My experience of faith, my spiritual emotions if you will, have changed over the years.
I’ve never a person who experienced extremes of emotion, but over time my experience of God was growing quieter. My life of faith was less exciting.
For a long time I worried that this meant I was losing my faith. I was afraid that when I met Jesus face to face, he would spit me out for being lukewarm. (Revelation 3.16)
Whether it was intended or not, the message I received from many of the churches I attended, many of the youth conferences I enjoyed, was that if I didn’t feel moved during worship, something was wrong. Wrong with me. Wrong with my worship. Wrong with my relationship with God.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes that “where worship is relatively spontaneous, … people powered by religious emotion simply do run out of steam.” By “spontaneous,” she is referring to worship that doesn’t come from centuries of liturgy. Not that modern evangelical churches are all shallow institutions, but that liturgies have the advantage of being a steadily flowing river you can slip into and allow the prayers and Scriptures to shape you rather than attempting to rely on yourself to dredge up the necessary emotions.
What I discovered after much time in prayer and reading is that rather than cooling off, my relationship with God had simply changed. It moved deeper. Silence and attentiveness are now greatly necessary to me. My faith has moved deep inside, “glowing there like a little oil lamp.”
Many of our Church Mothers and Fathers have written about why it is good to move beyond the emotions of experiencing God.
St. John of the Cross speaks of sensory benefits as the least of God’s gifts to us, a gift that he often withdraws in order to convince us to turn our eyes of faith on the Father rather than on what he is giving to us. St. John calls the desire to feel something in our time with God a “negative judgement” on God. It is a lack of trust in God doing in us what he promised to do.
In much more modern times, Richard Foster writes that “The Bible shows us that God works through long periods of our lives in which — apparently — nothing much seems to happen.”
Mathewes-Green describes this deepening of faith, this moving away from the passions and emotions into the realm of silence and attentiveness, as something that is natural and necessary in our relationship with God, just as it does between two people who are in love. I think I will end with this quote from her:
At the beginning, the heart pounds just to see the beloved’s handwriting on an envelope; at the end, two sit side by side before a fire and don’t need to speak at all. When (churches) urge their (congregations) not to let the joy fade, they may be calling them to fight a fruitless battle against moving to the next stage of spiritual communion, the one where God moves deep inside. When years shape us to be like him, his presence is less electric and strange; yet as we draw nearer, deeper faith yields deeper awe.
May God continue to shape you to be more like him, leading you into deeper faith and deeper awe as you sit in silence with him.
There are a handful of authors who have influenced my thoughts, my theology, my faith, and my writing more than any others.
C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, N. T. Wright …
and Frederick Buechner.
Buechner wrote deep, aching truth alongside beautiful, longing hope. He saw this life of faith clearer than most, and now he sees face to face. He died a few days ago at age 96.
96 is a long life by any standards. His was a long life well lived. This kind of death brings sadness to those who will miss him and to the many more of us who will miss his words, but it is not a tragedy.
Frederick Buechner is finally face to face with the Jesus he adores. He ran this race well and now he can rest in peace with the One he loves.
In honor of the impact his writings have had on me, I pulled together some of my favorites among his words. These are in a completely random order, but I hope that they lure you into finding one of his books and letting his words sink as deeply into you as they have into me.
The final secret, I think, is this: that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us – loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us.
We draw near to him by following him even on clumsy and reluctant feet.
Adeste fidelis. That is the only answer I know for people who want to find out whether or not this is true. Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light. Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough at least to draw near to see for yourselves.
I believe that…the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.
We go because it is where His way leads us; and again and again we are blessed by our going in ways we can never anticipate, and our going becomes a blessing to the ones we go to because when we follow His way, we never go entirely along, and it is always something more than just ourselves and our own emptiness that we bring.
Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are”, and he points to “the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can here in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.”
Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf. (re: Job being given God himself in the middle of suffering)
Words people speak have dynamite in them and a word may be all it takes to set somebody’s heart on fire or break it in two.
So many of us are so bad at hearing each other and seeing each other that it is little wonder that one life seems enough to them or more than enough: seeing so little in this world, they think that there is little to see and that they have seen most of it already so that the rest probably is not worth seeing anyway and there is nothing new under the sun.
