From time to time, in and amongst and through the hustle and the bustle of serving in parish ministry, in between questions of how many bulletins to print up for which services, questions about the days and times that various ministry team members can arrange to meet, questions about who’s making sure the church buildings are open when they need to be open and locked up when they need to be locked up, and questions about hundreds of even more important subjects (such as how to make sure we know and respond to the pastoral needs of everyone in our church family, or how to respond to the material needs of the poor and hungry in our community), there will very occasionally arise a question of a more cosmic and existential nature.
That is not to say that the latter kind of question is more important than the others I listed. Clearly, everything I’ve named so far is essential to the mission and ministry of a healthy, functioning Christian church. What I’m talking about is not a more important question, but rather a question of a different nature than all those other important questions. A question that cuts immediately and deeply through all of those urgent and important needs and touches on something that is, or ought to be, foundational to our very natures as living, breathing, human beings who have been adopted into the household and family of God.
Questions like these are almost always deceptively simple in appearance. They almost always trigger in us immediate, even rote, responses. Of course, such quick responses are also almost always entirely too superficial to be truly meaningful. That’s because the questions themselves, by their depth, force us (if we stop and think about them) to move beyond the superficial, to dig down into the underlying, unspoken questions that are really being asked.
Such a question happened to me recently, in a random conversation about parish life in general. At the beginning of a new year, and in the wake of the Feast of the Epiphany, it is a question I believe is worthy of the most serious consideration.
The question was: Do we hunger and thirst for God?
Well, that’s easy, isn’t it? Of course we do. If we didn’t we wouldn’t even be a church, would we? We wouldn’t be holding services and planning events and making pastoral visits and designing & participating in various programs and pledging & giving our time, talents, and financial resources to support all the above … would we?
But, now, wait a minute, Fr. Christopher—didn’t you just say that our first, most immediate responses to questions like this one are almost entirely too superficial to be truly meaningful?
Why, yes, I did (five paragraphs up, not counting this current one, for anyone who wants to check).
Probably, before we fire off any answers to the question, we should seek a little clarification: what exactly does it mean to “hunger and thirst for God”? We need to know that, before we can have any idea whether we do or do not, yes?
Well, I can’t give you any hard-and-fast, concrete answer there. But the words “hunger” and “thirst” denote primal bodily needs. Without hunger, we may forget to eat; without thirst, we may fail to drink. If we neglect (or are prevented from) either eating or drinking, we die. So let’s sit for a moment in the midst of that truth. We hunger and thirst, in the bodily sense, for those things without which we, as creatures of flesh and blood, cannot continue to exist.
What about those things without which we, as creatures born of water and the Spirit in our baptism, cannot continue to exist?
Do we, in fact, hunger and thirst for God?
Do we yearn for and seek after God as if our very lives depended upon our finding God?
Do we wake up in the morning feeling pangs inside because it’s been so long since we “ate” of God’s Word? Do we schedule our days and nights around the best opportunities to “dine” upon the finest examples of God’s Word and Christ’s teaching? Do we regularly feel the need, in the middle of a car trip, to pull over and refresh ourselves with prayer and with meditation upon the Scriptures?
Okay, maybe I’m pushing the metaphor a little too hard here, but I do think it is very much worth asking ourselves whether we truly hunger and thirst after God. And if our answer to that question turns out not to be “yes,” then there’s another existentially vital question we are forced to ask:Why not?
Now, the answer to that question is … it’s a trick question.
No, really. It’s a trick question.
We do hunger and thirst after God, whether we realize it or not. We can’t help it.
You see, we are not merely physical animals who happen to have souls.
We are spiritual creatures of God—souls who happen to have bodies.
But in our earthly life, here, in post-modern, 21st Century North America, as the inheritors of the Enlightenment and other such recent trends, we live in (and our Church is surrounded by) a culture that doesn’t, as a rule, acknowledge that human beings are fundamentally spiritual creatures.
Or that spirituality is even real, in any meaningful way, other than perhaps as a watered-down version of psychology.
So most of us who were born into and grew up within this culture, through no fault of our own, were never taught how to recognize spiritual hunger for what it is.
I can’t help but think of the way my children will “act out” at certain times of day—either being overcome by uncontrollable giggles, or lashing out in anger, or collapsing in tearful meltdowns … all because they simply haven’t eaten for a few hours: they’re hungry, but because they’re so young, they haven’t learned how to tell when their bodies need food. They just know they don’t feel right, and they act out.
Hungry people, even (especially) grown-ups, act in desperate ways. And societies that are plagued by famine tend to have a host of other problems related to the basic fact of widespread hunger.
As people of God, as would-be disciples of Christ, we must learn to recognize the signs of spiritual hunger in our own lives. More importantly, we must learn to feed ourselves spiritually on a regular, daily basis so that we don’t have to be struck by deep pangs in order to remember to eat.
And as God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we must be about the business of feeding God’s people, physically and spiritually. There is so much need, and God has given us so much to share. Imagine what our society would look like if we made sure that everybody had enough to eat, in every sense of the word!
Yours in Christ,
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