I stood on a stage, rude lights assaulting my face as I strained to focus on the sea of my peers in a darkened ball room at an Orlando hotel, my stomach somersaulting like little boys recklessly tumbling down a long hill. The senior class and their families and the faculty of our seminary had gathered for a senior banquet just prior to our graduation.
I cannot now remember what I had been specifically asked to speak about. But I recall well what I did wind up addressing as three of us had been privileged to give a few words of reflection.
For me it was an open forum to tremulously meditate, in front of my friends, on a question that had nagged at me like an unattended alarm clock in a room across the hall that won’t shut off its rude blaring. The motto of a “rival” seminary, if it could be so called, had insisted in their communiques that “A Seminary Education is Successful Only If A Student Loves Jesus Christ More at the End Than He or She did at The Beginning.” Or something similar.
I put the question to myself often. It seemed fitting. Jesus thrice petitioned a faltering and tear-stained Peter whether he loved him. I wondered about it with regularity. And as I graduated from seminary, and was about to join a remarkable group of folks who had called me to help as they planted a new church on the mountain, it seemed like a question whose affirmative answer I ought to have been securely carrying around with me, stuck with confidence in my heart’s wallet like an old driver’s license.
But alas, after three rigorous years of wrestling and inner-churning, reading more than I thought one could, and discussing even more, praying and worshipping, and struggling in all manner of previously unknown anguishes, I stood, alarmingly unsure how to answer.
Did I love Christ more than ever?
And why was it so hard to answer? An issue for debate?
My wife, I’m sure, would have hastily said yes. I’ll bet my friends would have done the same had either she or they had been forced to answer for me like a parent might for an reluctant child standing before an inquiring barber on the best way to cut his hair. What may have been clear to them by external clues remained, like many things do to us most the time, a cloudy conundrum.
So it was that question I took up as my subject before an audience of some of my dearest friends, and faculty-members I esteemed and trembled before a tad.
I Came in Full, I Go Away Empty
Since I was prone, earlier in my seminary career to drink voluminous amounts of Citrus Hit, the Publix brand knock-off of Mountain Dew, I decided to bring several empty Citrus Hit bottles with me and lined them up in front of me. (I haven’t had a soft drink in 14 years or so, so don’t be alarmed--I eventually, a few years after seminary, amended my ways).
I’m sure the crowd was nervous.
This wasn’t a youth group skit. Or a talk before high school YoungLife club. This was addressing a group of Master of Divinity Students and faculty with PhDs from prestigious institutions. And here I placed empty, green, plastic two-litter bottles in front me like a barricade and spoke of a process of deprivation, confusion, and sometimes violent-to my insides emptying that had happened in me or to me as I contended in a life and death battle with the things of God over our joint three years in this formational community.
The Twitter version of my gut-wrenching thesis in answer to the question of whether I now, in fact, after finishing seminary, loved Jesus more than I had when I began, was “I can’t say for sure, but I want him more than ever.”
I had come to this graduate school program of study eager and full. I was leaving beat up and empty. I had in some ways been poured out like those empty bottles. And felt like a plastic shell of a man. But was gifted in that state of deprivation to learn, in some small individualized measure what the Israelites experienced in their much fiercer and longer desert. “I caused you to hunger, so that I might feed you,” reveals their Lord as he explains his desert process of taking the Egypt out of them, and weaning them from a dangerous but indigenous self-trust.
The Apostle Paul had done some whispering in those days too as he recounted being “utterly, unbearably crushed, feeling his heart the sentence of death.” Yet he, unlike me, was given a reason---which I decided to borrow for my own uncertainty and crushed spirit, “But these things happened so we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
It is insisted in Hallmark cards and maxims we thoughtlessly prattle off that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I thought, as I addressed my peers behind the props of empty bottles once holding yellow #5, and plenty of high-octane, caffeinated, sugar- water, that my life was a scientifically accurate proof of that proverb.
Love’s Acute Ache
I had come to seminary full of anticipation. Expecting that God and I would be more intertwined and cozy than ever when my studies were through. That I would know things deeply and him fervently. And here at the end, I stood, having worked harder than I ever had, wrestled more with anguish, sadness, anxiety, and the thorniest existential questions about God and this troubled world of ours, and wasn’t sure I could even say I now loved him more. And by the way, where was he? But the absence, the not knowing, the unsettling, the sleeplessness, the wrangling....it had made an ache for him grow acute and focused in me.
Maybe then, I reckoned, it was a failure of language that was sinking me. Or a truncated vision of love. Perhaps I had seen too much tv as a kid, and let romantic comedies dictate to me what love was. So I interrogated myself with a wider array of love’s width and breadth from biblical concepts as a self-diagnostic tool:
Did I want him? Why, more than water a great deal of the time.
Did he matter to me? Oh, beyond reasonability during so many of my waking hours.
Did pleasing him seem important to me? Well, I think I could have said with Luther, “that I would have stood on my head if I thought it could make him pleased with me.”
Did his words and ways have any sway in my life? I wanted them to but feared not enough. I saw how much I couldn’t keep, how little my obedience was, and how much my experience jibed with Whitfield who once insisted “even my repentance wants to be repented of.” There was a cloud of “not-enough” following me around like Pig Pen’s dust cloud in the Peanuts cartoon strip. A cloud I’ve sensed learned hovers around many who come to see about themselves what is rarely visible to those around them.
But you know what? In giving that talk, and living many days since I came to realize that I could have just as well said an emphatic and emancipating YES! I do love him! Because I wanted him, wanted to be near him, to please him, and not to displease him. He mattered to me a great deal, Jesus did. I just didn’t have but a very narrow conception of love’s semantic range beforehand.
Since then I have heard others wonder it too. Earnest, troubled, and anguished, they hear the experience of their more certain friends declaring their own undying affection for their Risen Savior and, knowing what they know of their own jangled insides, feel disingenuous at worst and timid at best making the same pronouncement themselves.
Sometimes love wears the suit of desire and is tasted by an absence that makes the wanting fiercer. At others, it looks more like obedience. And still at others, it presents as basic consideration and affection. I hadn’t realized that in seminary. I had failed to remember the basic realization of a jealous, confused, hurt, “nearly slipping” psalmist in one of his prayer love-letters to God that starts like an angry accusation but ends with the poetry of desire...
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (Psalm 73)
I would never have known an experience even approximating this love-desire, had I not been emptied out like Citrus Hit and left wobbling like an empty, flimsy, plastic jug. And so I try to remember each time the harrowing, emptying, (and UNWANTED) desert seasons barge into the living room of my life that perhaps, the King of Love is merely, once again, deepening my capacity for Him to matter most, because, for reasons never clear to me, we matter so alarmingly much to Him.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org