My liberal sensibilities have taken a bit of a knock these past few weeks. Three times in as many weeks, I have found myself in uncomfortable conversations, disagreeing with people whom I love. On issues such as interfaith dialogue. On what it is we ascribe to the term ‘biblical’. On what it means to be ‘pro-life’.
These kind of discussions – in which I invariably inhabit the liberal corner – are not a new thing. But I have felt jarred by the frequency with which they have cropped up in the past three weeks – three knocks on my heart.
The first and second knock, I responded in my usual way. Stung, angry, righteous – carrying the sheer burden of ‘always being right’ amdist a sea of conservatives as a self-made cross upon my shoulders. I feel ashamed to admit my arrogance – and yet there it is.
But they say good things come in threes – and perhaps this was no exception. By the third knock – by a friend with whom I love, trust and respect a great deal – I felt my resolve wobble. I was starting to feel more and more alone – alone in the way that we only do when all that we believe undergoes a seemingly relentless stress test until we are unable to ignore the cracks creeping through even the surest of our self-made foundations. When we find ourselves wondering what it is that we believe at all.
* * *
I’m eagerly awaiting Sarah Bessey’s upcoming book, ‘Out of Sorts’. One of the things which she says in the book (according to her preview) is that if we find ourselves at the end of our lives with exactly the same beliefs as when we started- something has surely gone wrong.
I believe this with my whole heart. I so don’t want to reach the end of my life so convinced I am right, so bent over with the weight of my hand-made cross that all I can see is my own navel. As such, I have long been a staunch advocate for embracing the mystery – of eschewing dogged views and hard answers in favour of the profound mystery which lies at the heart of our faith.
Because I believe that at the heart of faith lies a mystery – and that is okay. I am wearied by cookie cutter answers because they have never satisfied me, and I hope they never do.
But my recent trio of conversations have served as a gentle prod – causing me to wonder whether in my staunch defence of our need to embrace mystery, I too am in fact missing the mystery altogether. If I I am not in fact bent double with the weight of my own brand of dogmatism – ultimately gazing only at my own navel.
These conversations have served up a harsh realisation that the edges around my liberalism are just as hard those I so easily accuse my sister or brother from a more conservative tradition of having. Edges which serve as obstacles to the breath of the living God coming into inspire, to unsettle, to whisper the freedom song into our hearts. Am I allowing the living God to lead me across boundaries, out into places of discomfort and renewal, where S/He will teach me just what it means to love in that sacrificial, upside-down way of the Kindgom?
It has made me wonder: what, then, does it really mean to ’embrace the mystery’?
I used to think that it meant being content with no cookie cutter answers (read: just being liberal). Ultimately, embracing the mystery was (as far as I was concerned) quite a passive activity for someone like me.
But then I think of how Jacob embraced the body of God – mystery incarnate – in a sweaty, earnest, night-long wrestle – perhaps that is a more accurate image of what it means to embrace mystery. To be willing to sweat – to engage in those dialogues that cost us greatly but from where understanding and Life can spring forth. To get tired and dirty because we are prepared to do anything not settle for a smug, navel-gazing faith. To hold on for dear life and get up close and personal with the God whose eternal Yes in Jesus is larger and more generous than we could dare imagine – who will push us way out of our comfort zones.
I think of how I embrace my husband. So long as I am remembering to love him well, my embrace is not passive. It is urgent, it is full, it is an overflowing expression from my whole body to his that I want to step more into him, more into what we are creating together. It is a physical remembrance of the promise I made to cherish him for better for worse, of my promise that I will keep on stepping out of my safety and isolation and cross the boundaries between us, the ones which have a habit of creeping up daily without our even noticing. Our embraces – at our best – are fierce. For better, for worse.
Going further still, I think of the power of embrace, of touch in general. The theme over at Sheloves magazine this month is ‘Held’ and I am moved and humbled by the stories which the writers have shared through this lens. Stories which tell of the struggle, in the absence of being held for many years, for orphans to accept the embrace of a new adoptive mother. Stories which speak a longing to dance in the embrace of a loved one. Stories which speak of the voracious passion with which a holy God embraces the meek, those who themselves ‘hold on’ to this life with a tenacity I have never had to muster, as He promises that the Kingdom is theirs – not just in the New City but right here and now.
‘Embracing’ the mystery suddenly seems anything but a passive activity. Something which will require more of me than I had anticipated.
I’m not sure I know what any of this means just yet. But I do think it’s time I got a bit more active in my pursuit to embrace the mystery of my faith. Time to remove my self-made cross, lift my gaze away from my navel and up towards the One who calls me deeper into the mystery, and always, always into Love. I think it’s time that I allowed the God of all Creation to put some skin on my belief that in the eternal Yes of Christ Jesus there is room for all of our maddening contradictions, all of our unknowns as we continue wrestle in the ‘now, and not yet’. And I want to wrestle, dwell and make room in the eternal Yes which has made room for even the most conservative of my sisters and brothers – and even for me.
* * *
But oh, how hard this can be to put into practice. Even this morning, as I saw someone share hateful views online in the name of evangelical Christianity, making my stomach churn, I reacted in my usual way – angry, disbelieving, writing them off – shutting down the conversation. And it was only as the wind whipped through my hair during my morning cycle that the dust could settle – and I remembered what it means to embrace the mystery. It is a willingness to uncross my arms and keep them open – even if it is the last thing I feel like doing. A willingness to lay aside my arrogance and engage in dialogue. Lord, have mercy.
To be clear, do I think it is right and needed as the Body of Christ to hold each other to account, to speak up for what we believe is not right, to champion the cause of the marginalised? Absolutely. Hurtful, misinformed views in the name of our God should not go unchallenged.
But perhaps embracing, wrestling with the mystery of our faith means listening as much as – or perhaps more than – talking. Of setting down my self-made cross, instead asking Holy Spirit to come into and transform those hard edges of arrogance around my own beliefs. Wrestling and not letting go – because we are in this for the long haul. Recognising that as broken and redeemed people of God, we are all scrabbling, all with our own baggage, all searching within the mystery – all right sometimes and all wrong sometimes.
Oh Lord, grant me the tenacity and the humility to embrace the mystery while remaining deeply rooted in Love.
May we embrace the mystery in a way which creates more room for others to wrestle, to grapple. May we be people who pull down fences, pull up chairs and remember that we sit at this Table not because we have the right answers or the right theology but because, oh the mystery, the One who invites us bids us come as we are. Me and the Southern Baptist alike.
So for this morning, I am find myself on my knees, remembering some of the most treasured words which are often used in the Eucharist – an invitation from Christ to His raggedly imperfect, His beautiful, His redeemed:
Come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for some time,
you who have tried to follow and you who are weary of trying.
Come, it is Christ who invites you to meet Him here.