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The Longing

Last year, I wrote a post called “Thick Like Honey, Sweet Like Grace.” The title came from a quote in Matthew Perry’s recent biography. It was Perry’s own description of encountering God in the pit of his despair and addiction. The post was a reflection on the lack of this kind of “existential urgency” in some (not all) “progressive” Christian circles. It was a plea not to swap out a political agenda for an existential one. To not forget, in all our important talk and work for social justice, that there is an irreducibly personal and affective dimension to Christian faith. To speak urgently of both justice and mercy. There is room for both. We need both. Desperately so, it would seem, given the barrage of articles these days outlining how sad and lonely and anxious and hopeless so many people feel, particularly the young.

The article was picked up by a denominational magazine. A few edits were made, a different title given, a provocative byline affixed. I wasn’t thrilled with all of this, but I get it. I know how clicks are generated. And it did generate a bit of feedback, both in the magazine itself, in letters to the editor, and in private correspondence. Some were warm and appreciative. Some were critical, but in a constructive and generous way. Some seemed simply to misunderstand the point of the post or to read a whole different set of grievances and concerns into it. Some even bizarrely accused me of perpetuating harm against marginalized people, a claim that mystifies me since, as I’ve written often about my work in the jail and elsewhere, it is often precisely people on the margins who have taught me about the limitations of some forms of progressive theology and practice.

At any rate, one response asked if I had heard about what was happening in Asbury University. I had not. Evidently, a revival broke out after chapel a few weeks ago. For two weeks straight, there’s been a non-stop presence of prayer and scripture and worship in a nondescript Kentucky town. There are reports of healings, of burdens lifted, of faith rediscovered, of spiritual hunger sated. Tens of thousands of people have come from all over the USA and beyond to be a part of the phenomenon. And, speaking of young people, it seems to be primarily 18-25-year-olds that have been filling the chapel for weeks on end.

Now, this is the kind of thing that could be (and probably is being) discounted quite easily. It’s just a bunch of bible belt college kids reproducing the stories of their parents (there’s a reason this is happening Kentucky and not Connecticut, right?). This is merely the well-honed craft of emotional manipulation that evangelicals have been perfecting for years. It’s another example of the virality that is ubiquitous in the digital age. It’s just a bunch of kids who want to be internet famous. Who doesn’t want to be a part of something big and important, after all?

I get it. I’ve been in emotionally manipulative worship experiences. I understand the desire to be part of something big and important. God knows I have my suspicions about online virality and the impulses it feeds. I could easily pick the bones of this thing clean and leave it lying on the floor as little more than a pitiful human creation that has little, if anything to do with God. There was a time in my life when I might have done this. But this seemed like an ugly and fruitless and false exercise to me when I heard about Asbury last week. Instead, I could only think of the longing that it responded to.

I’m not the only one. The person who asked me about Asbury sent me a link to a post by Nadia Bolz-Weber, the well-known progressive Lutheran pastor from Colorado. She, too, was paying attention to the longing:

I cannot claim to understand it, all I know is that every time I have tuned in over the past few days, it has made me a little teary. Which surprises me. I have not always been prone to mixing sentimentality and religion. Irony and religion, fine, but this Gen Xer usually recoils from anything that smacks of sap. But here I am, longing to sing in that room with 1,000 other open-hearted people…

I actually wonder if exhaustion from culture wars, purity codes and the idolatry of ideology on all sides have led these young people to seek revival in the simplicity of constant prayer and singing.

I wonder, too. And aside from the exhaustion, I wonder about the sadness. I see so much sadness in young people out there. So much anxiety and hopelessness and rootless longing. All kinds of critiques are no doubt being directed toward whatever’s going on in Kentucky right now. But at the very least, I think, it’s a cry from the heart of young people who want something more than what they’re experiencing. Who long for acceptance and healing and forgiveness in a cultural and digital context that increasingly seems merciless, judgmental, harsh, and loveless.

This, I suppose, is some of what I was trying to get at with my post a few months ago. The church cannot afford to ignore this longing. We can’t swap it out for the right politics. We can’t reduce it to a need for therapy. We were made by God and for God. We are hungry for grace, for mercy, for forgiveness, for love, for relationship with our Creator. We know, on some bone-deep level, that without these things, we are ruined.  If the church stops speaking of these things, we cease to be what God has called us to be.

Last night, a few saints from our community gathered on a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday evening to hear two unpleasant truths: that they were sinners and that they were going to die. To be marked by Christ’s cross and sent out into the wilderness of Lent.

I was struck by two of the readings assigned for Ash Wednesday.

The reading from Isaiah is a blistering attack on hypocritical piety and religious observance that isn’t accompanied by justice. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

The gospel text contains Jesus’ famous words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

To loose the bonds of injustice with hearts anchored in the sure hope of heaven. This is the whole task of the church.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Pray, sing, worship, love and be loved by God…”like little children” together, open hearted. This is the heart of the Gospel.

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This is the life of the Gospel.

    “Social Justice” is a construct of the evil one. It is beyond the purview of mankind to define such a thing, much less effect such an outcome.

    “Love thy neighbour”, brothers and sisters. It is more than enough for you.

    February 24, 2023
  2. Emery Dueck #

    Thanks Ryan

    February 25, 2023
  3. howard wideman #

    Some of the longing seems to be people who are not heterosexual feeling judged by Christian churches and accepted at Asbury revival 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    February 25, 2023
  4. Elizabeth #

    Your posts are always so compelling. Not only are you a great writer but a great reader. Your point of view is well researched and based on many influential elements and I appreciate that. Your thoughts have great merit.

    Thank you for continuing to make me think and reflect.

    February 28, 2023
    • Thank you, Elizabeth. This is very kind.

      February 28, 2023
  5. louisa #

    I am grateful to have read this today. I sense this sadness and disconnection and longing all around me and this may be the first time someone has named it, so thank you.

    February 28, 2023
    • I sense it, too, Louisa. Thanks for your kind words.

      March 1, 2023

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