Well, this is depressing, and so is this. The first is Ligonier’s State of Theology, which is bad by all accounts, and the second is that Jonathon Merritt piece about how much harder it is to talk about matters of faith than ever before. Both are the inevitable slow atrophying of a muscle that hasn’t in decades been properly exercised. And when you put it together with this—the rise of what some are calling expressive individualism—it is really no wonder.
I must say, though, I haven’t lately been too badly affected by the second piece—the one about it being harder and harder to talk about matters of faith. This is due to a decision I took a few years ago to correct my own faulty character. Like so many, the worst thing that can ever happen to me is to be embarrassed. I feel humiliated all the time, even when nothing humiliating is going on. The very act of breathing in and out and having to talk to other people is the worst. Make those other people strangers and I want to recede into the darkness of my own soul and never climb out again. If I were to define my own expressive individualism, it would be one of gently always wanting to die.
So really, what have I got to lose? Sometimes I answer that question one way—everything—and sometimes I answer it another way—nothing whatsoever. Also, I live in the northeast, the land of gray parking lots and gray skies, of people shuffling around in salt encrusted coats, driving the pockmarked roads in rusty cars, of economic and spiritual depression, of disappointment and the vague sense that someone is about to, or has just, offended you.
The other day, for example, I was staring up at an unexpected and glorious sunset, and I lifted up my stupid phone to take a picture, and at the same time didn’t see that someone else was standing in the street, right in the way of my lens, and that that person thought I was trying to photograph him and that I must think he had no right to be there. But he was with two anxious looking women, which gave me courage, and when I realized what was happening I ran and flung myself at the tiny group. “I’m not photographing you!” I cried. “Look, look at the sky! Look!” They turned around and looked. “You don’t want us to be here,” said the man, aggrieved, unmoved by the streaks of scarlet piercing a blue dusk. “No,” I cried again. “You can be wherever you like! I was looking at the sky!” I turned to the woman to ask her if they were searching for some particular house, for they seemed confused, and therefore defensive. “Yes,” she said, and went on shakily to explain that someone had died, and that they were supposed to meet other members of the family there. No wonder they didn’t care to see the sky.
And so I leapt in with my now stock phrase, which I use all the time, combined with an awkward smile, because that is the other part of it—to try very hard to smile, even though nobody does and nobody, least of all me, wants to. “May God help you find the way,” I stumbled along, “I will pray for your whole family and for this terrible time.” The woman thanked me. I grasped her arm. She gasped mine.And if you are wondering about my anxiety, or the man’s defensiveness, and the potential terrible offense of taking a picture, it was because I am a short white person, and the people I rushed up to grasp a hold of were African American, and we were on the very precipice of completely misunderstanding each other.
But this wasn’t the first decision moment. It came after two years of desperate and often unfruitful practice. The moment of decision came for me when four small children wandered into church one day alone. They sat in the back row and made a ruckus. Various people tried to sit with them and get them to be quieter, to go down to children’s chapel or anything, to offer them crayons and paper. They squirreled around for a while and then decided to leave. And I, taking my heart in my hands, followed them into the narthex, caught them, knelt on the floor with them, and asked them if I could tell them something before they went. They looked skeptical but obliged me nonetheless.
And the thing that I told them, as plainly and clearly as I could, was that if they were ever in trouble they should call out for Jesus who is God and who gave his very own life for them. “Go home,” I said, “and if you want to know more, come back.” Two months later they came back, and now they come back every Thursday, though only very very rarely on Sunday morning. They ride the wheelchairs up and down the hallway, shouting, spilling juice on the floor and driving everyone crazy. They come, uninvited usually, into my Sunday school room and I relent and read bible stories to them and we pray and they break all my stuff and smear paint and glue everywhere.
The best thing you can say to anyone, in the grocery line, at the gas station, in the parking lot, in the street, is a blessing. May God give the answer. May God make a way. May God give the health. May God relieve the pain. And to smile, which is very hard for someone like me who never smiles at anyone, ever.
If you bring it up First Thing, in other words, with the very stranger, instead of waiting to feel comfortable, which you never will, and keep bringing it up…well, you won’t have very many conversations. Almost no one will come to church with you. You won’t suddenly be in the business of correcting bad theology or undermining the individualistic expressive spirit of the age. You will go to bed at night in the usual disconsolate way, depressed about the news and about how awkward every single human relationship is, and lonely and unbelieving that God can do anything or even wants to.
But you will build, for yourself, the muscle of opening your mouth and saying the name of the One most reviled, of trying to sound out the invisible and humiliating verity that God, even in the midst of the street, of the mind, of the sorrow, is there, that he can do something, that he can draw to himself those who are running so desperately away from him. You won’t enjoy yourself, but then, that is not the point. The point is not to express yourself or feel any happiness at all, it is to cry out, aloud, like wisdom, whether anyone is listening or not, to point beyond and away from yourself, to tether yourself irrevocably to the Truth, the only one whose name has any power, in every circumstance, to save.