My daughter tells me that when I’m not at home, our dog (whose name is Sunday) wanders around looking for me. She sniffs all the places where I can usually be found, like the dining room window seat, the kitchen, or the den. She wanders, restless, when she can’t find me. While Sunday loves pretty much anybody, she has clearly chosen me as her special person, which is likely less a reflection of my upstanding character and more due to the fact that I’m home the most and therefore most likely to feed her, give her treats, and throw the ball for her.
The experience of being so beloved that another persists in seeking us out—even when we’re far away or hard to find—lends depth to all kinds of relationships. Think of how it feels to get a letter, phone call, or email from an old friend, perhaps for no reason (“I was just thinking about you and wanted to hear your voice”) or perhaps for a big reason (“When I got this good/bad news, all I could think was that I wanted to talk to you about it.”). Think of when a spouse or child does something out of the ordinary on an ordinary day, just to make you happy, such as giving an unasked-for, unexpected gift that is utterly perfect. While research shows that rote gestures (sending kids off to school with an “I love you,” greeting a spouse with a kiss at the end of the day) help sustain relationships, the experience of being actively sought out and seen for who we are deepens relationships in a uniquely powerful way.
It is remarkable, therefore, to ponder that God seeks us out. God wants to connect with us. God tenaciously searches for us when we are far away. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables, of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. In all three, Jesus portrays God as so desperate for connection with those he loves that finding them is the only concern, far more important than what they’ve done, even why they’ve become lost in the first place.
In Psalm 139, which we read in church on Sunday, we claim not only that God searches our inmost being and knows our thoughts from far away, but that God is present, connecting with us, everywhere: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” I can’t help but rewrite those words to reflect the parent-child relationship: “Where can I go from your neverending questions and chatty reflections? If I go into the basement to start the laundry, you are calling desperately for me from above. If I go up to take a shower, you are there, sitting on the bathmat asking if you can have cookies for breakfast.” Our children don’t just need us. They crave us. My children’s attachment when they were younger, their sense that their beloved one’s presence and voice and body were absolutely essential at all times—yes, even when the beloved one was sitting on the toilet—was both stifling (even infuriating) and the most precious thing I’ve ever known. To consider that God wants to be with me and love me in the way that my children did (and sometimes still do), but even more so, and not because God needs me to survive the way my children do, but just because I am beloved—this blows my mind.
This image of God as seeking me, wanting to be with me, is rarely the primary image I have of God. I am a “git ‘er done” kind of person, self-motivated and self-reliant. I was the kind of student who hated group projects, because the only way I would be sure that the project would get done the right way was to do it myself. As a primary caregiver of children and manager of our household, I frequently fall into that conundrum of wanting the kids to help out more, but hesitating to give them big responsibilities because if I do it, I know it will get done to my standards. I bring this same self-reliance to my spiritual life. I assume that the responsibility is mine to reach out to God. This notion, of course, also has a basis in scripture, such as in Matthew 7:7: ““Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Certainly the Christian life requires some initiative from us. But I wonder if, in a culture that places so much worth on productivity, financial and job success, and self-reliance, we particularly need reminders that we are only motivated to seek and love God because God seeks and loves us first.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I struggle with structured, daily, set-aside times of prayer. But I find it easy, and necessary, to say short prayers throughout the day. A favorite prayer is the “Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. As a writing colleague, Frank Schaeffer, recently wrote:
I haven’t the foggiest idea what prayer does. I do know that I can’t get through my day without praying. I pray the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” off and on all day. As if I’m some sort of religiously demented Tourette’s sufferer, it prays itself. I wake up with the words in my head, and I fall asleep as this ancient prayer plays in my brain. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” is the inner “sound” that lulls me to sleep. It’s as comforting to me as distant surf lapping at the shore. I don’t know where this prayer invasion comes from, but I’m thankful to have been invaded.
Like Frank, I often fall asleep with this prayer running through my mind. I suspect that what makes this simple, rote prayer so powerful for Frank and for me is that it softens up our minds and hearts so we can better receive the love that God is always sending our way. It reminds us of who we are (a sinner) in the most matter-of-fact, not groveling or torturous, way. We’re not praying for a specific person or situation, which, while an excellent thing to do, can also perhaps tempt us to focus on ourselves—how I think things should be, what a good person I am to be praying for others. The Jesus prayer is simply a statement about God being God and us being us. Surrendering to the meditative rhythm of these simple words, my ego steps out of the way and makes room for God to connect with me as God wants to connect with me.
In a powerful blog post about how he has come to understand grace not as something that we learn to understand, but as something we receive, psychologist Kelly Flanagan wrote this:
In the presence of grace we are given permission to be our fullest selves: that complicated amalgam of mess and beauty, shame and glory. In the presence of grace, we can allow the wholeness of our humanity to be seen—we reveal our sputtering rage, anguished tears, petrified fear, crudest and rudest sentiment, most bizarre interest, or deepest embarrassment.
And then we look up.
And grace looks back. It isn’t cringing or horrified or judging or saying in a reasonable tone, “Well, once we figure that out and change it, then you and I can get along alright.” Instead, grace looks back with a calm admiration—probably even a smile in its eyes—and it says, “There you are, I’ve been waiting for you and you’re welcome here. All of you. You are beloved.”
God is a little bit like my dog Sunday, sniffing and searching and restless until that moment—”There you are, I’ve been waiting for you”—when I am back where I belong, in the presence of grace.