This evening as I was making my second pass through Bell X1’s Flock, I heard a terrific expression of one of the core struggles and themes of humanity. It goes like this:
She said, ‘I don’t believe in any old Jesus
If there was a God, then why is my arse
The perfect height for kicking?’
The question and the corresponding sentiment, of course, are not new. They are ancient and familiar to believers, unbelievers, and all of us who often find ourselves somewhere in the dizzying reality between belief and unbelief (you know, like this guy and this guy and this guy).
We all grapple with the nature of God in light of the often chaotic mosaic of our lives. I live among a community of folks who have elected to pull back the veil on the chaos, hoping (and increasingly believing) that doing so is both a matter of obedience and a unique opportunity for healing. This is good, and I wouldn’t trade my people for your people, even on the days that my people drive me up the friggin’ wall. I love them and I love that they love me and I love that they love Jesus enough to let me love them (imperfectly), to love me (imperfectly), and to continue pressing into a Way that is mysterious in its reckless redemption of dying things.
And still it’s hard. This exposing of sin and strife and suffering wears me down. It wears all of us down. Even amid undeniable healing and resurrection we find ourselves begging, some days at the top of our lungs and others in a raw whisper: "I believe; help my unbelief." Or, "God if you’re really on my side, why is my arse the perfect height for kicking?"
This is a conversation we’ve been having a lot lately, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on it this Lenten season. Is our community more afflicted than most? Are we more screwed-up? Are we screwing each other up? Are we just more honest about our brokenness?
I’m not sure I can confidently answer all of those questions, though I’m pretty convinced that the stuff we fight through is not unique – it’s just less hidden. I’m haunted by certain memories that paper the walls of that conviction: memories of marriages of good church people "suddenly" unraveling after decades ("We had no idea. They seemed so happy.") … of deacons weeping openly about depression and spiritual emptiness they kept secret for years …. of men, women, and children living under palpable clouds of darkness with no sense of how to find the light, despite sitting in the pew three times a week.
This is not intended as a critique of any other church community, past or present, but rather an affirmation of what many pastors and church people will openly admit – the church is, by and large, tragically impoverished when it comes to confession, honesty, and the sharing of our deepest burdens. This is no small problem, and it threatens the vitality and mission of God’s people as much as any theological error, religious ritual, or bad preaching. My tribe is, I believe, emerging from this ghetto, but we’re early in the journey. We aren’t putting on seminars and building models for how to make your church like our church. We’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other on the trail of a wandering Jew.
We take those steps in faith, but sometimes we need more faith. Sometimes we ask for relief from the pile of pain; sometimes we ask for the grace to endure and find God sitting with us as we cry. In the big middle of that, I came upon this from N.T. Wright, writing about some of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:
What Paul wants his hearers to grasp is that they already have, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, all the glory they could possibly want. He will shortly explain that in more detail. But we can imagine the Corinthians being very puzzled, just as people today might be very puzzled. Outsiders often look at the church, full of muddle and sin and shame and halfheartedness and back-biting, and clergy who don’t know what they’re talking about and laity who go wandering off the point, and they say, "Well, if that’s all you’ve got to show for the wonderful message you talk about, you really are a muddled lot. How can you possibly be the body of Christ, the temple of the living God, as you say you are called to be?"
The answer comes again and again in 2 Corinthians. The glory of Christ is not revealed in spectacular show of success, in people who get everything right all the time. People like that, as we know, can sometimes be a pain in the neck. The church reveals the glory of Christ through suffering and shame as much as through what the world counts as success.
The way this happens is, often enough, that the church is called to be where the world is in pain, at the place where the world is suffering and in a state of shame and sorrow. The church is there as the presence of the suffering Christ in the world. (Wright, Reflecting the Glory, p. 19)
This may seem obvious to many, but it was something of a revelation for me. We speak of incarnation often – both in terms of God’s visiting humanity in Jesus and our ongoing mission to be the presence of Jesus in the world by the Spirit and through the Body. Often missing from that discussion is the reality that the Gospel is inextricably tied to the suffering presence of Jesus; to his embracing our deepest experiences of pain and sorrow. If we are ministers of that Gospel, surely part of our purpose is to occupy the same space in the world. Jesus even promises that our destiny in the world will be much the same as his, but I think we’ve seen that merely as a negative by-product of our eternal salvation. We’ll take a few shots for Jesus, but we nail down a spot in heaven.
