“We believe now, not because of what you said, but because we ourselves have heard him.” John 4
What, why, and how we believe is a mysterious dynamic.
Mainline Protestants have a love/hate thing going on with Jesus. We like to trot him out occasionally in sermons to prop up a social ethic. We use Him in the polished endings to appropriate prayers. We can tell the story of the Christmas time Jesus and we also have ways of talking about the Easter time Jesus.
At the same time, when it comes to believing in an Incarnate God and a Resurrected God, we’re just not sure what to believe. For years parishioners, students in my classes, and participants in retreats have secretly confided in me that they aren’t really sure Jesus was God and that they don’t really believe in the Resurrection, but they can see why these are important ideas so they go with them.
When we dig around in these deep places of our doubt, of our questions, of the things that just don’t make sense to us we run into the hard ground of our stubborn need to understand. And we wonder if we are “really Christian” if we aren’t sure about these things. If we can’t make it all make sense then maybe we don’t really believe.
I, myself, have realized anew how much I let that rock hard place stop me from digging. I get to the hard stuff and I look for another place to dig.
I have lost so much of the God I believed in as a child. And the church seems often not to be where I feel God’s presence these days. I often feel cut off from the kinds of communities that have helped strengthen my belief. I have gotten down to the bare bones of belief and I have been afraid to look at the skeleton that remains.
The know-it-all part of me was afraid that the skeleton meant God is dead, that Jesus is gone, that this whole belief thing has been a hoax, an illusion, a foolish crutch I have used to make my life mean something. I didn’t look at the skeleton—the bare bones of my belief, because I didn’t want to live in a world without God, without Jesus, without Divine Presence.
Sometimes I feel like that skeleton is Jesus’ and that Christians are the ones who have killed him, who have tried to make us forget about the Resurrection, who have tried to make Him someone He wasn’t and isn’t. Sometimes I feel like it’s Christians who have taken Him away and then made his Body—the Church, someone He did not want us to be, He did not ask us to be.
That skeleton is grotesque—with picked over bones and splintered parts where people have fought over parts of Him. And the flesh that we are supposed to put on those bones seems contrived, ill fitted, unhealthy.
That skeleton haunts me. Mostly because I haven’t always had the courage to get too close.
With all the talking and teaching I do about surrender and mystery and silence and breath prayer I am supposed to be ok with that skeleton. But a dead God, a gone Jesus, a void where Presence had been is a place of death. What would life mean in that place? Who am I there? And who is anyone else for that matter?
I’ve been spending a lot of time at that rock hard place with those bones where my experience and belief meet the world I live in—chipping away at the hard ground, sleeping on it, feeling restless with how cold and unforgiving it can feel. I have worked to resist the temptation to cover it back up with some fresh dirt, plant some flowers on it and say everything is fine.
I’ve stayed in the hard place and it has left me sore and sad, still restless, yearning, longing for more fertile ground. And those bones haunt me. They are looking for rest, for home—maybe something needs to die so something else can live.
My digging has, at times, yielded some tiny gem that has kept me going for a while—a sensation of Loving Presence, a stirred up memory of the way Jesus has walked with me through the shadows of my life, a friend who came and dug around with me for a while. Or I spend a few days with a gathered community of people who see the same skeleton I see AND they haven’t forgotten about Resurrection.
It washes over me in those moments that the One who loves me and knows me IS. Vibrating in that IS, I am and we are re-membered in love, presence, life, breath. This brush with vitality is not the same comfort and assurance I use to know, but it is powerful and true.
Following Jesus keeps me digging. And more and more I am embracing his promise that I do not need to fear death. More and more I am finding Him all over again in the step by step of digging into how redemption and resurrection and incarnation might really be true.
This week I am working with others who have been wondering about these dry bones and these rock hard places—people yearning for the Body of Christ to dance and sing and recover and regenerate its broken parts. This hoped-for church that we pray about and envision together at the Multicultural Institute this week feels like a way to keep digging.
In John 4 the community stuck around the hear Jesus themselves when the woman at the well told them they needed to see this man who told her everything that she had ever done. In the end the people in her community believed not because of what she told them, but because they heard Him themselves.
Before they could hear Him though, some things needed to die—social boundaries, stubborn tradition, conventional wisdom, walls of separation, prejudice, patriarchy. The woman at the well started a new life when she asked the hard questions and stayed close to this Jesus who wasn’t afraid to let things die.
If we hang out at the well long enough… maybe we’ll find the same vitality she did. Life in Christ means we can let some things die.
It is Jesus who gives me the courage to keep digging. He’s the One who told me that it’s ok to let things die. He’s the one who shows me that new life is born of death. Trusting such a mysterious, counter-intuitive path means trusting unlikely promises: Like that from a cold, rock-hard grave can come the borning cry of a life we barely believed could be true.