~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I grew up in home where my mother had been raised as a strong Anglican - of the smells and bells variety, but my father had little to no interest in religion particularly of the organize type. Strangely though, when it came to my religion, and my faith, I think my father had more influence on me than my mother did. By the time I was about 8 years old, we were a "C and E" family (Christmas and Easter) and by the time I was 10 we were an exclusively "Christmas" family. Christmas was a more appropriate celebration to take the children to. Easter with its background of the pain, torture and suffering of Good Friday, wasnt as appealing.
What my mother did have was a sense of the mystery of faith, and of the sacred imbuing all of life. And she passed this on to her children with the Bible stories she had listened to as a child. While my father on the other hand, was a practical man who never spoke of God. His religion, if you could call it that, was one of fairness and justice. I recall once as a child repeating a derogatory comment I had over heard about an Aboriginal family in the next street. My father turned to me, looked me in the eye and said, "Son, there is good and bad in black and white. Dont say that again!"
Regardless of my unorthodox religious upbringing, I still developed a strong and enduring sense of the presence of God. From a very young age I was aware of what I would later call, "the More," or the "spirit of Life," that which is somehow beyond what you can touch and taste and feel. I always felt the sense of something deeper, something abiding and even something sustaining. And as a child I was encouraged to call that "God. Unfortunately for me as a child, this presence of God, from time to time was more fearful and foreboding than welcoming and inviting.
There are some of us, not very body, who can be described as what Jack Spong the controversial Episcopal Bishop in the US called, "God intoxicated" He said in an interview with ABC presenter John Cleary:
"Who I am is a person is almost God intoxicated. I spend part of every day of my life in prayer and in Bible study, helping me to try to understand the depths of this experience so that I can live this experience in my relationships."
I grew up with and still have what could be called a "longing for the Divine in my life." I suppose I wouldnt be in this job if that wasnt the case. Many ministers of my vintage and laypeople too, have left Christian ministry and the church because that deep longing for an encounter and experience of God, couldnt be found in the Church. But that is a discussion for another day.
What I am interested in exploring this morning is the kind of experience that we see in our reading of the Psalms. That power sense of longing as in the psalm Alexandra read this morning.
My soul waits in silence and hopefulness for God alone, who is my rock and my salvation and my fortress"
And other psalms:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My whole being desires you like a dry, worn-out and waterless land, my soul is thirsty for you.
And many other psalms that speak of the deep longing for an encounter with the very heart of life itself. And thats the point I want to make. This longing, that I think is is every human heart, is not for religiosity of for ideas about God. Nor is it just the experience of what the Bible might call a loving father. No, it is not a longing for a "being" at all. It is the hearts desire to enter fully and unconditionally into life itself.
Your God is Too Small
David Benner, a Canadian psychologist in his book, Opening to God, writes about the spiritual life being about desire and longing and not just about doing things. He says:
"The most typical evidence of grace at work within us is not awareness of duty but awareness of desire. You can trust your deep desires because they are a gift of God."
This desire, this longing takes us deeper and further into life. You can't discover new oceans unless you have the courage to leave the shoreline. Its that kind of living into the deepest of life that the Pslamist is on about. In the same way I love what the author of the book, The little Prince says:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea"
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
To long for the endless immensity of the sea
In 1961, J.B. Phillips the translator and New Testament scholar wrote a book that changed the way many of us understand the notion of God. The book was titled, Your God is too Small, and Phillips wrote:
It often appears to those outside the churches that Christians worship and serve a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and co-operation If Christians are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a Church [However, many people] have seen enough to know that God is immeasurably "bigger" than our forefathers imagined, and modern scientific discovery only confirms their belief that man has only just begun to comprehend the incredibly complex Being who is behind what we call "life."
I think it is a helpful statement particularly when we are aware that God is not some abstract or spiritual notion separate from physical world and that "God" isnt defined just as a being who is up there, out of reach and watching over us. The gift of God, and the presence of God, is the surely found in "Life fully lived."
That is becoming for me the most helpful way of seeing, knowing and experiencing God. What we name as God is the point at which Life is fully lived; where we embrace the joy and the pain; the wonder and the terror of human existence. And we can embrace it because all of life is held together in the ground of our being, in the very foundation of life itself.
My soul waits in silence and hopefulness for God alone, who is my rock and my salvation and my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honour, my mighty rock and my refuge.
Isnt a sense that God is the embracing of the whole of life more satisfying, more expansive and more engaging, than a God who sits above and beyond our daily experience of life? It means that when we encounter moments in life that "blow our minds," and when we search for words to describe that experience, somehow or other we will find what we are looking for it in the word "God"
God comes to us Disguised as our Life
Paula DArcy, the writer and retreat leader, has a very helpful way of expressing this when she says, "God comes to us disguised as our life". What I like about this quote is that there is a hiddenness. God comes "disguised " you have to look for it and all of life manifests the presence of "God", even more than I can imagine. And also I am still talking of a "personal" relationship with God, because I am in a personal relationship with life and that forms and shapes me to have the courage to embrace life in all its sadness, hopefulness, fruitfulness and struggle.
So longing and desire is drawing us deeper into the heart of Life. And as we go with it, duty and rule following will be less important and finding our deeper/true self will be the most important goal. When I touch those deep places in life, I am touching a deep place in myself in my life and my awareness and reflection on that helps me to keep moving deeper into Life, and dare I say, deeper into God.
Thats what the Psalmist is encouraging us to do. Not just follow the rules and be a good person. While there is nothing wrong with following the rules and being a good person, it is not enough to feed the deep longing of the soul. Again from David Benner:
"Desire is right at the centre of the spiritual life. A sense of obligation may sometimes be enough to keep you going to church, but only desire will keep you open to God and still seeking when your experience in church is filled with frustration and is irrelevant to your deepest spiritual longings. Guilt may be strong enough to motivate religious behaviour, but only desire can lead you ahead on the spiritual journey. The absence of desire means the absence of spiritual life"
~David Benner Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human
Drawn into Divine Love
From my experience that spiritual longing is a response to being drawn to what I have called Divine love. This mornings story from Marks Gospel about the "calling" of the disciples picks up this sense of being drawn toward something that is life changing. Often this passage and other "calling of the disciples" passages is seen as a sort Jesus starting a church. Its not it is about deep spiritual longing responding to Divine love:
When Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw the fisherman Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the lake. "Come, and follow me," said Jesus and I will send you out to fish for people." Immediately, they left their nets and they followed him.
The story is constructed around the encounter between the unknown Jesus and his first disciples. They were drawn no doubt, by an erudite teacher, an inspirational preacher, a dynamic prophet
all those ways Jesus was in the world. But at the heart they were drawn into abundant life by Divine love. Jesus did not just call them to a task, or a job, he called them into a richer and deeper life; the life fully lived, where God is found in the very living of life itself in all its beauty and terror; its wonder and awfulness; its joyfulness and sadness. That God present with us.