BY REV. DEB MECHLER - SPENCER
"The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God's love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God." — Meister Eckhart
We do not need to "long for the longing" right now. We all feel it deeply. We can see it in each other's eyes above our masks. It has replaced the weather as the first topic of conversation. We long for family gatherings, celebrations, traveling freely, tailgating, hugs and so much more. But are we longing for God?
We have been raised in a culture where we are encouraged to seek remedies to our discomfort as quickly as possible. Sad? Cheer up with a shopping spree! Lonely? Go online and chat! Angry? Cut off that old friendship!
It is a natural impulse, but when the answers come too quickly, we sometimes bypass necessary grief, shared suffering or any other experience that could potentially teach us about ourselves, the world and God. Instead we push away the pain that could teach us wisdom and compassion.
There is no pushing away a pandemic.
Among all the other losses, churchgoers have felt the painful absence of weekly in-person worship. As a pastor, I felt helpless in at first. Then I learned to record a couple of hymns and readings along with a sermon. I dutifully sent worship videos out to the digital world, wondering who was watching it and whether it was helpful. (I'm still uploading them, and I still wonder.)
We hoped it would be merely a stop-gap solution, a poor substitute for worship gatherings, but surely we'd be back in a couple months. Six months later with no end to the restrictions in sight, the longing for normalcy is becoming palpable. It is driving many people to despair. It's no wonder there are short tempers behind the closed doors of church board rooms and everywhere else. Anxiety compels people to behave badly, including Christians.
Here is the good news: the longing is a sign of God's presence. It indicates that we are spiritual beings who know what it means to be the church, even if we can't spell it out in theological terms. Jesus established the church and enlivens it with his Spirit, expecting that unity within deep relationship would be our very identity. He even said that when we struggle with divisive conflicts, he is right there among us to restore our unity: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them." (Matt 18.20)
Jesus' prayer of longing for us before he was betrayed and arrested was that we would be one. (Jn 17.11) So how do we handle this longing to be one — in the same space together — without any restrictions? Do we simply wring our hands and pray, pray, pray for the day it will be over? Do we settle for physical distancing and masks as the church of the future?
The Scriptures contain several stories where times of waiting and longing are depicted as wilderness times. It didn't take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Canaan, yet God kept the people there that long. Why? They had to learn what it means to be God's people, for one thing. They had to feel the longing not to return to slavery, but to live fully in freedom while trusting God completely.
Can we learn this right now? Can we let ourselves feel the longing, and understand that just getting what we want — getting to the "promised land" of the future, whatever that means — is not the ultimate answer?
This is a time to learn about ourselves and what it means to be God's people in all times. One possibility is that our comfort-seeking habits need to be exposed so that we can see the needs of others.
A piece I read recently by Noah Van Niel offers wisdom for us to consider. I will let him have the last word:
"Perhaps … this prolonged period of unfulfilled desire will widen our hearts, increasing our empathy for those who live in a perpetual state of longing for what is denied them — peace, justice, equality, safety — all those whose deepest needs remain unmet. And perhaps now, having been deprived of people and connection and community for so long, we will appreciate anew how much we depend upon one another for our own flourishing. Maybe not getting to be the church is exactly what the church needs to awaken the sense of longing and desire that will propel us back into communities of faith that feed us in ways we didn't even know we needed, communities that possess a more capacious spirit and a more generous sense of mission." ("The Church is Other People" in Plough Quarterly, Aug. 12, 2020.)