“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you…”
On April 24, 2022, I walked out the side doors of the church I had served for 25 years, retiring from 37 years of service as a parish minister. Three long-time church members had remained in the foyer, assuring me that they didn’t want my husband and me to exit the church for the last time without support from a representative contingent of my beloved congregation. That small token of hospitality in my final moments spoke volumes about my relationship with that church family. We cared for one another, ensuring that the needs of each member of the church would be spiritually met. Two of the adults had been on the search committee that called me to Rockford in 1996. One of them is the present moderator, leading her congregation through a pastoral transition. Several months removed from my quiet exit out the side door of the building, I am living the disorientation of that transition.
Let me back up a bit in my story. I didn’t go to seminary to become a parish minister. I thought I would become a counselor in a Christian holistic health center, a popular development for treating the spiritual needs of the whole person. I focused on social justice causes while studying at Chicago Theological Seminary. Having just returned from teaching nutrition to African mothers through the Peace Corps, my first internship was with Church World Service/CROP, raising money to combat hunger. I worked with a Catholic organization, the 8th Day Center for Justice. My task was to connect restaurants with soup kitchens so that restaurant leftovers wouldn’t go to waste. My husband, also a seminarian, did an internship with a clergy couple who shared a church together. We saw the joy they derived from shared gifts and shifted our sights to some sort of joint ministry. We received a call to serve as co-associate pastors for a suburban Chicago parish. When I stepped into this form of ministry, I was surprised at how immediately rewarding it was for me. My April 24 retirement concluded ministry in three unique church settings with somewhat different job descriptions. The common denominator for each of them was a love for worship and for pastoral calling.
I grew up going to church. My dad was assigned to a different Air Force base about every four years. We attended worship where he served. I chose to attend St. Olaf College where daily chapel services were well attended. If I didn’t feel like following the Lutheran liturgy (which I grew to love), I would walk about three miles round trip to a United Church of Christ on the other side of the small college town of Northfield, Minnesota. When I spent a semester in France, I found the one Protestant church in town and worshiped in their 12th century sanctuary. I sang French hymns in their choir. When I moved to Africa for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I found a Protestant church led by an American missionary couple who became family to me. The congregation was African and they beautifully harmonized their hymns without 4-part musical scripts! When I settled into seminary life in Chicago, I chose a United Church of Christ within walking distance of my apartment.
I love Christ’s Church, in all its beautiful variation! I’ve never taken for granted that I could plan worship services, starting with a Biblical text and fleshing out the service with liturgy, lay involvement and music. I have said to folks many times, “When else do you get to sing in unison with other people, accompanied by instruments?” My husband has always sung in the choir and his special music offerings were a gift to each congregation (and to me!). The one book I wrote, which was published just one week before my retirement, is a useful guide for worship leaders desiring to enliven their worship services with new ideas and resources. Setting down the mantle of parish ministry was a seismic shift in my professional and personal life.
Having been adrift from any one congregation for six months, I find myself in a strange land. If I am not the pastor of the church, what will I do? Can I sit in the pews and not get caught up in judging the worship service and overall health of a congregation? Where do I begin to look for a congregation we can call home? Why would I, when I can follow countless worship services from the comfort of my bedroom while drinking coffee? This present hiatus from in-person worship has served as a strange sort of sabbatical for me. We have enjoyed open weekends to visit family, take trips, and tune into different worship services when able. This is the first time in 37 years that I have my weekends free—and I’m loving it! Or am I?
We tuned into a service a couple of months ago. Their worship included hymns my husband and I knew with wonderful accompaniment on organ and piano. The liturgy effectively developed a theme that the Bible readings suggested. The preacher offered a message that was relevant, elicited some laughter at a point or two, and awakened a yearning within me to serve. I was caught up with the realization in my heart that I love Jesus. I love His Church! I want to find a place where I can use my gifts, albeit in a new capacity, so that my heart and my voice sing again! Something stirred within me at the end of his sermon and a longing for spiritual nourishment surfaced.
While there are several questions I am pondering in this interim period away from church membership, the one that has my greatest attention is this: What longings do churches fulfill?
What drove me to get out of bed and travel to churches wherever I roamed throughout my life? For what was I hoping when I slipped in doors of an ancient churches and knelt alone in the sanctuary to pray? Why did it matter for me to light candles that parted the darkness in stone cathedrals I visited? From whence does that longing come and how has it taken up residence in me?
