“If God is in his sanctuary
And Jesus is still on the throne,
And the Holy Ghost rests in the hearts of man,
Then why am I still struggling alone?”
I penned these words as part of a song I wrote in the months after my mother died. I was angry at that particular time, not just because God seem to be invisible, hiding from me, but also that he† seemed to have abandoned my mother in her sickness. I didn’t expect that God would help me, I who had abandoned my religious practice some years earlier, but I really expected that he would show up for her, she who remained relatively devout in her faith throughout most of her life. I felt in some ways that she and I had been sold a bill of goods about God, believing that when we had need, God would answer and somehow fix things. If we believed hard enough, God would heal her of Stage IV lung cancer that metastasized to her brain.
It might sound odd and contradictory, but the last 20+ years have both hardened and softened me. I hardened my heart to the grief and pain, layering protections over it, layer after layer after layer, to keep me from feeling the sadness and deep loss. But the time has also softened me, encouraging me to open my eyes with a more seasoned, reasoned view of things; the overly simplistic, childlike faith that expected God to be magician and fix things matured into a deeper understanding of the complexities of faith, life and death, and religious practice. Over time, the hardening and layers, too, have diminished and I have been able to feel more fully and deeply, though I still have a ways to go with that.
“I prayed and I cried and I sought the Lord’s face
I chased his spirit all over the place,
But no matter how I try,
He doesn’t seem to know my name.”
I spent a number of years deeply immersed in a fairly strict, fundamentalist church. I joined, having left behind my Catholic faith, because of the promise that I would hear from and know God, that I could forge a personal connection to God. Since childhood I had been a spiritual seeker, sensing the presence of the divine all around me without knowing how to access it. I saw something in the church that I believed would help me find it. And while there were times when I touched it, the overall environment was oppressive and manipulated, even though it professed the opposite. I left with my sanity relatively intact, but my trust level in organized religion and, unfortunately for a time my faith, had diminished dramatically. It wasn’t until I was free from the structures that I discovered my true faith, outside of organized religion.
“Lord, I want to believe
There’s someone up there listening to me,
You see, I called and I cried ’til my throat was sore
But I don’t think I can cry out anymore.
Oh Lord when I call, won’t you please just answer my prayer.”
As for my personal connection to the divine: I’m still working on it, still discovering it. It is a work in progress. There are times, as I wrote the other night, when I can feel the divine in the stillness at my core, and I know I am connected. It’s not the voice speaking to me as I once imagined I might communicate with God, but it’s a peace and calm outside of something that I could create. My definition of divine.
“God, if you can really hear me, please won’t you give me a sign,
Just to know that you’re there or that you even care,
Just to know that you’re still on the line.
I need something I can feel, hear or see, ’cause right now the silence is deafening to me
And no matter how I cry, you never seem to answer my prayer.”
So this week in particular I find myself thinking about losing even the tenuous connection that I feel I have with God. I literally find myself talking to God, all day long, every day. I thank God for the sunshine, the buds preparing to burst open, the amusing antics of the squirrels as they raid my neighbor’s bird feeder. I express gratitude for the things that go well at work, and when I curse and swear when things do not go well, I don’t blame God. We are in a largely one-way conversation every day, and while I don’t hear a voice in my head or booming down from the heavens, in a very odd way, I feel heard.
So what must it have been like then, for Jesus, when at the height of his agony he cries out, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” To have felt cut off from God, the constant and close-as-your-own-skin companion, the one who declared Jesus to be his “beloved son in whom [I am] well pleased”…what must that have felt like? Jesus, after living a life dedicated to God, to healing others and sharing the message of the blessings God has for believers, felt abandoned, left alone to die a brutal and ignominious death. But even at the very end, his last words were to God, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
God and I have had an interesting relationship over the years. I grouse at God about a variety of things over the course of the day, which is almost alway balanced out by gratitude and praise. I can’t help it. It seems to always be where I land. Once I passed through the anger phase of the various stages of grief, I resumed my constant stream of communication with God. No matter what is going on in my life, my heart seeks the connection, and while I don’t often hear the voice of God or experience direct engagement with or intervention in the various activities and predicaments I occasionally find myself in, I nonetheless appreciate the connection. As these 40 days of focused attention come to a conclusion at the end of the week, I will nonetheless tug on the connection just to be sure it is still there. And I’ll be grateful.
†I use the pronoun “he” for God for sake of simplicity, and I suppose out of habit, not because I believe God has a gender. I do not.