I sat back into the overstuffed leather couch a little stunned. I begged Professor Robert Woodcock at my spiritual direction program to repeat what he had just said: “We sometimes forget that there are two people in this relationship, us and God. We forget that we are in a relationship with a Person with feelings and hopes and dreams for our life together. Sometimes we are brave enough to ask God what He thinks but rarely are we brave enough to ask God how He feels.”
I was undone. My professor’s words exposed the neat little wall of separation I had carefully fit together between me and God.
The point is God feels, profoundly.
I had never let this little piece of knowledge get personal. I had tucked this one in the bottom drawer of the left hemisphere of my brain. On purpose. Now I wondered if shame was the culprit.
Shame was overused in my church growing up, a whip to prod parishioners to sign up for cleaning day or push us out of perceived apathy. It was used for everything from hustling people to the altar during the sixth verse of “Just as I AM” to filling up the list for nursery duty.
And what wires together, fires together, right? Soon God and shame were welded. Guilt leads us to repentance and back into repaired relationship. Shame is quicksand and we soon self-identify with our new home.
Exhibit A. Ask anyone at Asbury College in 1994 about the VUL-TURES sermon during chapel. As I watched the preacher energetically point to the wooden urns over Hughes auditorium and re-symbolize how they represented vultures ready to feast on our sinful hearts, I began to feel like I was having an out of body experience. Sometimes shame can be subtle, a little jab to prod us into movement but this time the ridiculous had brought the use of shame up to the light, exposed. That year I began to have an exquisitely fine-tuned shame radar. I began to see it abused in the emotional coercion of a worship leader, in the preacher’s clapping us awake during long sermons, and whenever I heard it, I’d shut down.
It took decades to unwire.
After hearing my professor invite us to ask God how He felt, I began to wonder. I wondered if in order to shake myself free of shame’s constant demand, I had turned off my ability to sense God’s emotion, to be truly present to the Divine Other. I was sure that if I asked, I would only feel more shame.
By holding God at bay with a neat and tidy Heisman, I became a subtle consumer of God. I look back now wondering how often this relationship was a one-way exchange. Or perhaps I did my best to control what emotions I perceived. Reading scripture I note a whole range of God’s emotions.
The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17
When Jesus saw Mary (the sister of Lazarus) weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (John 11:34-35)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Luke 13:34)
For Israel said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. (Hosea 2:5-7)
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (John 15:22-24)
I kept this awareness of God’s emotions locked down tight in the jar of scripture.
As I slowed down today’s lectio divina in Jeremiah 3:19-22a and listened, I was forced to acknowledge God’s sorrow:
“How I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.”
Can you hear it too Friend, His profound longing?
“I thought you would call me, My Father.” He had stood watching his prodigal, the entire nation of Israel, skip away with the inheritance money.
As I listened, in my small way, I recognized the discouragement of a parent. I know the stab of hurt that comes from disrespect, the ache of disappointment when my offer of time together is refused. I’m all-too familiar when my generosity is rejected, when my meals are pushed away by picky eaters. I can’t imagine the grief of a child who shuts the door on a warm home to live on the streets, let alone a heroine house.
“I thought you would not turn away from following me.”
I spend a few moments remembering those times I bushwacked my own path AWAY. I sit still registering His sadness. I sit with His extravagant longing.
I glance up and see the Father of the prodigal searching the horizon calling out: “Return O faithless sons, and I will heal your faithlessless.” (Jer 3:22a).
It’s so over-the-top generous, isn’t it?
There’s no sting. There’s no whip of shame. There’s a wave of His arm home, a full feast, and an invitation to heal our waywardness.
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Join me for this lectio divina from Jeremiah 3:19-22a:
(All photos from Deb Howard photography.)