Column: The Search Within Us
By Drew Williams
Some years ago, when I was a new minister in the U.K., I was sent out on a pastoral visit to prepare a memorial service. The woman who had died did not have any surviving relatives and so I was sent to the home of one her friends who had agreed to help with the funeral arrangements. The door opened, and I immediately recognized this friend. Earlier in the year she had paid a surprise visit to my home. The doorbell had rung and I answered it to find this same woman on my doorstep with two very large and very full trash bags. Her opening line was, “You’re religious, aren’t you?!” (I always want to reply “No!” to that question yet I was wearing my clerical collar, which I guess might have added something to my response.) She said, “I knew it. I can always tell! You are religious and I have got something for you!” She beamed triumphantly and went on, “A friend of mine has just died and when I was going through his things I came across all these religious books. The garbage man would not take them. They would not fit in my trash can so I have brought them to you.” She added gravely, “Just you take care, Vicar! These books have got termites jumping out all over them – but if you leave them out in the sun that should dry up the mildew and kill the bugs. Just make sure that you don’t breathe in too hard when you read them!” Now I was the person ringing the bell and standing on the doorstep. It was going to be an interesting funeral visit…
I began by asking her how long she had known her friend and how they had met. In answering, she showed me a photograph of her friend, sitting on a bench. I noticed that around her neck was what looked like a medallion on a leather strap. And when I looked up again I noticed that my host was wearing an identical medallion around her own neck. I commented on the appearance of the medallion in the photograph and around this lady’s neck. She looked very pleased and said, “Ah, I see you are drawn to the unusual power of the medallion!” I said that it was certainly very unusual.
“This medallion has supernatural powers,” she stated. I asked her where she had purchased it and she said that she found it on the Shopping Channel on TV. She might have noticed that I was looking a little bit skeptical so she said, “I can prove to you the healing powers of this medallion!” and with that she dashed out of the room and went into the kitchen. Moments later she returned, clutching a glass jar which she waved under my nose. Inside was something green and about the size of a golf ball. It was floating about in dark brown brine-like liquid. On closer inspection, I could see that it was also covered in white fungal hair. As she shook the jar, little spores flew out of the mass and sank to the bottom of the glass jar. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen – and I have three children and a dog.
“What do you think of that?” she beamed. “This has been in the fridge for five months! See what perfect condition it is in.” I had to ask. “What is it?” My question clearly annoyed her. “It is a beet! A perfectly preserved beet!” She shook the glass jar to emphasize her point, and little bubbles fizzed and broke through the brine. “This beet has been in my fridge for five months and, due to the powers of the medallion, it has been perfectly preserved.” She added, “Can you imagine what a beet would be like if left in the fridge for five months without the powers of medallion?” I said that I could well imagine this. She was triumphant and added with a flourish, “And because of the healing power of this marvelous medallion, I sent off and got one for my friend too.” And then without a hint of irony, she added, “Now young man, can we now please get on with planning her funeral!” I passed on her offer of a cup of tea and a sandwich and we made our plans.
Now just possibly, maybe, my new friend with her marvelous, mysterious medallion was just a little bit eccentric. But would we confess that there is something perhaps just a little bit familiar about her motivation? On the one hand, we can dismiss this as harmlessly crazy. On the other hand, there is a part of us that cannot let go of a sense of “otherness” and a curioisty around the the transcendent, the mystical and the supernatural. This searching has many manifestations but many would argue that the desire is universal. The writer, Erwin MacManus suggests, “We all have private visions that disrupt our daily routines and call us to search for something that is bigger than we are.” Of such a curiosity, C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.’ A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
What if God Himself has planted this spiritual hunger deep within us — a hunger that literally causes us to search for Him? What if God has set within us a divine drive — a divine spark within all of us that inspires a quest? Call it passion, curiosity, spirituality… whatever you call it, what if God planted it there from the beginning? The ancient promises tell us that God “…has put eternity into man’s heart…” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And in the New Testament book of Acts, Paul reminds us, “…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27).
The day of the funeral arrived. I had discovered that one of our pastoral assistants had been visiting the woman whose funeral it was during the last months of her illness and had been reading to her from the Bible and had taken her communion. I had been told that this woman had taken great comfort from this and I mentioned this in my remarks. Then it was time for my new friend to share a few words. She marched up to the front of the church, cleared her throat and, pointing to me, said, “Everything that he has just said is a load of rubbish!” She waved her medallion at me and at the congregation, read a poem and then sat back down.
It was my turn to continue with the service. What could I say in response? After the service, there was plenty I thought of saying, but in the moment I simply picked up the service book and began to pray the set prayers that followed in the Prayer Book. The Anglican Prayer Book is steeped in prayers that are rooted in Biblical Scripture. It felt like a tennis match. Every quiet liturgical prayer that I was now obliged to pray thundered across the chancel like a missile of rebuke (at least in my imagination). Never had Anglican liturgy packed such a punch. I thought to myself, She is going to kill me. I am going to end up in her fridge!
At last, the end of the service came. My friend marched across the parking lot to speak with me. I braced myself. As she approached, her face broke into a smile and I could see that she had been crying. She said, “Thank you, Reverend. That was a wonderful service.” I was astounded. She started to walk away and then turned to come back. I thought, This is it. Now I am going to meet the power of that medallion. But what she said next, I did not anticipate. “Reverend, can I have a copy of those poems that you read during the service? The words were so beautiful. They had such power in them and they really touched my heart.”
I had not been reading poems. I had simply been reading the words from the Bible that had been set out in the pre-printed service liturgy. Scripture had touched her heart because God has created all our hearts to respond to His living Word. The Bible has tremendous power to heal us emotionally, spiritually and even physically.
We can spend our lives trying to satisfy our souls. There can be so much searching and looking for answers in more money, more prestige, more “toys,” more stuff. Some things are just a façade. Some things satisfy for the moment and so we become hostage to the moment. Some things can bring a deadness to our souls even before we have stopped searching. The search within us can kill us.
The Bible would teach is that the spiritual quest within each of us was given for a purpose and that is to cause us to search for God. The coordinates for that search are set out in His living word.
Erwin MacManus reminds us that there are lots of things that are dispensable to God. He can recreate whatever He wants to. You, however, are not on that list. You are unique and irreplaceable. You are the very object of God’s love. Whether we believe in Him or not, we were created in His image and we were created to find Him.
As we step out of Christmas and into the new year, before we leave the manger in the stable, here is the truth that brought the wise men and everyone else across the history of salvation to their knees. What the wise men discovered in Bethlehem that night, amidst straw poverty, was the astounding truth that in all our “unhealed-ness,” in all our confusion and misdirected questing, the one who first set His search within us has come searching for us.