(I wrote this essay a few years ago on a different blog, but I came across it today and it seemed apt)
I read an article by Cathleen Falsani in Sojourners earlier this year that talked about grace. She herself had read an article in a 1970’s Playboy interviewing Jimmy Carter when he was running for office. The author of the article commented on Jimmy Carter’s “addiction to the theory that we progress by stressing our virtues rather than by dwelling on failures.” Falsani writes about how she was blown away by the truth found in this unlikely place. “None of us wants to be defined by our worst moments. And our faith tells us that God doesn’t define us that way either. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should try to obscure our shortcomings, inconsistencies, our failures, whether moral, ethical or of conscience….We may be believers but our belief is sometimes shaky. We may be redeemed, but we are far from perfect creatures….As I understand it, the point of the Easter Story–of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection–is that we can’t fix ourselves by ourselves. We cannot live a live that would earn our place in the kingdom.”
So here is my thought–I get disturbed by the trend I hear in churches and see on the christianity shelves at bookstores and see all over pinterest that seems to so closely copy our culture–the self-help church. That we, by positive thinking and having the right amount of thankfulness, and by choosing happiness, can be whole. Positive thinking isn’t bad in itself. Being grateful and thinking grateful is helpful–its needed and good for our souls. I know this and I’m grateful for gratefulness! And the fact that we so desperately desire to be happy and fulfilled is a sign of life, that we know there is good out there and in us and we so desperately want to partake in it and be seen partaking in it. But I have a serious pause in my soul when I hear that being bigger, better, more alive, more victorious, more content, more happy is the key to obtaining our wholeness. And I have serious pause when I hear its “just” a matter of me changing me. OR that all I have to do is follow Jesus and that will make me happy. I don’t know about you, but since I have been a follower of Jesus, there have been many dark, dark, dark times. I have a suspicion that a WHOLE life is not…..that. It is not perfection. It is not a goal. What if living Life were the goal?
I went to a funeral last fall and looking back, I can see that it was one of those moments where I knew I was different afterwards. It brought into sharp relief these suspicions I’ve had for years….and it set me free in many, many ways. The funeral was for the husband of one of my mom’s friends. He committed suicide. He wrote a note while his wife was out of town at a conference, blocked all the openings into the garage, started the car and fell asleep. She found him the next day. He was so sad. They have two sons, married, one with children. It was all so horrific.
What was so obviously unique about this funeral was that the wife, the sons, the family and the pastors they asked to speak, were so very, very brutally honest about it. The did not shy away from his life and his death at all. It was not hidden. What they acknowledged was that there is an unimaginable amount of shame in being so hurt, so broken that taking your life is the only apparent option. There is so much shame in depression, in not being happy, ESPECIALLY as a Christian. But this family, this wonderful lady, chose to go THROUGH it instead of deny it. In addition to the eulogies and the sermon, she asked a pastor to speak about depression. As he started, you could physically feel the audience tense up, not knowing how to receive what was going to come. But as he went on and spoke truthfully about it, you could physically feel a weight being lifted off the people gathered. He talked about the realities of depression and of mental illness, especially for people of faith. He spoke of the brokenness, of weakness, of soul pain, of anxiety. He talked about honesty and emotions and how they were given by God, instead of some sort of fault of our own. Emotions were indicators, he said, and they are more important than any sort of willpower or goal setting. They show us that we ARE a body, and soul and spirit. They show us our physical and chemical connection to our minds, our deepest selves. And this is by design. Relief washed over the people, like a collective sigh. And the hope we were left with, was strangely, not a hope that we will prevail over depression, but a hope where we know we are not alone in doing life. We don’t have to not feel, not be weak, not be sad, not be angry and we are called to not be alone with all that.
So….a theology of weakness, of brokenness–in a real sense…..What would that look like? Not brokenness that young guilt prays for, but the reality-of-life-brokenness–the brokenness that comes from our humanity and that is not sin, but is, in fact, grace.
His strength IS because of our weakness. It is our meeting place. And when we live by a theology that denies it, or only gives it a cursory heed, we are left with an empty faith that really only works well with people with a lot of willpower and with something to prove, and who don’t ask a lot of questions. And by the time life happens to most of us, there aren’t very many of those people left–it is not a theology that lasts.
“God does not make all things better,” this pastor proclaimed to an audience of hurting and shamed people. But maybe he does promise to walk with us there. To meet us in a real way. There are no formulas–there is no “if I do this, then that will happen.” But formulas are a lot of what churches seem to love, which makes sense because they are what we, big groups of humans love. They sell. They bring cohesion. They give us hope in our own ability to make our lives what we think they should be. There’s not a lot of room for true living with formulas, however, and certainly not for this living God. Formulas are what my husband refers to as today’s superstitions…and as he says, “I don’t have time to waste my weekends with superstitions.”
All this is to say that this funeral was the first time in a long time where the triumphalism of our faith was brought into perspective with the reality of pain, of horrible, wasting sadness, of debilitating anxiety, of soul pain. And it was SO TRUE. And therefore, it was encouraging.
After the pastor who spoke about depression finished, Reverend Rob Scott got up to speak about God. Reverend Rob and his family and his church have a special place in my journey. As I was coming out of the dark years of disordered thinking and eating and believing, I came across this little church. In the midst of my own disillusionment, here was a miracle. A tiny church that preached real stuff. Rob spoke of Jesus in a way that I understood in that deep, instinctual, remembering kind of way. We would draw, pray, write in a communal journal, sing, meditate on pictures and icons as creative forms of worship. And it was the first time that I did not hear that triumph which led me, and I can only assume others, to believe that their reality, their humanity was their sin and that their weakness was God’s bane. Rob just preached about Jesus. And he did on this day as well. Not watery Jesus–“Jesus will help YOU live a better life” or “Jesus wants you to be happy.” But he preached unflinching Jesus. How He lived and walked and bled. And that somehow we can know that in the horror of what living in this world can do, to ourselves and to each other, that all this brokenness was re-deemed, re-seen, and re-made into something so, so good and so, so holy. And not because our lives were themselves made all better and certainly not because we did such “bettering.” But because we were met, and we were not alone.
Where is there room for this gospel–for Grace–if we are out-Oprahing each other with our formulas for success? If we are not acknowledging our dark sides, sitting with them for a bit and letting maybe one or two trusted people see them too. Its only once we’ve held something that we can actually let it go.
The point of Easter is Grace. We say it, we say we know it. But really its such phenomenally strong meat to swallow. And in our times, in our positive, health-seeking, attempting to be gentler times, it is still absolutely counter-cultural. We can’t do “it”, life, by ourselves. We are not our fullest creation, our own fulfillment, by our own volition. In fact, as Falsani concludes, it is nothing that we do ourselves that in fact remakes our hearts and minds into the kind of perfection God deserves from the people God loves. We are all conflicted. We all make tremendous mistakes. We all struggle. To pretend otherwise is a lie that cheapens the Grace that goes before us all, the Grace that lays down in the road and is the thread we hold onto in the darkness.