I spent over a decade doing youth ministry and have worked most of my career with persons in their teens, 20s, and 30s. Minus the creepy overtones, I resonate with that horrific line spoken by Matthew McConaughey as he gazes at a group of high school girls in Dazed and Confused (1993), “I get older, they stay the same age.”
One of my most valued practices in working with younger persons is what I called “the ten year rule”. I never wanted to have a former student or person that I had served meet me ten years later and say, “You lied to me.” A commitment to truth telling in regards to the gospel and the narrative of God’s work in this world drove me to avoid, if at all possible, future encounters that included variations of the following statements:
I haven’t found that ‘Jesus endorsed’ partner you promised.
I didn’t make more sense just because I got older.
It didn’t always get better. In fact, it often seems so incredibly unfair.
Following Jesus actually made my life harder and more complicated.
I haven’t always found a “peace” in my choices or a “purpose” in my disappointments.
God has not always been close to me regardless of how I have lived my life.
And there were so many enticements to encourage theological naiveté or ignorance. It was always so tempting to lie. Simple truisms are such an easy way out of encounters filled with honest, painful, and complex questions. There was so much pressure as a pastor to offer these simplicities. I often felt (in reflection, accurately so) that I was on the brink of rebuke or termination due to a refusal to ‘make it better’ and more simple.
The Tragedy of the Gospel
There is certainly a tragic narrative that runs powerfully through the historical, ecclesial, traditional, biblical, and personal narratives of God’s work in this world. I am forever grateful to a friend who recommended Frederick Buechner’s classic Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. When I read it for the first time of many, I immediately wondered, ‘why haven’t I read this before.’ One of his wonderfully crafted premises is that one can barely sense or see the “comedy” of the gospel (its joy, its realizations large and small of redemption or hope) without first embracing and experiencing the “tragedy” of the gospel.
The tragedy of the gospel is the pronounced absence of God in moments when a loving, good, and/or powerful God would logically be present. It is Naomi telling Ruth to call her “Mara” (bitterness) because Ruth’s decision to enter Israel would be to surely join a long dialogue of pain by a wounded people with their God. It is a heartbroken Jesus at Lazarus’ deathbed, his profound loneliness at Gethsemane, and his abject despair on Golgotha.
According to Buechner, Jesus felt the magnitude of this tragedy as he joined the bitter grief for his friend Lazurus:
Jesus sheds his tears at the visible absence of God in the world where the good and bad alike go down to defeat and death. He sheds his tears at the audible silence of God at those moments especially when a word from him would mean the difference between life and death…
He offered this description of Jesus’ greatest moment of tragedy:
[A]t the moment of all moments when he needs [God] most he cries Eloi Eloi which a cry so dark that of the four evangelists, only two of them have the stomach to record it as the last word he spoke while he still had a human mouth to speak with. Jesus wept, we all weep, because even when man is good, even when he is Jesus, God makes himself scarce for reasons that no theodicy has ever fathomed.
Last week, the advent text of Isaiah 64 (Advent 1B) invited us into the depth of this tragedy. Israel has returned from exile to find a mean existence — a religion without its glorious temple, a city without walls, and a small island of peoplehood in a sea of racial hatred. The people beg “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… for you have hidden your face from us.” They are at the scant mercy of their adversaries (“make your name known to your adversaries”). They try confession, “we have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth,” and settle on childlike pleas, “do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.”
Killer Mike and “Free Hugs”
In the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO, many of us heard similarly urgent and broken pleas. Hip-hop artist Killer Mike (Michael Render), in a passionate and eloquent monologue before a show, made his despair so very transparent. His echoing lament (“you m—–f—–‘ers got me today, you kicked me on my ass today”) serves as chorus marking the historical disappointment and despair for the vulnerable in our society. That same week, the internet lit up with the image of a weeping boy in Oregon at a demonstration against police violence offering “free hugs” and accepting the entreaty of a police officer with a sustained and tearful embrace.
Any journey to see or experience the hope or ‘comedy’ of the gospel must emanate from tragedy. Buechner, in the same text, wrote, “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” The advent journey may end in light, but it begins in darkness. Buechner later explained that, from the perspective of God’s infinite love, the comic is assured:
The comedy of God’s saving the most unlikely people when they least expect it, the joke in which God laughs with [humanity] and [humanity] with God — I believe that is what is inevitable.
For some of us, due to simple privilege and luck, it is impossible to imagine ourselves as “the most unlikely people” to be rescued. From our perspective, we only deserve more of God’s attention and a grander escape. This is the entitlement and insensitivity that keeps us out of the beautiful joke. When Killer Mike cries, “you m—–f——‘ers got me today, you kicked me on my ass today,” he is engaging in the most vulnerable form of truth telling. He is naming and joining the tragedy of an absent God in an unjust world that unforeseeably ends in comedy. These are the first and perhaps most important steps of Advent.