You often hear the advice that if you keep busy, it will be over before you know it, and the tragedy of it is that it is true.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy … Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.
It is these very everyday moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself.
Frederick Buechner also spoke of ordinary life as a fathomless mystery. He admonishes us to listen to the ordinary, everyday life and see it for what it truly is:
In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
There is something troublesome that comes across in many modern, Western churches, something that offers up Jesus as a commodity that will solve all of your troubles, heal all of your woes, and make you happy.
Pastors exalt the benefits of following Jesus, telling tales of miracles and answered prayers, with little to no talk of the cost of discipleship.
Much of our Western church downplays the theology of suffering and the brokenness of our world and chooses instead to emphasize the “benefits” of Christianity. While most churches wouldn’t say outright that they follow a prosperity-gospel sort of theology, many of them teach as though they deeply believe a version of it.
Even the songs we sing in church or on Christian radio can lean hard into the happy feelings rather than lamenting the pain that we all experience in this broken world of ours.
Compare, for example, the lyrics of some modern praise songs:
You’re a good, good Father
It’s who You are
You’ve never failed me yet
to an old hymn, Faith of Our Fathers:
Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to Thee till death!
Yes, I deliberately chose a few extreme examples, but when was the last time you heard anything in church, from a pastor or a song, encouraging you to remain true to God through all things, even death? When was the last time you heard about the discipline of lament, or the idea that some things in this world will never be okay until you see Jesus face to face and He is with you through it all.
Too many people have heard this “Jesus will solve your problems and make you happy” rhetoric and given a predictable “What kind of fool do you take me for?” answer.
Part of the trouble, of course, part of the reason why this notion has taken hold in so many churches is that it is true.
Not the fixing – all – your – problems part, but the way in which his presence takes root and spreads, producing peace and joy no matter what life’s circumstances. ~ Frederica Mathewes – Green in At the Corner of East and Now
There’s no great way of saying that, though. Life is full of pain. How can we say that Jesus makes everything fine without sounding schmaltzy or foolish?
It’s not something that we can really explain in words. It’s something that people must see for themselves. You have to give it a try for a while before you understand, because the pain doesn’t always go away. The cancer doesn’t always get healed, the loneliness doesn’t always vanish, the marriage doesn’t always get saved.
It doesn’t mean that you get everything you want; rather, that gradually you get to want only Jesus. ‘He will give you the desires of your heart.’ (Ps. 37.4) turns out to mean that God gives the desires themselves; our impulsive and conflicting hungers are transformed, tuned, and ordered to receive what God intends to give. ~ Mathewes-Green
In the end, we are given Jesus himself, and it turns out that Jesus is what we really wanted all along.
While many theologians over the centuries have written about this notion, mostly recently I have been reading about it in Evelyn Underhill’s Concerning the Inner Life, a book I would highly recommend.
Underhill wrote of the Lord’s Prayer as an example of one way to move in your prayers from one floor to the other and weld the whole thing together as a whole and complete house. This particular prayer “witnesses with a wonderful beauty and completeness to this two-story character of the soul’s house.” It is such a lovely and helpful way to think about this concept, so I thought I would share it with you here today.
We begin at the top of the house with the one relationship that rules all the rest:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
“Whatever the downstairs muddle and tension we have to deal with … all this rich and testing experience is enfolded and transfused by the cherishing, over-ruling life and power of God.”
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The prayer then brings us gradually downstairs allowing the sacred to fill every space, cleansing and sanctifying it all. Thy Kingdom come – hope and expectation. Thy will be done – the loving union of our will with His.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
Give us the “food from beyond ourselves which nourishes and sustains our life. Forgive all our little failures and excesses, neutralize the corroding power of our conflicts … we can’t deal with them alone … Lead us not into situations where we are tried beyond our strength; … and protect the weakness of the adolescent spirit against the downward pull of the inhabitants of the lower floor.”
And then? The reason for all of this.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“… bringing together, in one supreme declaration of joy and confidence, the soul’s sense of that supporting, holy, and eternal Reality who is the Ruler and the Light … of every room in every little house.”