By Travis Kahl
In early January I was invited to be a part of a program called Emmaus, a three-day intensive course giving an introduction to Lutheran theology. Since I wasn’t raised Lutheran, it was an illuminating experience, providing a place where I could learn the basics of why the sacraments are important, how to read the Bible, and so much more.
But doctrine wasn’t the only topic of discussion. In addition to that more intellectual direction, there was time set aside for spiritual formation, a weakness of mine. We held our own morning prayer and had the opportunity to pray with the local monks at lunch and dinner. On top of that, every evening had some structured spiritual guidance. We were asked to reflect on our day, be thankful, and try to discern where God was present in our lives. One evening, we were asked to think of a time in that day when we had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.
And as I thought about every moment Scripture was read that day, every time I was in community or prayer, I couldn’t point to a single moment where I could definitively say, “God was there.” Everything I felt, I felt more mentally than emotionally, and that was really frustrating. I could not give any answer besides that and tell the truth.
When I gave my answer I asked a question too: “Does it get easier?” What I wanted to know was whether or not it became easier to feel God’s presence in my life. Due to my poor wording I got five different answers from the four pastors there. Some said yes, others said no, and another said both yes and no.
Afterward, I discussed it with Pastor Adam. He shared an analogy he had heard from a colleague. The analogy he used was that it’s like digging ditches in the desert. It doesn’t rain often in the desert, so naturally we should try to prepare ourselves for it as best as we can. But we don’t control whether or not it actually rains; we can’t force ourselves to feel the presence of the divine. That can’t become easier for us to do because we can’t do it at all. If it happens, it’s a gift from God. We cannot conjure God; the desire to do so is our desire to be God.
At the same time, God always invites us graciously to dig ditches. We can build better prayer habits, form communities, and spend time in Scripture. That’s the part that gets easier, but it’s always done as a response to God’s overflowing gift to us. It isn’t a flat-out command, “Dig ditches, or else,” but a divine promise: “It’s going to rain. You might want to dig some ditches.” And if we truly understand that promise, what other response could we possibly have?