What a glorious outpouring of holy love do we read about in our Bible passages for today – God’s bottomless love for Israel, God’s claiming of the newly baptized Jesus as beloved. I read each of these texts as a reminder of God’s bottomless love for all humanity. I could preach multiple sermons on why I believe this to be true, but let me get back to that briefly at the end of this sermon, and more substantively on other mornings. I’d like to reflect now on Israel’s experience of God’s presence from the Book of Isaiah, and to discern together how it may deepen our own lives of faith.
Our passage for today is God’s long, long-awaited utterance to Israel. Israel had suffered total desolation, vanquished by foreign armies, dispersed to foreign lands, separated from members of their families – their beloved – for generations, conquered people living in places where they were the human refuse of armed conflict. I’d like to say that the human family doesn’t do this to one another anymore, but alas that’s not true. Squalid refugee communities contain the Congolese, the Hmong, and so many others. Where was the Almighty in all that Israel endured? Was God even remotely present in all their suffering? Israel’s collective experience is of the radical absence of God, the silence of God. They were captives abroad, altogether forgotten, apparently. There was no one to ransom them, to post their bail, we might say now, not even the One who had said, “I shall be your God and you will be my people.” Words! Left utterly on their own in complete desolation. Words…
I sincerely hope that your personal experience or that of your broader family or community has never included exile, dehumanization, and suffering that has brought you down to the brink of living or dying. Desolation of some sort, though, comes to every human life, most often in the loss of someone we have loved with all our heart. Many people of faith, from time to time or all the time, feel the absence of God, the silence of God, as did Israel. Many of us who, as individuals, yearn for – groan for – connection to God, sometimes, often times, or all the time, feel not the warm closeness of God but a gulf in between. We have dry spells – short, long, or seemingly endless.
Since the time of Isaiah’s description, and before, and long after this has been the case for countless communities and individuals of faith. I would like, in these minutes, to share with you just a handful of reflections from some fellow travelers, different voices in the contemporary American Christian family, on how to endure and even use the dry spells that may come to you, to persist in the faith, to have “the life that really is life.”
The first voice is that of Renita J. Weems, a minister, biblical scholar and author. She is, as I joke about those of us in ordained vocations, a “professional” Christian. She writes of her experience of the long absence of God in a book called Listening for God. These are some of her insights from that difficult, ongoing journey: most of the pain she felt about God’s silence came, she realizes, from failing to surrender herself to the season she was in. Drought happens. There are dry spells. They are not the occasion for shame but rather for honesty and openness. They are not to be denied, even if they are very difficult to embrace. Denial of the dry spell means denial of any of the spiritual wisdom it might impart.
Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent, as Dr. Weems came to understand. We can sit in utter silence with another person; we can wish like heck that they would say something, but no, we are not alone. We are accompanied… in silence, for the time being. Dr. Weems, in time, learned to trust the silence. In its own way, silence is a Presence. It is a thing, an action. It is not a void, but for the moment, stillness. In all our lives, how often is silence really the medium of wonderful things?
And ultimately, Dr. Weems learned that we don’t pray to God because we are certain, but because we are uncertain. We don’t pray because we understand all mysteries but because we don’t. We don’t pray out of our expertise but our need and confusion. Don’t let any confusion keep you from reaching out to God. Make it your fuel for doing so with only deeper fervor.
Here’s another voice - that of Dallas Willard, an evangelical writer, from his book Hearing God. Willard asks his readers to distinguish between proactively hearing God – feeling a warm communication and connectedness to God – and simply knowing that God is present in our lives. Willard makes me think of many friends of mine in distant places with whom I am not in frequent communication (to put it mildly!) but whose presence in, and whose effect upon, my life is beyond description. Just because we aren’t on the phone all the time doesn’t mean they’re not there. Willard asks us, too, to consider that God is dwelling – God is within us, not without. Many of us carry out our search for connectedness with God in our eternal experiences, and not within our souls. Perhaps it is by turning inward, inward, inward, that we may discover God’s chosen location in our lives.
Dallas Willard asks us to consider our motivations in our desire for closeness with the Holy One. Perhaps we want righteousness, advantage, an eye into the future. Perhaps we want God to do our bidding. Perhaps we are succumbing to what Willard calls “humble arrogance” – we say that we are spiritually unworthy of feeling the closeness of God, and in doing this we remove from ourselves any responsibility for listening for God at all, and for hearing new and challenging things that God might say to us.
And then there are the reflections of the Jesuit priest Thomas H. Green. He writes in his book When the Well Runs Dry that our dry spells are times of tremendous potential growth. Without minimizing the ache of dryness, of a parched spirit, of a soul that feels itself flaking and cracked, he asks us to think that God may be placing great confidence in us. God knows we can live with the dryness. God knows that our spirits will grow in the midst of it, in directions perhaps not possible during the bountiful immersions of spiritual connectedness, overflowing streams of holy richness. Sometimes, our growth during dry spells isn’t apparent until much later, in a much easier spiritual season. God has confidence in us; God knows that we have the grounding in faith already to walk through the desert and to learn from what we experience there. Similarly, God had confidence that Christ could walk in such a desiccated place for 40 days and 40 nights, facing seductive temptations, and emerge only stronger in his calling.
In this way, Green suggests that our dry spells have the potential to be truly purifying – they strip of us spiritual excesses and of dross, we are pared down to our naked souls, us before God. It is ultimate vulnerability, ultimate lack of control. It is the refiner’s fire. It is a chance to lose all distractions, to have our focus narrowed and narrowed and narrowed to the utter simplicity of what is important, the utter simplicity of the “still, small voice” that has been with us all the while. It is the stripping of all our clutter, all our baggage, and how much of that coats our perceptions and experiences of everything like sticky adhesive. Dry spells are a helpful stripping.
Green writes, too, that dry spells are a reminder that God really is in control of our lives, including our prayer lives, so go into whatever dryness, whatever darkness confronts you. Believe that, just as the warm and comforting times are a gift from God, so are the barren ones. God has some goodness waiting there for you. Perhaps this is your chance to stop fearing the barrenness, fearing the darkness. Perhaps it is the time to lose such fears and so to become free – free to listen to God, with confidence and faith, in whatever seasons life brings to you. How wonderful would it be to be spiritually free? How wonderful to move forward with unfettered courage to explore whatever spiritual spell may be ahead of us. How amazing to think what kind of disciples we may become!
When we are in the deepest throes of love, one of the most wonderful things is simply to say our beloved’s name. We may have known dozens of people before with their name but it is altogether different now just to say “Steve, Jane, Chris, Sue.” It’s a word, it’s a name, it’s the whole of the person who makes us come alive. God tells Israel, “I have called you by name. You are mine.” God’s voice booms out for Christ to hear as he emerges from the waters of baptism, “You are my beloved.” How wonderful, when we are in love, to know that we are possessed by our beloved. It is not the possession of power or control, but of infinite love and of commitment to our welfare. It is the ultimate in caring and protecting.
God knows each of us by name; God cherishes us by name, savoring our names and spirits as unique and adored children. Never for God or God’s love, but for each of us, sometimes the well runs dry. Sometimes the challenges of life, or the emptiness of life, or its busyness, or nothing we could ever put our finger on means we run full on into a dry spell. Still, throughout whatever silence or absence we feel, God is present. God never departs from us. God draws nearer when God chooses to draw nearer, but we are never alone. We are always loved by the One who says “you are mine,” to me you are priceless, I love you endlessly. May this truth be what guides and sustains us in whatever seasons come our way.
Anathea Portier-Young, Isaiah 43: 1-7, www.workingpreacher.org, Jan. 10, 2010.