I bided my time as she squeezed me tightly to her, warmth rising at the closeness, and stared listlessly at the jumble of envelopes, scratched notes, and flyers askew on the counter, a lone pen lolling against the backsplash. Punctuating a smile on my face to meet her shining welcome as she released me back to my own presence, I felt relieved with the return of the little gulf that buoyed me to safety.
I keep to myself. It’s less awkward, less dramatic, and less demanding. I don’t feel immobilized like I do tight up in someone else’s power, even when it’s a loving power. Smothered is the word I used when I talked to myself or God. Intimacy seemed more like an oil slick spreading its sticky poison to blanket the sea’s life into suffocated death. And so I evaded, hid, sometimes flew but never far because, well, that’s just not the right way to respond to love, is it? The ebb and flow of what I was comfortable with licked at my heels, threatening to mire my feet. I could not give myself totally to the warmth, to the power, to the discomfort. It was just too much, and I was just too little.
The safest place that was not too far nor too close, was near. I could share a room toiling on a project or reading a book, ensconced where I had only to look up to control my participation. I loved stories because I could feel it all, yet remain outside it. When my tears rose at the suffering of a favorite character or the sacrificial love of a good father, I could close the book. There they remained, at arms’ length where I could flip the page on tenderness, sliding it into place, staid on the page.
The same was true at church. I found God in a book. His character was intriguing, complex, and so right all the time! Every page I flipped gave me something new to consider, to follow, to do. I loved how I could select a passage and tie it to another and follow God’s thoughts. How loving of God to share his thoughts with me, in a book, no less! A book I could open at will—and close. God was delivered to me in such a manageable package.
Included in this package were lessons on how to view myself. I’d use these passages as a mirror, turning it to catch the right angle to see my reflection, but instead I saw a distortion. I knew I was good—I did good things all the time, in fact, I rather thought I was pretty good at being good. Yet the mirror consistently made me look like a freak with narrow, tiny eyes and a ballooned jaw. That didn’t seem like a caring gift from this know-it-all God! I figured I couldn’t find the right angle, and carried on assuredly. Of course God loved me, how could he not? I didn’t look like that weird reflection!
The package came with a brochure, provided by my church. Each page highlighted a people group: the remote hill tribe in a jungled Asian country, the veil of hijabs across the Middle East, the bundles of poor overflowing slums, the angry youth caught in the webbed blocks of large cities. The title of the brochure was—This is Who God Loves. None of them went to church with me. And if I loved God then I would go to whom he loves! Isn’t that why he tucked the brochure in and gave me a love of travel?
It wasn’t until many years later that I could identify the empty middle in this belief. I believed God’s love was always directed away from me, to those who need it more. My church knew little of God’s love, always passing the plate on piously, in false deference to those more needy, in essence saying, “We’re good, we don’t need it, here you take it, you need it.” It fit well with my evasive shyness and my gloried goodness. Like a boulder in a stream, I diverted love to either side, believing I did not need the water myself, that it would even be selfish to take what was meant for others.
I took this package of God’s love in the suitcase of my heart to unpack and give away. Only, when I got there I discovered they were already fed. I was merely bringing more of the same. Even worse, my prepackaged meal of goodies did not satisfy even my own hunger. For too long I had snacked on candy, getting by. I needed a meal. So God starved me.
I think it is at the brink of realizing our great and real hunger for God that we often turn away because it is terrifying to see this massive canyon in our hearts and hear echoes of our inadequacy bounce from rock to rock. For a year and a half, I stood and paced that canyon, calling and calling. I tried my books, but they did not satisfy. I tried all the good things, prayer and song, but they tumbled like pebbles into the canyon. My spirit was a starving mountain goat while my body was a rebelling animal, unable to digest food and dropping weight as if it were water in a fall. Hunger was my constant companion and my greatest enemy. I did all the right things and they did nothing.
My salvation came slowly through the ministration of she who had always held me close. I could not push her away, for I needed her to hold me together. She literally bound my red, pulsing side every day, touching my pain with her tenderness. A mother now myself, I know her suffering was greater than my own. My fears of being stifled by love were unfounded. Her smile was authentically warm, she did not want to stifle me, she merely wanted to love me. In my weakness, I let myself be loved.
My uncle came and prayed with me, but not the endearing supplicant, hands folded, eyes cast down to the linoleum floor as he sat in the green sterilized faux-leather chair across the room. No, he stood, two feet planted as he leaned on my bed, his warm, broad hand on my chilled shoulder, and he told God how his heart broke to see me suffering, his tears manifesting the words in real drip time, and he asked God to break in and heal me.
Though nothing changed dramatically in my body that moment, my spirit calmed and realized that it had the power to enter that canyon and go find food. It was equipped with hooves and a nose that could snuffle out nourishment even in hard places. I began the descent, at last unlocked from the paralysis at the top of the impossible. I, that is my spiritual self, started to do that which I was made for, to go find that which I hungered for. No suitcase this time, no package in my hands, just the gnawing desire in the belly of my soul.
I almost settled for fodder in a barn on the way. For a time I ate at a church like the one I grew up in. It gave me the comfortable satisfaction of feeling full, but the longer I spent there, the more I realized the food was the same and sat in my stomach like a brick. I foraged further up the valley. Right on the river’s edge, I found a wild pasture of a church. There were some familiar plants but also new ones I had never tested. I was afraid I’d eat something that would make me sick, but I also felt satisfied and alive when I ate in that spacious place. The attraction of the semi-wild place eventually corralled me. My emaciated soul nibbled, then chewed, then feasted on abundant life.
Jesus was no longer good to follow, to strive after, instead he sat with me and became real to me, even in my errors, even in my pain, even in physical ways. He wrapped his arms around me and gave me an absolutely real experience of how much he loves me, personally. We are friends, and I can honestly say, no longer embarrassed or unsure, I love him and he loves me.
My way in to intimacy with God was through hunger, a hunger greater than fear, just like my need for loving care had to be greater than my fear of being smothered. It was only upon entering in that I could see that I was loved, not trapped.
This was a trip that goodness could not make, for goodness relies on knowing what to do and how; it’s controlled and measured like a tour guide following an itinerary. As long as I followed the guide, I couldn’t make a wrong turn, I could always turn the page and find out what’s next. I didn’t realize that I was holding the wrong guide until I stood on the rim, dizzy with my deprivation. Not good enough to figure this out, to solve my hunger, I had to off-road my spirit. I had to embrace the unknown, the frightening, the hope that there was something for me at the bottom and enough to sustain me along the way. I didn’t know how to scale a canyon wall, but I would languish and die on the edge if I didn’t try. Hunger led the way, and love welcomed me to the feast.