While serving as a chaplain in a mental health hospital last year, I was struck with how often patients voiced a longing to connect with God. One man in his twenties shared his confusion about whether the longing he newly felt for God was to be trusted or if it was a symptom of his schizophrenia. Great question! When talking with mental health patients who are experiencing some form of psychosis, it can be difficult to discern when their religious convictions come from an authentic encounter with God or surface from a distorted worldview. I learned he was raised in the church but had abandoned his childhood faith, relying on alcohol to blunt the shame of his mental health crises. He spoke of a longing to know God and access God’s love. He asked for a Bible and we spoke of beginning points for his Bible reading. As our conversation concluded, I was quite certain that his ache for belonging was truly God at work.
Perhaps that longing is our deep desire to belong to someone. When human relationships fail us, we have to look elsewhere. For those of us raised within a faith construct, we are apt to return to that faith. Many of us learned through Vacation Bible School songs and with flannelgraphs in Sunday School rooms that Jesus loves us. Psalm 62:1 reminds us of the source of our longing: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Nothing else will nourish our souls. When our own antics lead to emptiness, we have an opportunity to dig beneath the surface of our daily lives. This search has at its root a question about belonging. From the old English, this verb means to be “together with” or “at hand.” When my patient’s binge with alcohol led to a jail cell and then a locked psych unit, it was the God he met on Sunday mornings who was “at hand.” For the first time as an adult, this young man was searching for a faith of his own.
A woman in her fifties told me of her sexual abuse at the hands of a step-dad, beginning at age 4. She said, “I left my body in those times. But I was never alone. God was always with me. I had this deep relationship from God that no one had to teach me because I met Him.”
Could it be that God searches us out first? Does our longing for God emerge as a response from God’s divine pursuit of us? Must we claim our identity as the prodigal son or daughter in order to see that God is the loving Parent who has not ceased pacing the front porch, scanning the horizon for a sign of our return home? Thomas Merton wrote, “Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”
A woman recently spoke in a worship service about how she ended up at that church. She had moved to a new area, lost two beloved parents, and her relationship with her husband was strained. She felt alone in spite of the fact that she spent Monday through Friday teaching a classroom full of 8-year-olds. She decided to get back into church after letting it slide for a year. The first Sunday was OK. She was relieved. She went the next week and somebody greeted her by name. She said, “Like a bridge over troubled water, I was called by name. It wasn’t just that woman—and I don’t even know who it was! It was Jesus calling me, walking with me. It was the Holy Spirit moving in me, calling me to this church. It was God who had plans for me, plans for a future and a hope. That was twenty years ago and now you are my family!”
There are times when God breaks into our lives in an epiphany that brings us to our knees. Sometimes that “shewing”, as Julian of Norwich named it, is the result of our fervent prayers. Other times it arrives unsolicited and even unwanted. Julian’s profound encounters with the tri-une God, as she lingered between life and death, led to her conversion to an anchoritic lifestyle. She chose to be secluded in a small apartment built into the walls of a church. In that tiny space, she served as a spiritual director in words spoken through her window and through her writings. The comfort she felt anchoring herself in God has drawn generations of seekers to Jesus as the answer to their inexpressible longings. In an era when God was understood as a harsh and punishing judge, she introduced others to a God who seeks us out with love. Five hundred years later, Richard Foster described the spiritual journey in this way: “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.”
God longs for our presence? Is this the source of our own longing? Some people can’t imagine another human being weeping over their absence! One 40-year-old patient last year wept as he stated, “I just want one conversation with my mother before she dies where we can speak to each other lovingly.” Just as quickly as he voiced that hope, he told me he didn’t expect that to happen. We shifted to his desire to know God more fully. This is the One to whom he ultimately belongs. If he anchors himself in the God of Jesus Christ, he will be better able to let go of the wounds of those who have deeply disappointed him. Fully differentiated in himself, he can better endure the slights of his mother.
In the Women’s Lounge in one of the locked units, a woman listened to loud Christian music on her radio. The woman always spoke in Biblical verse. Virtually all of her sentences were formed around a Biblical reference. A song came on the radio: Ten Thousand Reasons by Matt Redman. I sat across from her and quietly sang the words, smiling at her in a shared moment of worship. I sang to show solidarity with her in the midst of her mania. I sang because that has been a favorite hymn of mine and I miss not being able to select songs that I can sing with musical accompaniment on Sunday mornings. In that moment, I was reminded of why I need to be part of a church family. Folks in memory care facilities who no longer know their own names will, nonetheless, sing the words to a beloved hymn in a Sunday afternoon worship service. The rich foundation upon which they established their days was poured into them in their childhood religious education. In singing “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my father…” their foggy mind cannot cloud their feeling of belonging. The yearning is met with rich fulfillment when the hymns of our past make sense of our present. When short-term memory fails, long-term meaning anchors us.
