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A Hunger for God
by Linda Douty

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Matthew 5:6 (RSV)

In the words of the contemporary paraphrase THE MESSAGE:
You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you will ever eat.

That mysterious appetite began like an itch, but it was a spiritual itch, a feeling of restlessness, like a tiny pebble in my shoe that I couldn't get rid of. My early morning devotional times were unsatisfying, filled with mind-wandering thoughts. Sometimes the meditations I was using seemed boring, unconnected with what I was feeling. Then the guilt set in. What was wrong with me? Why did I feel separated from God? (I recalled that guilt-producing aphorism that a Christian friend had once placed on my refrigerator, "If you don't feel close to God, then guess who moved?")

Why weren't my regular worship and devotional practices more nurturing? Yes, there must be something drastically lacking in my spiritual life. My once-satisfying spiritual journey had collapsed in the ditch. Maybe I wasn't as committed as I thought. Maybe I had embraced all these church projects through the years for the wrong reasons. In any case, that resident question in my heart pounded like a judgmental accusation: What was WRONG with me?

Finally I spilled it all out to my pastor at the Methodist Church I attended in Dallas. A good friend, a wonderful pastor whose deep spirituality was fueled and nurtured by action, by the championing of the homeless and marginal, an extroverted dynamo greatly used by God, he listened patiently to my description of spiritual malaise, smiled, and said reassuringly, "Linda, you'll be just fine. You just need to pour yourself into some of this church work that you've loved all these years--things that you're really good at. By the way, the stewardship campaign is coming up soon, and I could use your help. You and I could meet with the consultant next week and..."

I didn't hear the rest of his pitch because I could feel the tears stinging behind my eyelids, an involuntary response to the feeling of not being heard. His response, though well-intended, confirmed my assumption that there really WAS something wrong with me after all. What started as a minor irritation, which I described as a spiritual pebble in my shoe, began to feel more like a gnawing in the pit of my stomach, as if I had inadvertently skipped lunch. Though I didn't know its name at the time, I was experiencing an intense hunger for God.

But hadn't I been in the church all my life? Hadn't I sung the hymns, recited the creeds, chaired the committees, tried to be a worthy disciple? What was missing? To fill in the missing piece, of course I signed up for more courses, bought some more books written by the experts, who would surely provide a cure for my discontentment. But nothing seemed to satisfy the longing. Psalm 42 resonated in my mind, "As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you O God."

As the hunger became more insistent, louder, more disruptive of my peace and contentment, I tried to explore the feelings, figure it out. Somehow in my frantic work in trying to get it right for God, I felt as if I had been working for someone, striving to complete the tasks, prove myself worthy of employment, if you will. Yet, working for someone I had never actually met. I had read the rules, agreed to company policy and carried out my assignments, but didn't really KNOW the object of my allegiance.. I had never experienced friendship with my employer.

Blessed are those who hunger, for they shall be filled.

At that point, a monumental grace entered my life in the form of a spiritual director named Katherine DeGrow, a United Methodist clergywoman living in the Dallas area. She heard my hunger. She helped me to name my longing. She validated my discomfort, not as a spiritual malady--something that was WRONG with me--but as a call from God, something that was right on schedule. I will never forget her comforting statement to me, "If the Spirit of God never nudged us or made us uncomfortable, why would we ever change or grow? God is simply calling you to a new kind of relationship."

In the book Soulmaking by Alan Jones, he writes: "God has placed time bombs within us set to go off and blow a gaping hole in us to keep us searching." I've found that to be true, haven't you? This process of soulmaking reminds me of one of the Hebrew words for soul, nephesh, which gives us a vivid clue to our condition. The word nephesh is translated as ..."A little bird in the nest with its mouth wide openů" that is, HUNGRY, very hungry.

"So what now?"--Katherine heard me say. She had explained my hungry condition to me; I understood it now, but I was still in an "effort" mode. I was waiting for my next assignment--a list of disciplines and books and behaviors that could satisfy the hunger; fix the problem. But what she gently and lovingly led me into was a major shift in my spiritual life--from active to passive, from controlling to allowing, from directing to participating, from trying harder to letting go, from working so hard to be worthy and to get it right to being available for God's work in me. At first it seemed too simple. Okay, I get it; I can quit striving, quit trying so hard and allow God to work with me. Easy. I found, however, that control of my own spiritual process was deeply ingrained. And horror of horrors, I was going to have to stop talking and analyzing and start listening. How does one DO that? What would I do without my ladder list to spiritual health? How could I trust God to really direct my life? What if I had to do things that I didn't want to do; contemporary equivalents of Old Testament sacrifices? Was I really being asked to let my agenda for my life evaporate? Disappear? After all, I lived in my skin; I could just read the Bible and figure out what would be best. NOT SO. I had to let go of control.

The creation of a truly empty but willing container, hungry like a helpless little bird, was the toughest discipline this extrovert ever tried. True silence didn't come easily for me. It still doesn't, but God provided many teachers and companions along the way who helped me as a struggling novice to begin to experience, not just "know about," availability and emptiness. Nonethless, there were no spiritual companions at first.. I guess God knew that given the warmth of another seeker, I would draw all my energy and inspiration from people around me and go galloping down some pathway to being a "better Christian."

That first year, I could find no one to share my longings. Seeing my spiritual director once a month was it. Someone introduced me to the practice of Centering Prayer by thrusting the instructions into my hand, and I was alone with God. My mind wandered; my extraverted ego was resisting for all it was worth; I wondered why in the world I was sitting there doing nothing when I could have been helping someone in need, or at least emptying the dishwasher! I was a failure for sure. I had listened and hadn't heard one single thing. Each period of silence was ended with my scathing evaluation. And then I remembered the advice of a wise mentor, "The silence of God is not the silence of a graveyard, but the silence of a garden growing."

Both of those silences are quiet, but in a quiet winter garden, there is incredible activity under the surface. Cells are moving, unseen, out of our control. Iinvisibly, preparation is being made. The way is being forged for the bearing of fruit in months to come. When we are finally able to believe and trust this process, we can begin to befriend the silence, rather than see it as an enemy. We can trust the not-knowing and embrace the uncertainty.

So, these days I don't know nearly as much theology as I used to think I did, and I don't have nearly as many answers. But I know to whom I belong... And I know the affirmation of the beatitude is true. If we come to Christ hungry, starving for the friendship of the Divine, we shall be filled.

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