“O taste and see that the Lord is good : blessed is the man that trusts in him.”
You know the feeling. The first bloom has died off. What you thought would last forever has withered away. Summer has gone on for quite a while now, and the sultry heat is starting to make you feel weary, rather than excited about yet another day of the beating sun. You feel lethargic, tired, testy, or dull. You’re not even really talking very much anymore. When you talk, you’re not that sure he’s listening. It isn’t as though you’ve gone through a big crisis or anything – in fact something like that would be quite galvanizing, exciting, even, though it might be difficult. Instead it’s more of a windless drift, like a tall ship marooned on a glassy sea. There’s a restlessness to it, and yet it would seem tetchy of you to complain, so you keep quiet. After all, there isn’t anything wrong, is there? It’s not like you can put your finger on it – there isn’t anything to complain about.
But God doesn’t quite seem to be as attentive to your prayers, or maybe you simply go through the motions because you’re sure he couldn’t possibly be interested in the dull, plodding little things you have to say. And a little worm of doubt starts wiggling in your mind – maybe he is distant, after all, more like the absentee watchmaker than the “personal Savior”. Maybe he’s not that interested. Maybe he doesn’t really care. Maybe you’re supposed to get on with your life without him.
I was talking with a friend last Sunday who was living in doubt. Like me, he felt that he had been called by God at some point for some thing – had received a distinct call, a moment of revelation. Like me, he was feeling a little bit lost. Both of us keep going back to that moment and wondering if it really happened. As in, really really happened – wasn’t some kind of self-induced delusion of grandeur, or the effects of the weather and digestion, or some kind of foolishness best abandoned rather than entertained.
We beat around a little, depressing track of what-ifs. What if we made it up? What if God doesn’t really work like that? (He kind of does, though, too often to be dismissed, as recorded in the Bible) What if God was sort of tricking us? What if he really wanted us to go through some really arduous roads, and if we did something wrong they’d just get longer and more treacherous? What kind of God is he, anyway, who one moment seems so close and the next so distant? Then my friend said, “But then, once you’ve tasted something, you never forget it. Somehow your palate just never lets you forget it.” And I thought, that’s right. You never do….
image credit by Bruce Tuten
It is a good analogy. As a foreign student from the culinary mecca that is Singapore – like many Singaporeans, I have a very patriotic stomach – I have experienced a craving for food I can’t get all too often while tiding out the grim winters of Boston. There’s times when nothing but laksa will do, when I really want some fish soup noodles with that wonderful milk and wine soup from that particular store near my mother’s workplace, and thinking about it is just maddening because I’m a couple continents away, and whatever I can come up with is just a pale substitute.
And then there is the unmistakable phenomenon where you go to a favourite restaurant, and order your favourite dish from there, only for it to come and something’s off – the standard has dropped, some ingredient has been replaced by another, or omitted to cut costs, and you resolve never to go there again, in honor of the lost culinary experience that now can never be had again. Yet that sensory experience – that barometer for what you expect – is retained by your taste buds, otherwise you couldn’t have made that judgment. Nothing else will make the cut, even if it’s been decades since you last ate it. And it is so sweet to be able to taste again something from your childhood, even if it was something you didn’t even particularly like at the time. It brings back a flood of memory – ah, yes – those were good times.
There was a point when I grew suspicious of so-called Christian “mountaintop experiences” – often induced by retreats or particular spiritual conversations: those concentrated periods of Christian fellowship that produce a kind of lovely glow in the consciousness, but which very predictably wanes after a couple weeks of the daily grind. I didn’t want to accept that the glow would fade, so I decided it’d be better to avoid the glow in the first place – a kind of emotional Keynesian economics, if you would – evening out the fluctuations so you don’t get as great a trough for a corresponding peak. However, the problem with this approach is what you end up with isn’t a nice little line in the middle – what you end up with is all trough.
Now I recognize I can’t have all peaks with no troughs – after all, that’s actually just the same thing. Either way, I’d never learn. God’s project, after all, isn’t to make us blissfully happy all the time. That would be faintly disturbing, if not downright creepy in a world of pain. Think of a community that is always bursting with happiness no matter what happens, and you get the Stepford Wives – a phony kind of thing that denies the brokenness of the world. He calls us to be joyful even in times of trial, not constantly vibrating with good feelings. And he promised to be faithful to us, even when we are faithless – for he cannot deny Himself.
Chasing the experiential is as dangerous as chasing the intellectual – if it becomes the ultimate barometer of God in our lives, that would be the opposite of Faith. Faith is, after all, being certain of the thing we do not see – or feel, or understand. Amassing a lot of spiritual highs, like amassing a lot of intellectual knowledge about God, can be the mirage that makes us swerve off the narrow path, rather than keep faithfully on it. After all, we were not given an intellectual idea of Jesus, or a Jesus happy pill that makes us immune to pain, but Jesus himself, fully human, fully God, who, on the cross, felt so far from God that he cried that He had forsaken him.
You see, being faithful is pretty much one of the hardest things we are called to be. God berates Israel for having an adulterous heart every time it turned away from Him – which was, by the sounds of it, at least once every fortnight. For myself, it’s probably several times every hour. I’m dismayed by how easily distracted I am on a daily basis. There are things I ought to do, and yet it’s the easiest thing to find something else that is more compelling for another five minutes. It’s the same way with my heart. Somehow it’s a herculean effort just to crack open the Bible once a day, or to read it with real attention, rather than go at it as though earning a lot of brownie points to be redeemed later.
This is why it’s so good to remember, and so helpful that Jesus instituted the holy sacrament – to be taken “in remembrance of me”. Take, eat – and remember when you took and ate. Savor it, when you are in that blessed place of grace. Remember the contours of His goodness: how His provision meant such bread, such wine. Remember the Lord your God, who delivered you out of Egypt, out of slavery. Remember when you were in the pit, and He rescued you. Remember when you almost toppled into the abyss, and He snatched you from the brink.
Remember when He loved you through your family, your friends, who were wonderfully there for you just when you needed them. Remember the kindness of strangers, who had no reason to help you, except His direct provision. Remember His goodness, and his tender mercies. Remember that the Lord your God is good, and he does not forsake the ones he calls by his name. Remember it’s His name on the contract, His blood that was the down payment, remember the very dear price He paid for you. Does He love you? Of course! I can taste it, and I trust it.