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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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the Kid #

    Great article. I sometimes wonder if it needs to be an “either-or” proposition. I agree that associating God with any political party is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous. Where has that every worked?? Jesus focus was not on politics on Earth at all (He brilliantly separated Church and State with “render to Caesar… and to God”….). But when I read Matthew 25: 31-46 I understand that the “social” gospel is very important too. And I think if our youth ever hook into the power of Matthew 25, what it means, the sacrifice this may mean, the exciting life-long journey this may entail, wow, I think that is something they may embrace!!!

    November 10, 2022
    • Thanks, Jimmy. You’re right, of course. It shouldn’t be either/or. But we so often seem lousy at combining the existential urgency I speak of here with the robust social engagement that the gospel invites us into. So often, conservative churches major on the former and liberal churches the latter.

      And I suppose so much depends on the vantage point from which one views these matters. When I was in a conservative church I looked over the fence with admiration at more liberal churches. And now, vice versa. We probably tend to see in ways that are coloured by what perceive we are lacking.

      Having said all that, I really do think that Brad East quote is a chilling one—and one that progressive churches need to wrestle with honestly. God help us if God is ever reduced to ornamentation to our various other pursuits.

      November 10, 2022
    • Howard Wideman #

      I too enjoy the progressive Christians even though my niece tries to steer clear of such heresy. We need to look for Kairos moments of the spirit when we can relate to our neighbor in this time of change fear and anxiety. Very timely blog. As for parties Christian nationalism is deadly and sadly has nothing to do with Jesus

      November 10, 2022
      • Thanks, Howard. Yes, moments of real connection with real neighbours. This is clearly one important way to dial back the fear and anxiety of our age.

        November 12, 2022
  2. howard wideman #

    In Jake Meador article of church 1 a  behavior covenant could guard against bullying and abuse

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    November 10, 2022
  3. I had to read this a few times to digest what was being said. In answer to “a therapeutic church is an atheist church,” I could only wonder what that meant, and what a non-therapeutic church would look like other than self-serving. I also have some trouble with some of the generalizations, for instance the analysis of how a church on a “therapeutic path” is by stages bound for perdition. Similarly, the almost-derisive analysis of why and how youth leave the church needs at least a modicum of research before such a conclusion merits distribution. The reference to “right” and “left” doesn’t help in such a discussion either; labels like “woke,” or “cancel culture,” etc. are both invented and invoked in political warfare and hide more than they reveal. I would say that applying a leftist/rightest paradigm or similar to an individual’s or congregation’s being doesn’t feel right to me, particularly given the current tensions which affect believers and non-believers equally. An exuberant fellowship that’s outgoing and possibly “therapeutic” by habit is a well-gifted church. As a previous writer said, “does it need to be a choice.”

    November 11, 2022
    • This article from this morning’s New York Times explains a lot of what many mean when they discuss the triumph of the therapeutic (inside and outside the church).

      These quotes, in particular, resonated with much of what I see and hear today:

      [A]ccording to this newly prevalent gospel of self-actualization, the pursuit of private happiness has increasingly become culturally celebrated as the ultimate goal. The “authentic” self — to use another common buzzword — is characterized by personal desires and individual longings. Conversely, obligations, including obligations to imperfect and often downright difficult people, are often framed as mere unpleasant circumstance, inimical to the solitary pursuit of our best life. Feelings have become the authoritative guide to what we ought to do, at the expense of our sense of communal obligations…

      “We have withdrawn to a highly subjectivist form of individualism,” said Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of “Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help.” “This means that our emotions have become the moral ground for our actions.” The prevailing mentality, Dr. Illouz said, is: “I feel something, therefore I am entitled to make this demand” or “to withdraw from a relationship.”

      Re: “left,” “right,” “woke,” “cancel culture,” etc. Yes, as always, we are limited by the terms we use. I don’t like them either. And yet they point, however imperfectly and inadequately, to real trends out there in the world. They point to an increasingly polarized world of social discourse where it feels like people are becoming ever more rigid and drifting further apart. Too often, in my view, the church simply reflects rather than challenges this reality.

      November 12, 2022

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