In the marvelous little book “I Quit”, Geri Scazzero writes, “once you end the pretense of superficiality and ‘niceness’ that characterizes so much of the Christian culture today, you will experience liberation, freedom, and a genuine body life that is truly a taste of the kingdom of heaven”.
The single little paragraph explodes with important truths for me and, I hope, for you too:
1. Superficiality and Pretense are woven into Christian culture. It’s not just Christians, of course, who are guilty of such, but we are guilty. We love the resurrection and all that comes on the far side of death, betrayal, loss, and sweating drops of blood, but I’m convinced that many Christians still don’t believe there’s room for these other critical elements. Somehow, conventional wisdom fixates on joy, strength, and an almost godlike transcendence which believes that, come what me, Christians rise above it all because we’ve been taught that good Christians don’t get tired, or angry, or afraid – that good Christians don’t weep or come to the end of it, or the bottom of it.
The result is that we spend a great deal of energy putting on the strong and happy face, like so much make up. Sing louder, say our mantras about being able to do everything, even though our adrenal glands are exhausted, and we’re not sleeping well, and we’re overwhelmed with children, or aging parents, or the loneliness of being single, or maybe even all of it at once. I write, in my book on spiritual disciplines, about a moment when my wife was weeping as she led the song “I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart…He has made me glad” in our little house church in the mountains, and how people kept singing until someone pointed out that “she doesn’t look very glad at all just now”, which was an astute observation. It led to a real conversation about feeling overwhelmed, and tired, and angry. And that, I’d suggest in retrospect, led to real worship because it was worship born out of brokenness, and fear, and good conversation. This leads me to a second observation, which is that:
2. We must put an end to the superficiality. There’s only one way to do this. We need to become people who spend less time using slogans, and more time listening to what our own hearts and bodies are telling us. By ‘slogan’ I mean sayings like this: “I couldn’t be better” we say, when we slept terribly and our stomach’s in a knot. Or, “that’s OK” when the reality is that we’re terribly disappointed, or hurt, or angry because some convergence zone of our own story, and circumstances, and something someone said, all conspired to make us mad. But, since Christians can’t be angry, we deny what our emotions and body are telling us and lie, pretending all is well.
We need to stop doing this and when we do, we’ll find ourselves in good company. Abraham doubted. Moses reached the end of his limits and told God had rather die than continue in his ministry. Paul despaired even of life. John the Baptist doubted the Messiahship of Jesus at his lowest moment, arrested and forgotten in a dungeon as he was.
Just this weekend, I receive an e-mail from someone, and as I’m reading along I come to one particular sentence and for some reason it terrifies me. I feel my chest tighten, my breathing become labored, as fear rises up, followed quickly by some tears (which I, of course, fought to hold back). It’s all much too personal to share more in this venue… but with my wife sitting right there beside me, we both know this much: these emotions are valuable. God is trying to tell me something, to tell us something. To the extent that I’m able to acknowledge my fears of loss, my weariness, my disappointment, I’m able to be honestly present – with my wife, and God, and other close friends and family. That kind of honest presence, with myself and others is, I’m finding, the richest soil in which the seeds of wisdom can germinate. By my God – it’s hard to let myself be afraid, or weep, or express fear or even weariness. I’m learning, but it’s requiring me to swim upstream against the triumphalist Christian culture that is deeply embedded in me and others. It requires slowing down and listening to my own heart, and then giving that heart the freedom to express itself, knowing that even in, and perhaps especially in, my brokenness, I’m deeply loved.
3. The paradoxical end of this path: Joy Psalm 126:5 says it this way: They who sow in tears shall reap in joy and singing. There’s a reason for this. Far from being evil, emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and weariness are God’s way of speaking to us and drawing us to God so that we might find the resources we desperately need for our own ongoing transformation. Paul said that he despaired even of life, and then went on to say that it was this convergence of challenging circumstances that led him to new levels of dependence on Christ, new relinquishment of his own agenda, new exposure (no doubt) of his own false motives. Thank God he faced the valley with honesty, rather than simply turning up the praise music a little louder.
Pretense and superficiality were hacked to death in Rwanda during the genocide years in the mid-nineties, as the blood and bodies of the faithful clogged the rivers. But last January, while there, I witnessed the most beautiful worship I’ve ever seen. What made it beautiful was the uncontrived blend of tears and laughter, weeping and dancing, joy and sorrow – it was unscripted, honest, and beautiful.
To the extent that we’re able to say “I’m tired” or “I’m afriad”, or “I’m angry” or “I’m sad” we’re opening the door, just a crack, towards the kinds of authentic humanness that alone, can reflect God’s glory, receive God’s healing, and know God’s joy. May you weep today, and face your weariness, and name your fears, all as part of God’s joyful journey.