I picked up a book this week – Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask written by Tom Ehrich. An Episcopalian priest and writer, Erich collects questions from his weekly column readers. There are questions they might ask Jesus ‘from the roadside’ as Blind Bartimaues did. Ehrich then offers his own reflections. They are sort of meditations that flow naturally from the query. He is not shy about his opinion and writes with clarity in a no nonsense approach that is refreshing. No BS here, just honest opinions and frank theological dialogue from his lived experience as one of the baptised who happens to be a priest. It’s a good read.
This evening I was brought to a full stop on these words;
In my opinion, we must stop clinging to precedent and seamless hero stories. The life of Jesus was a messy journey, not a carefully constructed epic poem. He lived the way we live: one day at a time, one mistake at a time, one fresh discovery at a time. His hallmark wasn’t consistency, but submission.
It is tragic that Christians have had so little stomach for discovery and change. We have tended to stifle the entrepreneurial spirit. We look backward when we should look forward. We fight over old words when we should listen for fresh words. We emulate the ancient when we should engage with today’s reality.
To prevent change, we ignore certain needs, because seeing them would require reinvention. We marginalize certain people, because accepting them would require self-doubt. We make our fellowships shallow and safe, because depth would engender conflict and accelerate change.
Most vexing is that we have worn ourselves out on changes like liturgical renewal and reallocation of power, which were significant but not as deep as we needed to go. Now the world desperately needs us to go deeper, but we are too fragmented and exhausted to undertake the hard work of examining purposes and practices, which would be required before we could make a difference.
Vexed is a word we made good use of in Newfoundland. More than once I’ve been asked by a brother, sister, parent or friend, “Are you vexed,” or “Did I vex ya?” Not a word used a lot nowadays, but perhaps it’s time for a revival when it comes to our walk together as people of the way! We ought to be vexed. I read Ehrich in the above post a man who’s vexed. And why wouldn’t he be and why should we be vexed too?
We have sanitised the story of Jesus of Nazareth. We have painted Jesus meek and mild, serene and perfect. We have done so in our worship, our prayers, our hymnary, our theology and indeed in paintings themselves. But we know from the gospel stories themselves that the life of this Jewish cynic was not the life of Beaver Cleaver.
Perhaps if we could get vexed it might help. Sometimes a little contrariness is needed. I’m vexed that we have gentrified Jesus. I am vexed that we talk so so little about mistakes, missteps, anger, judgement, grief and fear when teaching, praying, and proclaiming about the life of Jesus whom we are called to emulate. It’s not that it’s not there. Consider his response to the Assyrian Woman, his response to the death of Lazarus, his plea to have the cup of suffering removed, his cleansing of the temple and on the story goes. Ehrich has said it plainly and better than I can, “He lived the way we live: one day at a time, one mistake at a time, one fresh discovery at a time. His hallmark wasn’t consistency, but submission.”
As a people of God, we need to find the stomach for discovery, for change, for uncertainty, for messiness and for deconstruction of the narratives that have informed our collective conscience. This requires us to be patient. It will mean being uncomfortable at times. It will mean feeling as though we are, at times, failing. It will mean fearing, at times, that we are lacking in what is needed. It will mean waiting, at times, for direction or redirection. It will mean suffering, at times, as we confess our own messiness. It will mean needing to, at times be merciful, as we learn about the pain and messiness of our companions on the journey. That work of deconstruction will itself be vexing at times. But I am convinced that the way forward for a church that has marginalised, excluded and ignored, is to seek to deconstruct that which has conned us into a comfortable shallowness for safety’s sake. This may be a painful but productive place. This is not a place for those with stomachs so weak that they cling to their certainty and pronouncements about orthodoxy as a drowning sailor clings to the remains of her capsized ship. For those who are obsessed with absolutes, the vexing work of deconstruction is too much. I remain hopeful that those who have engaged faith, might just be able to enter into the mess. In the rubble and mess that will no doubt surround us in that work we might, perhaps, see grace that can transform that which has been into a vision of what might be.
In her Revelations of Divine Love, St Julian of Norwich wrote:
“Grace transforms our failings full of dread into abundant, endless comfort … our failings full of shame into a noble, glorious rising … our dying full of sorrow into holy, blissful life. …. Just as our contrariness here on earth brings us pain, shame and sorrow, so grace brings us surpassing comfort, glory, and bliss in heaven … And that shall be a property of blessed love, that we shall know in God, which we might never have known without first experiencing woe.”
I’m vexed, and even a little contrary…. Given what I read about Jesus of Nazareth and those he surrounded himself with … I might be in good company!