People have different ways of approaching reality. Some are analytical, reasoned, logical, etc. That’s not me. Not that I can’t be analytical, reasoned and logical. But those are deliberate disciplines that I practice; in contrast to my instinctive way of approaching the world which is through my feelings. I’m just a feeling kind of person.
Maybe too much sometimes. When people talk about having certain spiritual gifts I always say I have the spiritual gift of weeping – I cry at weddings and baptisms and movies. I can’t sing Charles Wesley’s And Can It Be without getting choked up. There’s just something about the words, “Amazing love! How can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” I’m not a very good singer, but I love to belt those words out. And then toward the end of the song when it says, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” I usually have to keep myself from jumping up and down during that verse.
Jumping up and down to Charles Wesley – go figure.
Not surprisingly, I resonate with Scriptures like Paul’s word in Romans 8 that God’s Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children; and with John Wesley’s experience of having his heart “strangely warmed.” That kind of gut oriented experience of the faith is foundational for me.
So one of the most disorienting moments of my ministry happened when I was approached by a young woman toward the end of a weekend of preaching who earnestly asked how she could really know that God loved her if she couldn’t feel it.
This was a Cornerstone Celebration weekend so she had heard me preach three times already and had been involved in my three-hour teaching session on sharing our faith. Now it was about 5 minutes before the last service was to start and she was desperate to know if what I’d been talking about all weekend long was really true.
Was it really true that God loved her enough to become human in Jesus; was it really true that God’s love for her was radical enough to involve passionate sacrifice. She was sure it was true for everyone else since they could feel it; but it couldn’t possibly be true for her because she couldn’t.
You’ve probably already guessed that I was getting all misty as my mind raced, searching for some way to respond. She continued that it wasn’t just about feeling God’s love. She couldn’t feel anything. Things had happened in her past and she had dealt with them by repressing, pushing down and blocking out any and all feeling within her. I have no feelings, she said and as I looked into her eyes, I believed her.
How is it that we come to know God’s love? Is it only when we feel God’s Spirit “bearing witness” with our spirit? Is it only when our hearts are “strangely warmed?” Is there more to it than that? If we’re not a “feeling kind of person,” does God not work in us and through us anyway?
I was really struggling as the woman patiently waited for my response. My heart was breaking and I was petrified that somehow I would compound her pain. That in my bumbling I would somehow contribute to her certainty that God couldn’t possibly love her since she wasn’t able to feel it.
Way back in the mid-400′s Patrick began preaching in Ireland. He traveled from settlement to settlement, staying with the people, loving them and working among them. Through his ministry, monastic communities sprang up. These communities were different from what we normally think of when we think of monastic communities where monks separated themselves from the rest of society for a life of solitude and prayer. These were communities of committed Christ followers who lived and worked together, sharing resources, love and life together. There were men and women, adults and kids; some were single, some were married, some had families – some were priests but most weren’t, and they were all together in community.
One of the things that made these communities so cool was the way they treated outsiders. There was always a gatekeeper – not to keep anybody out – but to be on duty all the time so that anyone who wanted to come in could come in – no matter what time of the day or night it was. If you visited the community the gate keeper would welcome you first and then call everyone to come greet you. The abbot or abbess (head of the community) would immediately come out to make sure you felt at home. It wouldn’t matter what people were doing, they would stop because making guests feel welcome was more important than anything else. Then they’d show you to the guest house – the best accommodations in the whole place. When it was time to eat, you’d eat at the head table with the abbot/abbess. It would be clear that you could stay as long as you wanted, but you were also free to leave at any time. You could eat with the community, work with the community, worship with the community – always welcome to share in everything about the community. If you stayed for a while they’d assign you a ‘soul friend’ to talk to – no agenda – just about whatever was on your mind. Eventually, if you continued to stay they’d talk to you about God’s love and offer you the opportunity to become more than a guest.
It was a slow process of revealing God’s love; a process that started with the concept of belonging and acceptance and moved only gradually toward commitment. It was a process that took time because it was about providing evidence of God’s love. Not evidence in the form of skilled argument or tight logic; not even the evidence of any specific feeling even though that was probably part of it for most people. It was the evidence of action – consistent actions of love, continued day in and day out – actions that made God’s love visible and tangible and real through the welcoming, caring, support and nurture of people. Evidence through action that people have value simply because they are.
The minutes were passing faster than I wanted them to. I could tell the worship leaders were ready to get started but couldn’t since the woman and I were standing front and center in the sanctuary. I asked her why she came to this particular church. She said that the people were kind to her and took her in when she returned to town after a long absence. In the few years since she’d been back, they’d consistently helped her and her children. Over and over they had been there for her even in really difficult times. It was kind of like they had made space – just for her.
That’s how you know.