosing to take steps to let go of some of the things I was discovering were lower in my priorities, in order to create more space to attend to my life with God, even though I didn’t know what that was going to look like. I began to slowly fold my private practice in dietetics. I began to let go of church responsibilities. It was more than a bit scary. Well into this process, I sensed these words rising within “Karen, find your home in me and not in what you do”.
I see now, I was responding with a ‘yes’ to my longing for God. And I understand now that my longing itself was/is evidence of God’s presence. God’s presence within me longing for God-self. And I was looking to other things to satisfy that longing – good things – including living a ‘Christian life’ well.
And I still continue to do so, looking to other things to satisfy that longing.
A few years ago, I was sitting in church longing for some tangible felt experience of God, and I had a sense of an inner voice saying to me “Karen, long for me rather than what I give. Long for me rather than the EXPERIENCES of me”. Well, there is no way of measuring achievement with that one! It says to me something about staying with the longing. In fact, paying attention to my longing now simply moves me to a more open and receptive inner posture to God. It doesn’t take my longing away. If anything, it makes me more aware of it and it makes me more aware of my inability to satisfy it.
The Advent song ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’, is a favourite of mine. It seems to say to me “there is room for longing” in this faith journey. There is room for my experience.
My felt sense of inner poverty and need of God is a close companion to my longing for God. Sometimes they are inextricably linked.
Awhile ago, we sang a hymn here St. B’s – one that is completely unfamiliar to me – with a line that seemed to jump off the page with neon lights. “All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of him.” My paraphrase, as if Jesus was speaking to me, is this: “All the fitness I require of you is that you feel your need of me.”
This phrase has stayed with me and has often called me back to a place of reorientation, much like a compass. The landscape for this is, and has been, the day to day ordinary experiences of my life.
My sense of inner poverty comes up when I notice my propensity to miss the good because I’m looking for the better. It emerges when I realize again and again the places of my disordered attachment to safety, security, productivity, performance. It shows up after some conversations. It bubbles up before and after offering prayer in the healing prayer time. And it declares itself, in an amplified way, through my life as a spiritual director where I often feel not spiritual enough, not knowledgeable enough, not aware enough, simply not enough.
When I tread this familiar territory of feeling closed in on myself, with the voice of the inner critic loud in this less free place of my enneagram oneness, the Spirit of God whispers “All the fitness I require of you is that you feel your need of me”. I hear these words as tender invitation when my need is named and becomes so clear. I am opened to an awareness of my felt need for God. I am moved from an inner posture of bent inward, crumpled in on myself, to one of openness to God. Which is how I desire to live.
Nan Merrill, in her book ‘Psalms for Praying’, writes Psalm 122 – the lectionary Psalm for this week – starting with these words:
My Spirit soared when a Voice spoke to me:
“Come, come to the Heart of Love”.
How long I had stood within the house of fear
yearning to enter the gates of Love.
The words “Come to the Heart of Love, come”, seemed to be earmarked for me. As I lingered with them in prayer, a picture emerged in my memory. It was of me at our daughter’s wedding in October, bent down, arms stretched out wide, eyes focused on one thing: welcoming our grandson – then 16 months old – who was running toward me. I recalled not wanting to push myself on him when he first arrived with his parents, wanting him to notice me when he was ready. So, I hung back and watched him, sometimes out of the corner of my eye. Waiting. All the while hoping he would want to come. What delight and joy I felt when he noticed me and began running toward me. What pleasure I felt lifting him into my arms.
And then I wondered, could this in some way reflect God’s heart of longing and waiting and orientation and welcoming to me? In my longing, which turns me toward God? In my felt sense of need for God? I can feel, in Nan Merrill’s words, my spirit soaring at the thought.