God’s bloody-knuckled door

Luke 11:5-10

Oct 7, 2015 by

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Confession: I really like Taylor Swift love songs. (I can almost hear the sizzle of respect evaporating.) In my defense, I do know it’s ridiculous — dances in a dingy parking lot, lingering looks that last so long it’s like the brain short circuited. I’ll admit Taylor likely knows little of the patience and sacrifice that make up true, long-lasting love. But give her this — she really is the master of the flutter of romance’s first 10 minutes.

I used to have a picture of relationship with God that looked a lot like a Taylor Swift love song: you show up on God’s porch in your best clothes, on your best behavior, smile on your face and flowers in hand. You knock fearlessly and God flings the door wide open — with just the slightest hesitation so as not to seem too easy. Then you enter straightaway, heart pounding, to dwell happily ever after in the house of God. Baby, just say yes; Amen.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault that I had this impression of how life with God works. I’m pretty sure I got the idea from a bestseller known as the Bible. “Take delight in the Lord and he’ll give you the desires of your heart,” declares the Psalms. “As soon as God hears, he will answer you,” Isaiah promises. “If from there (wherever you end up), you seek the Lord your God, you will find him . . . ” Deuteronomy assures. “Seek and you’ll find,” Matthew agrees. Luke asserts, “Knock and the door will be opened.” Finding God, by these accounts, sounds more like locating a used John Grisham novel than a first-edition Dickens. It’s about as complex as the instructions on the toaster pastry box.

For a time in my life as a Christian, I never questioned this logic. If God didn’t swing wide the heavenly doors every time I came knocking, at least they opened often enough to keep me motivated. I was convinced that more and more answers would come as I perfected my door-tapping techniques. Anyone not finding, I was convinced, simply wasn’t seeking hard enough.

The trouble was, subsequent experience didn’t bear this out. Questions multiplied faster than answers. Every taste of God left me hungrier for more, but it felt like I could never get quite as much as I wanted. It didn’t seem to matter what “technique” I chose — every morsel of truth, every glimpse of God, took miles of pacing in prayer circles and weeks of sweaty spiritual wrestling in order to acquire. Never mind knocking — sometimes it seemed like I was being asked to carve my way through God’s door with nothing but a plastic spork.

Perhaps you know the feeling.

Then came the period that no one had prepared me for, when I showed up looking for God and seemed to find nothing at all. I called God’s name with escalating volume and frustration until I was screaming and kicking the door. No one answered. I tried every version of religious abracadabra I’d ever heard of, but no magic words popped the lock. I got on my knees and cried and begged to know what God wanted from me. Still, silence. I wanted nothing more than to dwell with God, yet it seemed I was stuck outside with the beady-eyed opossums.

I found myself in the throes of a full-blown spiritual crisis. Was there a God behind that door at all? It had never occurred to me to ask that question before. Or had God just moved on without me? I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that all we’d had together was a lie. But the alternative was that the problem must be me. I was a total spiritual failure. Somehow, without even noticing, I’d screwed up irreversibly. Panic darkened to despair until the day came that I couldn’t even find the strength to lift my fist anymore. I collapsed in a heap on God’s porch and swore at that silent door: “You may never open again, but guess what — I refuse to move. I’ll spend the rest of my life just lying here on your mat. There’s nowhere else to go without you anyway.”

I wish I could say this was a one-time thing, a sort of spiritual rite of passage, perhaps, or maybe just a fluke. But the truth is, I’ve spent a lot of time on God’s porch through the years. Possibly a lot more time than I’ve actually spent in God’s house. But once I got over the first shock of discovering that life in love with God does not in fact resemble a Taylor Swift love song, I began to settle into the porch and explore it. And I’ve been surprised at what I’ve found there.

The first thing I’ve found is that, strange is it sounds, the experience of the porch, common to almost all Christians, makes me more convinced that God is real. There’s a theory, popular these days, that God is a product of human imagination, a comforting fantasy manufactured by primitive humans to disguise the unbearable randomness of the world. God is the Great Placebo, invented to take the edge off reality. Anyone who holds this theory, it seems to me, cannot actually have spent much time around God.

A few months on the porch and it becomes clear — there is nothing in the universe more exhilarating, exasperating and utterly confounding than God. A projection would be more predictable, more malleable, a heck of a lot more convenient. It would respond to perfected techniques. It’s God’s very refusal to jump at our say-so, to appear on command, to conform to the shape of our desires, that assures us we are dealing with a genuine Other who is more than the sum of our wishes. Our faith is more than you or me popping open a door to ourselves.

I’ve also discovered that the porch has a startling power to purify desire. I used to think I wanted God, but the truth is, I didn’t know what “wanting” meant until I spent some time on the porch. We have a lovely English proverb, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” This pithy saying may well explain the improved vibes between college roommates following a long fall break. However, it can hardly capture the strength of yearning you feel for water after a long hike in the desert or the consuming desire for oxygen of the person who’s spent two minutes under water.

Spend some time on God’s porch, and you begin to sharply distinguish desires. On the one hand are the little wants and cravings that constantly clamor for your attention. On the other, this one all-consuming need that makes everything else strangely cheap and small. Jesus: our breath, our only source of living water. Jesus: the name that makes all other names grow dim. There is no place like the porch to teach you what really matters, the stuff of which life is truly made.

In my experience, there’s a strange paradox about the periods we spend on God’s porch. Though these are often the times we feel weakest, without the answers we call wisdom and the confidence we call faith, they are also the times we tend to grow the most in genuine wisdom and in strength. We learn the wisdom of humility — we don’t know nearly as much as we thought that we did, and that really is OK. We learn patience, which is a particularly potent form of strength — the sort of strength that makes rooted sequoias out-last whole civilizations, the sort of strength that keeps God pursuing us after thousands of years of wrongs. We learn to bend with the winds of emotions and doubts without being moved or broken.

On God’s porch, we are also relieved of the illusion that we’re the ones in control. First we discover we can’t break down God’s door. Then we discover we never had to: before we are seekers, we’re the ones being sought; before we are finders, we’re the ones being found. Sometimes all we can do, all we are called to do, is to lie down on the porch of God and wait for grace to find us. Time after time I’ve found it’s in that moment of surrender, when I can’t even lift my hand to knock anymore, that the door is suddenly flung open, and God carries me inside.

I’ll admit, sometimes I dread standing on God’s porch. It’s time-consuming and labor-intensive and I never feel totally sure in advance what the outcome will be. I get tired of endless knocking. My feelings get hurt when God’s appearance doesn’t comply with my timing. My knuckles get bloody and sore. Occasionally I’m tempted to take a hiatus from seeking.

But these days, when I find myself lying once again on the porch, there’s an image in my mind: a new world, wild and beautiful, scattered with trees and fields of blowing grass of almost-human height. There’s a couple running through it, playfully peering at each other through the blades, ducking behind the trunks and then jumping out to pull each other close. And I think, maybe this is what dwelling with God actually looks like — less like chilling out on God’s recliner with a bag of potato chips, more like a constant movement of seeking and finding and seeking all over again, a dance of anticipation and longing fulfilled again and again in embrace.

I don’t know where you find yourself today — knocking confidently, lying helpless on the porch, or gazing into God’s face. But wherever you are, don’t panic. Even Jesus spent time on God’s porch. Remember when he cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn’t the end of his story; it won’t be the end of yours either. Don’t give up. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. It may not come without raw knuckles, but it will always come. And even when you can’t find God, God will come find you.

Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com where this first appeared.

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