Most of us are very familiar with the feeling that something or other is missing from our life. There are times when the feeling is acute, like a sharp pain. If we lose someone we have grown to love for years and years, it blows a hole in our life big enough and wide enough for the wind to blow through. When it happens this way, we know plainly and clearly what it is that is missing; we know exactly who is missing. But much more often- and much more to the point- there are times when we are not quite sure what’s really wrong. We haven’t experienced the pain of sudden loss. Things seem to have been going along well enough. We have pretty much everything we have ever hoped to have. There’s enough money to pay the bills, the children are healthy, our jobs are secure, the skies are cloudless. But still, we can’t quite get away from the uneasy feeling, the hard to pin down feeling, that there’s got to be more to life than this. When we have an experience like this, it is an important one, and it matters greatly how we make sense of it.
St. Augustine had a wonderful way of making sense of things like this. He believed that we are all bound, sooner or later, to suffer with the sense that we’re missing something in life or a good reason. The feeling points to one of the deep truths about us, that we have each been made with a kind of “hole in our soul”, an empty place inside of us. The hole is, so to speak, God-shaped. It is part of the landscape of every human soul, your soul and my soul. And although we may try mightily to fill this peculiar hole with all sorts of things, it’s not to be filled by anything or anyone except for God. In fact, Augustine believed that God has made us this way on purpose, so that we would not be able to rest, even if we wanted to, until we rested in Him.
At this stage in my life, I’ve come to think that Augustine had it exactly right. We’re made in such a way that we cannot rest until we rest in God.
Which brings me to the matter of Advent, the great season of the church that is now upon us. One of the purposes of the Advent season is to be a time set aside for awaiting the Lord’s coming. And while we are waiting, we are meant to be looking down into the hole in our soul long enough to see what manner of stuff we’ve tried to fill it up with. Likely, if we look hard, we’ll see all kinds of things in there that are the wrong shape; things that are not really God-shaped at all and so won’t fit correctly. Maybe the place is cluttered and full of gadgets of every imaginable sort, of a multitude of flawed relationships, or of old loves grown unhealthy.
In any event, during Advent we want to try to clean as much of that stuff out of the empty place in our souls as we can manage. And why is that? It is because we need for the place to be empty of what doesn’t belong there. We need a room within that’s been made ready for the One who does indeed belong within us and wants to live within us. After all, don’t we always say at Christmas that the Lord comes looking for souls in which to dwell, souls that have a dwelling place prepared for Him?
When I look within my own soul the part that needs to be cleaned the most centers around burdens that I have carried and never really let go of. My biological father left when I was only three, and since that time I have had relatively little contact with him. He has never met my husband or my children. I realized a few years ago that I had a lot of anger towards him. He basically left the responsibility of being a father to my step-father, who filled the shoes beautifully, (That good fortune is simply grace in my life.) but, it wasn’t his job to do so. So what am I to do with this anger, this hurt? I use the word hurt because many psychologists believe that anger is simply an emotion we use to hide or mask our hurt. This anger begins to cloud my soul. It begins to take too much energy. It exhausts me. It takes up too much room. It doesn’t leave enough space for God to dwell within me. It doesn’t allow me to be all that God wants me to be.
The answer for me is to unburden myself of this heavy load, and I realize in order to do that I must forgive him. That is the only way I can truly cleanse my soul. Now this doesn’t mean that I excuse the behavior- far from it- but it does mean that I am not going to carry around the hurt any longer. I must forgive him so that I can live wholly and connected with my God. How you might say? How do you forgive someone who hurts you? It is not an easy task my friends. Oh that it was. (I wish I could give you a handout with a formula on how to forgive someone.) And to be quite honest, I am still working on it. It is a gradual process that evolves day by day, week by week, month by month etc.. But what I do know is that if I want to have room for God to dwell within me then I have to get rid of the clutter- the pain, the hurt, the anger, the disappointment. Otherwise, I cannot truly connect with my Lord.
Do you find in your own souls any clutter such as this? Is there anyone in your life that you need to forgive, any relationship that needs to be healed so that the Lord has room to dwell? Or maybe your need is to forgive not someone else, but yourself. I have a friend who is twenty years my senior. One day she came to see me. She was so mournful. I could tell in her face. When she tried to speak, she was barely audible. She spoke of a time over thirty years ago, when she was a teenager, unmarried, scared and pregnant. Confused and embarrassed, she terminated the pregnancy. Thirty years later, she still carried the weight of that moment as if it were yesterday. She said that every day of her life she has asked God to forgive her, but she still has no peace about it. I assured her that God had long ago forgiven her, that is the cornerstone of Christianity, and what she needed to do was to forgive herself. How could God dwell within her, how could God have a relationship with her, if she was so consumed with this past mistake? How could she feel truly reconciled to our Lord, if she still carried this burden?
During Advent, we are to be watching and waiting, and while we are doing this we must make the room ready to receive the guest. Make no mistake, He is at the door. John the Baptist has proclaimed it. And in order to receive our guest: we must clean house. We must examine our own souls for clutter. What needs to be let go of? Are there relationships that need healing? Do you need to forgive someone or yourself? What better way to receive Christ this Christmas than unburdened and at peace. Give Him the room He needs to dwell.
In a few minutes we will sing the closing hymn. Listen closely to the second verse. These words echo to us today as they have for generations: “Then cleansed be every breast from sin; make straight the way for God within, and let each heart prepare a home where such a mighty guest may come.” Amen.