We lost the plot. Our pain and struggle in this life are part of the very thing we’re most after: Jesus alive in us, making all things new. The Kingdom of Heaven is not merely a future reality. It is on the march in us and through us, and we find more of it as Jesus – the Jesus who embodied both suffering and resurrection power in the world – continues to embody suffering and resurrection power in our bodies.
Tangent footnote 1: I mentioned that I’ve been thinking on these things during Lent. Though I fully affirm the holiness of every day and season, I’ve come to understand the benefits of the community of God embracing certain seasons for certain purposes. The season of Lent allows us to collectively dwell on particular realities of life in the Spirit that feed our spirits and mature us in our understanding and experience of the incarnation of Jesus in and among us. Are labels like "Lent" or the accompanying practices necessary for that maturity? Of course not. Do they inhibit us from real communion with the Spirit? Perhaps at times, but I suspect that’s a reflection of some area where we’re not yet free and not something inherently evil about a word or a practice. Lent (like Advent and so forth) is just a vehicle we use to travel a certain road, much like leather wrappers and rice paper are vehicles for us to encounter the words of Scripture. It’s a bridge between our bodies and our spirits.
These kinds of reflections and discoveries, for me, are part of the joy of rediscovering (or discovering
for the first time) some of the actual life in the centuries-old habits
of the people of God. I mention this because many of my ilk (including me) have made an entire sport
out of mercilessly brutalizing the poor word "religion," insisting that
it has sucked the heart and soul out of folks aspiring to find God,
giving them dead orthodoxy instead. A friend of mine says that
"religious" has become among Jesus-types what "fascist" is among
political types; that it’s a pronouncement one can’t escape or defend
once any evidence of its presence is detected.
It’s true enough that many have wandered down the path of lifeless ritual,
and it’s also true that false religion has been the pied piper more
often than not. It’s just odd that we’ve become so quick to demonize a
word that the Scriptures don’t seem to treat so harshly. Perhaps James
and Timothy didn’t get the memo when they were penning their little
chunks of divine inspiration.
More problematic than the semantic game
is the condescending spirit we exude toward anything or anyone on whom
we sniff something religious. Never mind that over the centuries folks we in our modern relational sensibilities would find terminally "religious" have been so intimately acquainted with Jesus that they’ve allowed themselves to be burned alive for the sake of unity with him … or that they’ve forsaken many of the comforts that compete daily for our affections to care for the most neglected people on the planet, all because they’ve been drawn, at least in part through "religious" practice, into deep relationship with the man who said that’s where he was found … or that they actually assembled the Bibles we tote and quote to support our superior
"non-religious" way of following Jesus. Never mind the clear evidence of Jesus alive in those folk when we’ve found a real life in the
Spirit that all those dead guys never experienced because of the bondage of religion. In case it’s not
clear, this is a confessional rant. I was this guy for a long time, and
in many ways I still am. I’m just discovering that pride and graceless
words are a little worse for my soul than true religion. I repent of dead religious ritual, and I repent of pride, of loveless words, and of carrying banners that don’t belong to Jesus.
Tangent footnote 2: Bell X1 is an Irish indie pop-rock band who I discovered on St. Patrick’s Day. I wasn’t looking for anything Irish that day, but that’s when I came upon them nonetheless. I’ve only listened to the album about 1.4 times, so I can’t recommend it with any integrity yet, but I’m enjoying it so far. The line I quoted is from the first track, Rocky Took a Lover.
Tangent footnote 3: The boys are Irish, so the lyric really is "arse" and not the much more controversial "ass." That wasn’t an attempt to sanitize the song.