Thick Like Honey, Sweet Like Grace
One of my abiding critiques of the more progressive church circles that I inhabit is that there often seems to be little, for lack of a better term, “existential urgency.” God is, we think, very interested in our positions on social issues and is very eager to affirm our journey through various constellations of identities. But not so much in sin or salvation or judgment or deliverance or a love that breaks in order to mend or anything that could conceivably set a soul aflame. In many progressive churches, God cares a great deal about our politics and our self-esteem, not so much about our souls.
Aside from just being flat-out boring, this is a recipe for failure. I come across articles that enumerate the hows and the whys of this virtually daily, but one from Brad East recently caught my attention. It’s called “A Therapeutic Church is an Atheist Church” and ends, ominously, thus:
The more… a congregation becomes therapeutic, in its language, its liturgy, its morals, its common life, the more God recedes from the picture. God becomes secondary, then tertiary, then ornamental, then metaphorical, then finally superfluous. The old-timers keep God on mostly out of muscle memory, but the younger generations know the score. They don’t quit church and stop believing in God because of a lack of catechesis, as if they weren’t listening on Sundays. They were listening all right. The catechesis didn’t fail; it worked, only too well. The twenty- and thirty-somethings were preached right out of the gospel—albeit with the best of intentions and a smile on every minister and usher’s face. They smiled right back, and headed for the exit sign.
I remember when I moved slightly leftward in my church affiliation around a decade ago, I was excited to have a bit more theological breathing space than what I had been experiencing, at least at the denominational level. I was ready for a more socially engaged gospel! I had a conversation in those early days with a seasoned veteran floating around in the Mennonite social justice-y parachurch world. He said something that struck me: “Yeah, we’ve got more room theologically, we’re more socially engaged… But I sometimes wonder where the life is.” I puzzled about this comment at the time but filed it away. A decade later, it makes more sense.
The catechesis is too often, as Brad East says, working only too well. You don’t need God for inclusivity training or to give political engagement a bit of a boost or to affirm your uniqueness. God can be (and is) regularly pressed into the service of these ends. God can always be dragged in the back door and reduced to the smallness of our ambitions. But God is so much more than this. And, to put it bluntly, the God-as-therapist or God-as-activist-in-chief isn’t particularly working. There are blessed exceptions (thanks be to God!), but in very general terms, our demographics tend to be trending along the same lines as many other mainline denominations. We are a church of mostly aging white liberals.
Alongside the piece by Brad East, I read a reflection on Matthew Perry’s recent memoir this week. I was never a huge fan of Friends, but I’ve seen Perry’s harrowing story of addiction popping up with some regularity over the last little while. I wasn’t surprised to read that when he reached rock bottom, Perry found God waiting for him there. God is where the lost things are.
What do I mean by existential urgency? This:
I frantically began to pray—with the desperation of a drowning man…
“God, please help me,” I whispered. “Show me that you are here. God, please help me.”
As I prayed, the little wave in the air transformed into a small, golden light. As I kneeled, the light slowly began to get bigger, and bigger, until, until it was so big that it encompassed the entire room. It was like I was standing on the sun. I had stepped on the surface of the sun. What was happening? And why was I starting to feel better? And why was I not terrified? The light engendered a feeling more perfect than the most perfect quantity of drugs I had ever taken. Feeling euphoric now, I did get scared and tried to shake it off. But there was no shaking this off. It was way way bigger than me. My only choice was to surrender to it…
My blood hadn’t been replaced with warm honey. I was warm honey. And for the first time in my life, I was in the presence of love and acceptance and filled with an overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be OK. I knew now that my prayer had been answered…
I started to cry. I mean, I really started to cry—that shoulder-shaking kind of uncontrollable weeping. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was crying because for the first time in my life, I felt OK. I felt safe, taken care of. Decades of struggling with God, and wrestling with life, and sadness, all was being washed away, like a river of pain gone into oblivion.
I had been in the presence of God. I was certain of it. And this time I had prayed for the right thing: help…
I stayed sober for two years based solely on that moment. God had shown me a sliver of what life could be. He had saved me that day, and for all days, no matter what. He had turned me into a seeker, not only of sobriety, and truth, but also of him.
The question of faith—the only question, really, the question that has animated anything worthy of the name “spiritual pursuit” in my own life—is whether or not this is indeed the God with whom we have to deal.
Is God the one who overwhelms us when we reach rock bottom, warm like honey, thick like grace? The one who washes over us, consigning rivers of pain into oblivion? The one who is mighty to save and strong to heal? Or is God the equivalent of a kindly bureaucrat giving a diversity seminar or shepherding us toward the right political rally?
Maybe I’ve created a false dichotomy here. Probably. But God, how I hope it’s the former and not the latter. Actually, scratch that. I don’t “hope” it’s the latter. I would bet my life on it.