Friday, September 10, 2004

Letter to an Empty Vessel

Dear Beloved Sister,
Yes, I was surprised when you, of all people, came to me seeking my counsel and prayers. You, looked to by so many of us as strong and wise, confessing your confusion about how to overcome your spiritual weaknesses. You, so friendly and compassionate, confessing your loneliness while surrounded by familiar faces and names. You, so full of the Spirit, how hard it must have been to come and confess your love for God and your distress over the emptiness you feel and your desire to feel close to God once again. Thank you for trusting me to give you consolation and counsel. You ask me how it is that you can come to church, into the presence of God to worship, commune with the family of God, your family, and yet leave feeling so abandoned, distant from God and the people you love and who love you; how you can sing praise one moment and the next moment stand in the parking lot nearly weeping at the despair within you. You ask where you are lacking in spirituality. You ask what you must do to overcome this weakness in you. You ask what is wrong with you and your relationship with God. Perhaps it is, my Sister, that everything is right.

I know why you ask what is wrong. You have been told it is wrong to feel empty, abandoned, lonely, and sorrowful. You have been told that if you do not "get something out of worship and fellowship it is because you did not put anything into it." Perhaps you are not getting what you THINK you should. Maybe you are not receiving what you have been told you SHOULD want. But maybe God is giving you by His grace, through His Spirit, what you need. Have you really considered what it is you assume you are "supposed" to "get" out of your relationship with God? God is a God of mercy, He is the “Lover of mankind”. God’s grace is a true free lunch. He knows what spiritual food we need not just to survive but to grow strong and stay healthy. Part of taking Him up on the free lunch of grace is not deciding ahead of time what the menu will be. St. Paul tells us in Romans chapter nine that Jacob got surf and turf and champagne while Esau got a side order of toast and water. But both were somehow grace and mercy in ways we cannot fathom. We are His children and do not know what we ought to be eating, left to ourselves we’ll go for the Twinkies and cotton candy. But God is our Father who puts the vegetables and liver on our plates. We just need to be obedient children and eat what is put in front of us.

You are asking yourself what does this have to do with your feelings of emptiness and wrestlings with your spirituality? Simply this: The Spirit is at work within you. Be still. Stop trying to guess what things you need to come up with to GET God's things, let God give His things freely to you for a change. Stop trying to get, simply allow Him to give to you through his Spirit out of His vast store of gifts. And do not be quick to reject His gifts because they are not what you expected. These strange, disquieting feelings are from Him, I believe, because the fruit of His Spirit is growing, taking hold within you, locking its roots deep inside you.

Galatians 5:19ff says that Love is the very essence, the seed of the fruit of the Spirit, containing within it all that makes up the fruit, all that is God Himself who is Love. Love becomes ever more mysterious and insane to me as I learn to live in its power. I do not know much about it, not nearly as much as I once believed I did, but I do know to love God is not all happiness and contentment (as opposed to joy and peace), it is not all smiles and laughter (as opposed to poverty of spirit and mourning). This one thing I have learned about Love, and it pertains to your spiritual sorrows and your desperation to sense God's presence, it is the very source of your distress. Very simply put it is this: to the degree I love someone deeply and passionately, that is the degree to which my heart aches at the smallest distance between us. We dwell in a fog of abandonment and sorrow without the presence of our lover. In every great love there is great pain because the desire to be completely and finally consumed by and to be fully bound together with one another can never be fulfilled in the limitations of this world and our flesh. I think that is why the final and complete expression of love, the most touching and romantic of all love story endings, is not when lovers finally make love but it is when two lovers die in one another's arms. It is the gospel according to Romeo and Juliet. All that kept them apart, all adversaries, all limitations of the flesh and heart, at that moment, are powerless: love alone is triumphant, sovereign, their unity is consummated finally and completely, never to be severed from or lost to one another again.

Thus love, when it moves beyond the will and the intellect ("I know this is how love would behave, so I
will behave like I love") and into the heart, where passion reigns unfettered and burns white hot, furiously,
it brings forth both the desire to be united, completely, wholly and finally with the One we love so desperately and feel such sorrow at the vast distance between us. Only those who love God with unbridled passion in all its irrationality can weep over not being able to be with Him at every moment; only they can cry out to be consumed by His presence. Only they can know the divine romance of the desire to die in the arms of their Beloved, God. It is only they who can say like the apostle Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ, but to die is gain," (Phil. 1:21). or "You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with Him in glory." (Col.3:3.4)

I think there are many people struggling with the same feelings but are afraid to admit them because they feel they are signs of spiritual weakness. They have forgotten that love is both a bright hope and a dark despair, that these feelings are part of the experience of what it is to be in love. Listen to the Lover's Song of Songs:
"On my bed night after night I sought him, Whom my soul lovest.
I must arise now and go search the city.
I must seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him but did not find him.
I opened to my beloved
But my beloved had turned away and gone I
My heart went out to him as he spoke.
I searched for him but did not find him;
I called to him but he did not answer me."
Song of Solomon 3:2, 5-6

Somehow we think it embarrassing, or even blasphemous to speak of love for God in the same breath as the greatest passions we feel for another human, and yet these passions are created in us, they are in His image and are glorious, and truly our human passions are but a dim shadow of what it means to be in love with God. Just as in all true loves there is joy, peace, and fulfillment, there is also longing, sorrow, and an emptiness when we cannot see our beloved's face, feel his touch, here, now, and forever. These feelings, if they are toward God, are not "unspiritual feelings". Our love for God is like our human love and there are times that the joys we feel in the presence of our beloved bears witness to the depths of our love, but the pit of desperation deep in the night at the absence of our beloved bears a greater witness to the strength of our love. The truth of love is that human lovers and lovers of God do at times feel sad, lonely, and empty because of the absence of their beloved. There is a deep, hollow, and holy place within us that can only be filled with the very presence of my beloved one and just the remembrance or the thought of the beloved will not do. To be ravaged by despair at the absence of God is the greatest witness to our love for God. It is not lack of faith that brings this despair, but it is the depth of our passion. It is not that we are wanting in faith, but it is that we truly want HIM. Faith may be the knowledge or hope that He is still out there but is silent, but love is the pit in our stomach as we stare into the void where He once stood and we don't know when He will return to us. Spiritual despair is the truest witness to love for God, the hardest to bear surely, but to have a great love is to suffer greatly for it.

I hope you can see that you are not alone in these feelings, you do not weep over the empty places in your heart, dear sister, because you lack love, but because you are growing in love. God is winning your heart, mind, soul and strength. And all lovers have a room within their hearts reserved for sorrow over their desire for the one they love and what they know they cannot fulfill in this earthly life. Do not deny your feelings, dear Sister. Cherish them, live in them. Know they are from your Beloved, God.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine,


alana said...

I know you didn't write this to ME, per se, but thanks for writing this. Thanks for giving purpose to this darkness.

Philippa said...

For so long I've wondered what was wrong with me. Was I so hard hearted and sinful and the wall so thick that God could not get through to me? Had He abandoned me because I had committed so many grievous sins?

I see now, the wrongheaded thinking and learning.

Thank God for this post, s-p. It has been to my salvation.