Faith by Sehnsucht

scenic-185234_640

 

On the last night of camp, we were released from the amphitheater with a promise that God loves us and an encouragement to go spend time in prayer with him. All my church camps ended this way. I loved it like that. I loved the silence, I loved the time. As an introvert, I loved the ability to wander off alone and know that no one was going to bother me and everyone else was doing the same because by decree, there was no talking until the foghorn blew.

 

But as a Christian, I kind of hated it. I hated the way so many friends would come back to the building with new life in their eyes and how they’d speak secrets given by God and the way they somehow seemed better, improved, reformed into a spiritual maturity that I did not understand. I went into it feeling excited and left feeling sort of defeated. Even when I felt slightly different, I chalked it all up to my emotions and the scenery of nature. I never truly believed it was God, because who can look out at a dripping with gold setting sun and not feel something?

 

This camp was nestled into the side of mountain in Colorado, and on the last night, I found a spot on a ridge overlooking the valleys steep and hundreds of feet below. The land was alive, flickering in the flood of light from the east. I breathed deep. Routine, I asked God to come into my heart again. Then I spent several minutes straining my soul to hear him. My mind drifted elsewhere, so I scolded myself for becoming distracted, as if God was something tiny as powder, I had to watch for him, lest he blow away out of my presence.

 

The table was set, all the pieces were there. The sun was standing on the horizon like it was patiently waiting, the soft wind, the warmth of summer, the colors, the code of complete silence, but I still felt like something was missing. I felt like it was my own heart. Like I was trying, once again, to be this thing called Christian, but it all felt so staged. The timing of the alone time, the light, the prayers, careful and rehearsed in my thoughts. I wondered what was missing. What I wasn’t seeing.

 

///

I have always been a doubter, a skeptic, and recently, a cynic, and more recently, a recovering one. Forget the exclusion I once felt from the faith community because I was gay. That was part of it. But it was also this pressure to believe which worked reverse in me. I reflexed, yanking my fingers out of the of that Chinese trap, and I wound up a little more defeated. A little more concerned that something might be wrong with me.

 

So, when Greg Boyd’s book landed into my life, The Benefit of the Doubt, I had my reservations. I thought he, like many before him, might try to rationalize my doubts in a way that made them less real. I thought he might try to be cute.

 

But I quickly learned that he was as honest in his doubts as I was. I read his words and there was an instant exchange of familiarity and empathy, and I couldn’t put the damn book down because finally, someone understood me.

 

Lately, I’ve been throwing myself into many of the old books lately. The Gospels, Paul, even some of the Old Prophets, and I’ve wondered, like before, why I’m not feeling it. Why the words feels like nothing more than words, written for people that are not me, and told in a cryptic way that feels less spiritual wisdom and more plain old corrupt religion.

 

There’s a part of Boyd’s book where he introduces this all important word. A word I want to stamp on my conscience: Sehnsucht.

 

“It’s an unusual word that is hard to translate, for it expresses a deep longing or craving for something that you can’t quite identify and that always feels just out of reach. Some have described Sehnucht as a vague and bittersweet nostalgia and/or longing for a distant country, but one that cannot be found on earth. Others have described it as a quasi-metaphysical sense that we (and our present world) are incomplete, combined with an unattainable yearning for whatever it is that would complete it.”

 

The sunset from the mountain wasn’t enough for me, and yet it was one of the most stunning scenes I have seen. A miracle was flickering inside of it, but I still wanted more. This feeling, it happens all the time. On my drive to the coffee shop I am now sitting in I saw grandma teaching her grandson how to bike, before I reached the door of the coffee shop, an old man ran past me to open the door to a woman in a wheel chair. These signals, these revelations, this light breaking through.

I choose to wander the park path at twilight, because the trees, they are backlit and the leaves are pressed in by the sun, making the air flow with an emerald tint that leaves me breathless, nostalgic for somewhere I have never been. Certain hymns steal me into silence, into a place I don’t want to leave. I type out a perfect sentence, think a new, thought and I am tripping over myself to keep the magic alive. Where did that come from? When Wyatt laughs in falsetto, when he smiles his toothy grin it’s like a gust of joy, rushing through the house. And I want to save the moment somehow. I want to enclose it in a frame. Cap it in a bottle. I think of Annie Dillard’s reflection of nature’s movements: “Now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t.” And it seems, for me, the way faith has always been. Even when I didn’t know that’s what it was. These crisp pinpricks of something… larger. It’s there, it’s gone.

 

Theology, I don’t know if I have one. Faith is a slippery thing I may never get a good grip on. I only have questions. I live on curiosity.

 

I live on the Sehnsucht in my bones. Ask me about God, and my answer will depend on the day, honestly, but I am always compelled by these moments that startle me. There is something more. Sometimes, it is silent. Sometimes, it is only seen and not understood or realized. But it’s just a little further. It’s not the shallow, theologically bankrupt, thumb-sucking beginnings of faith. It’s the beating heart of it.  

  • Jacob Crawford

    Ben … this word is timely for me. I ache with this “sehnucht” and never quite know exactly what I am aching for … except that it is an ache for MORE. Thank you for sharing your heart with us … thank you for ministering to my own.

    • It is kind of peaceful right. Having this unknown yearning, feeling it instinctually? Especially, at least for me, with all the times when I thought I was supposed to be feeling this super spiritual surge that had words and clear images- always leaving me feeling less than when it didn’t happen. This Sehnucht is enough! It is our hearts at their most elemental, most true.

      • Jacob Crawford

        Absolutely.

  • I’m glad you hit “publish” before the WV news today because this, my friend, is beautiful. I grew up going to Christians camps that did the same thing and had a similar experience. Now I have a word for it.

    • I LOVE this word. Sehnucht. It encapsulates my total experience.

  • Anna

    Sehnucht. Though I’ve known this for a long time, I’m still taken aback by how granting something a name helps and feels healing.

  • Roo James Wilson

    You are always welcome back to Colorado to remind yourself of Sehnucht. 🙂

  • Sheila Warner

    “Faith is a slippery thing I may never get a good grip on. I only have questions. I live on curiosity.” That describes me perfectly. Thanks for this.

  • Hi Ben,

    I like this word,sehnucht. It reminds me of Shalom- peace, or more accurately wholeness, completeness a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace. Thanks for sharing.

    Also ; “Theology, I don’t know if I have one. Faith is a slippery thing I may never get a good grip on. I only have questions. I live on curiosity”…

    but that’s faith isn’t it, so perhaps you’ve got a better grip on these matters than you realise?

  • Laura Watson

    Love your post! Other writers I’ve read exploring the idea of this longing within us (CS Lewis and Marva J Dawn) render the word sehnsucht.

    • And…. You are right! Ah, when I wrote down the quote, I apparently misspelled the word. Thank you for the correction Laura!

      • Laura Watson

        I don’t speak German but that word really grabbed me too. So glad you shared your beautiful reflections on it!

  • OMG, Ben, yes. I remember those quiet-times-in-nature at camps and retreats. I always felt pressured to find some gold nugget for my spiritual life or to hear the voice of God, because that was everyone else’s experience. But I would sit there, staring at the pretty trees, and I’d think I was faking this whole “faith” thing. Sometimes I do get the glimpses, but they are so fleeting. Thank you for writing this… I relate so much.

    • Seriously! It was always a hard time and I’d end up being all, “God was telling me, like, studying is going to be important this school year…” Which is an example thought I had, but might not have been God. Was definitely me worrying about math.