We do not have sole ownership of God as Creator or Jesus as Brother and Friend. Psalm 100 reminds us that all have equal claim to membership in God’s family: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
My brother-in-law grew up on a sheep farm in Morley, Michigan. We have visited in the Spring when his father, a shepherd, sometimes had 200 lambs to care for! When they are a month old, they leave their mamas and “frolic” in the meadow. One sheep runs down the hill and they all follow. Another one runs up the hill and they follow again. Absent a shepherd, who calls them into the barn at night for protection and to the trough for food each evening, they would wear themselves out in mindless mob movement. They congregate together—but they need a shepherd.
I have had the privilege both of being part of the flock that Jesus tends and acting as a shepherd to three congregations. I have known that my deepest longings can only be met in divine encounter. I have sought to convey the Truth of my experience to others so that they, too, might find that lifeline. As pastor, I joined scripture, liturgy and music each Sunday to inspire a multi-generational gathering into following Jesus. Dr. Henry Roediger stated in the Wall Street Journal that musical rhythm and rhyme provide a structure that is key to unlocking information stored in the brain. He writes that words put to music or learned by rote can be easily retrieved. The mom of a five-year old girl, with a keen sense of the Spirit, told me of an outing to a raspberry patch. Raspberry bushes are prickly and some of the outer branches had been picked clean. It was a hot day and the daughter was still searching for berries she could put in her bucket. Her mom suggested she pull back some of the outer branches to see what she might find deeper in the bush. A minute later she heard her daughter cry out, “Glory be to the Father!” She had found a pocket filled with ripe raspberries hidden from sight. The words of the doxology, sung in weekly worship, had taken up residence in her. Having been baptized into the faith, this little girl learned through our weekly rituals, to give God the glory—for life and for raspberries discovered on a hot afternoon. Since then she has been confirmed into the faith and is looking at Christian colleges for next fall. She knows where to turn to satisfy her sense of longing.
Sadly, I hear many stories from people about how the Church has crushed their spirit. They have felt judged, rejected, or devalued. They hunger for God but are not willing to go back to Church. I am deeply saddened by their hurt and search for ways to nurture their spirituality outside of the Church. Fortunately, I know God meets people where they are. I am often impressed with how some folks are able to hang onto their love for God in spite of their rejection by Christians. Many still turn to the scriptures for inspiration even though they will not hear the Word read in a sanctuary. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with those who have made a sanctuary in their hearts because every human institution has failed them. Others can only affirm that there is some sort of Higher Power that has spared their life repeatedly. We talk about what honest conversation with that Higher Power might be (as that is prayer)! The psalmist leads the way for us to express raw emotions as we cry out, “Why me?”, “How long, O’ Lord” or “Where have you gone from my presence?” I can offer the gifts of the Church, as Jesus intends it to be, to those who may not enter a church building ever again. While life lived within the communion of the Church is God’s plan for our corporate lives, we all must watch for opportunities to point folks to God who, alone, can answer their deepest longings.
In this time of transition, I am beginning to feel comfortable in the cloak of “former pastor.” My husband and I have “zoomed” into different worship services but I know that a congregation of two will not fulfill my spiritual hunger. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor who left the Church for a time because of hurtful treatment at the hand of her parishioners. She is known as an advocate for night, the time when we have to squint to make out our reality. We choose every step carefully in the dark because the way is not clear. Her powerful writing points people to Christ who may have lost their way. I have had a beautiful experience in my parish ministry that worries me that I may not find a new congregation that lives the Gospel in a way that connects with me. I could easily settle in with those who choose Sunday mornings as the perfect time to take a deep breath and linger in night clothes, sipping endless cups of coffee. But I dare not. I have felt, in this transitional “dark night”, as described by John of the Cross, how Christ’s light shines brightest when the path we are taking is unknown. The moment of stirring I felt at the end of a zoom sermon summoned me to begin the search for a sanctuary where I can join my voice to that of other Christians, singing hymns and entrusting my heart to the nourishment of scripture. I am meant to join my talents to those of others who are meeting needs of those around them out of a sense of Christian conviction. I must find a safe space for my emotions to be moved by the Spirit in the vulnerable setting of a Church family. My longing is in response to God’s profound love for me in Jesus. I love His Church. I will find a new spiritual home by the power of the Holy Spirit where I can be accepted “just as I am.” In this time of transition, I rejoice that “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10)
For me? Amazing!