Introduction- Part 2

 

“One must bear the burden of reality with all its crushing weight.”

– Jon Sobrino


Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino believes that the mystery and glory of God is revealed in the poor, the oppressed, the destitute. To the extent that this is true, and to the extent that identifying with the poor is to bear the burden of reality with all its crushing weight, I wonder to what extent I am truly bearing this “burden of reality.”  Or perhaps, if I were to attempt to quantify it, what percentage would it be? 10% maybe? 5%? On a good day–or especially crushing day–maybe 25%?


There are days when I feel I am in The Truman Show–or The Kelsi Show rather.  Screaming and fighting for reality to break through. Screaming and fighting for that voice of truth within that tells me something isn’t right; things feel too light, too sunny. Things occur in neat, disconnected dispensations that seem a little too portion controlled, a little too refined and polished, and I wonder, what happened to the grit of reality? I know it’s there; I just don’t come across it very often, and that scares me. It makes my soul ache. Out of sight, out of mind?


But the thing is, Christ who became poor so that we could become the riches of God (2 Cor. 8:9) tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  So really, the “crushing weight” of identifying with him in his poverty and identifying with those with whom he identified is actually liberating weight. It’s freedom. It’s the understanding that we are designed to bear this “burden of reality,” and when we don’t, we are cheating ourselves–and others–of experiencing this light and easy burden. 


In the Introduction to Consuming Jesus, Metzger discusses an article published in Portland’s Willamette Week titled, “The J.Crew: Meet Portland’s Evangelicals” (p.4). The reporter, Zach Dundas, discusses not surprisingly the commercialism and paraphernalia of the Christian life: DVDs, strip-mall churches, Sea of Galilee-sized parking lots, Christian romance literature, etc.  Dundas’ article is a sincere attempt to understand the evangelical movement, especially given the major role it played in the re-election of President Bush in 2004 and the passing of the ballot measure that resulted in banning same-sex marriage.

 

Metzger takes special note of the Willamette Week writer’s observation that one is “more likely to find a state-of-the-art sound system than a handcrafted altar” (p. 5), then goes on to talk about the prominence of the coffee bar in many of these churches and the neglect of the altar or table. Coffee bars and stone altars and tables have symbolic meaning. The former connotes “pleasure and leisure (good things in their own right);” the latter connotes “joy through suffering: the bloody grapes of wrath have become a river of life” (p.5). Sound systems replacing stone altars represents a similar shift: impressive performance, but a decrease in the symbolic reconciliation and humility that stone altars and tables provide for the congregation every Sunday, reminding us of what our Christ did for us (which of course we should be continually reminded of, not just on Sundays). I think this speaks volumes of the shift that is taking place in churches today: consumer comfort is sneakily taking precedent over the vision of what these altar tables represent.

 

Metzger raises a question, in light of this dominant voice among evangelicals that Dundas explored in the article: “…how effective has the movement been in engaging human suffering, including race and class divisions in the church and society?” (p.5)


My guess? uhhh, not very. At least not lately. Metzger gives worthy, much needed acknowledgment that evangelicals have, in the past, played key roles in addressing social evils, such as the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and the United States (p. 7). This further supports why his concern for the evangelical church is “not the angry and cynical attack of an outsider; rather, it is the criticism of one who loves the evangelical church’s historic values of piety and holistic outreach and mission, but one who longs for reform” (p. 7).  This is a compassionate, empathetic, sober love–the kind of love that is imperative to have as Christ’s body. 

 

Because of the disconnect between theology and practice, I often feel like the church is trying to convince or remind Christians that there are indeed “missional” opportunities–real needs and places to go and show Christ’s love. But it’s as if the church is describing another land, another reality that the congregation doesn’t see, hear, or touch. Like the preacher is shaking one of those snow globes in our faces, and describing the darkness and details and this “far off land” to which we must embark. I often feel like I’m in an incubator as a full time Seminary student, being equipped to bring light to the “big, bad” world out there–once I have my diploma in hand and a theology which has “conquered” and “mastered” that esoteric realm of divinity. A degree which states that I now have the biggest questions in life mastered. But that is so wrong to me on so many levels. Jesus didn’t raise up disciples in some manicured, disinfected school, apart from “the others.” Jesus didn’t protect his disciples and teach them theories and methods and hypothetical responses to “real life” situations. They all–Jesus and his crew–were in the MIDST of society–the pain, the suffering, the angst, the confusion, the NEED.  They didn’t sit in a classroom, discussing how good their God is and go home, dreaming of the day they would actually embark, leaving their safe island and daring to make–albeit awkward, unnatural, and inexperienced–contact with the “rest” of the world. I by no means am dissing the Seminary experience, but I am arguing it takes conscientious, intentional, and renewed effort to be in community, relation, and real engagement with those outside “the bubble.” 


This is what frustrates me, and I believe this is why the students at Reed College (p.8) gave Dr. John M. Perkins a standing ovation in 2001 when he told the real, raw story of the consuming love of Jesus manifested in his life, even after he was beaten within an inch of his life for the color of his skin and the courage of his convictions. He didn’t tell a story of saving souls, or converting people, convincing a body of thinking, critical, intelligent individuals that his way was better than theirs. He told a story about a love that exceeded the depths of his soul. A love that didn’t stop at staring at the hate in the demonic eyes staring down at him as he was beaten, but a love that blazed through that hate and could only have compassion on these individuals wreaking of hatred. A love that bred grace and justice and mercy. A love that was and is REAL. A love that experiences. A love that embraces the challenges, the injustices. A love that fights the oppressive system, and a love that overcame humiliation, suffering, and prejudice. The Reed students saw something REAL in Dr. Perkins. Not a person masquerading as enlightened because he has this Jesus fellow in his heart. Not a man who pointed fingers and ostracized. But rather a man who lay on his back, with a fork shoved in his nose and down his throat, who tasted the compassion that Jesus tasted. A man who ached out of this thing called love. 


That’s what we crave, no? I don’t want to be in an incubator. I don’t want to be one of those babies that has a weak immune system because I’ve been isolated my whole life. I don’t want to go out into this world, an alien to the pain and suffering that permeates humanity to its very core. I want to lie there, on my back, staring hatred and division in its stone cold eyes. And when I do that, I don’t want to squeeze my eyes shut. I want to stare back, the love of Christ burning its way through those scared, hateful eyes. 


I fear that Christians today are being raised up in incubators, completely terrified and unaware of the very real and very grave injustices and oppression which comprise this world. I fear that we are being taught to accept and not question. To swallow but not chew. And if we do hear of the alleged oppression, slavery, injustice, and racism, it is implied that it is “not ours to deal with,” not our problem, and certainly not something we perpetuate! I want to be able to question my faith, just as John the Baptist did while in prison. He questioned. And not only did he question, but Jesus honored that. Jesus honored his doubt, because he was doubting so that he could understand the truth. Questioning in order to truly understand is, I think, not only honorable but necessary. Truth has nothing to hide! I will examine this truth I profess. I will ask freaky questions, questions that I may or may not be ostracized for asking. I will sometimes wake up and think I’m a delusional nutcase for believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died, rose three days later, and who is miraculously the manifestation of God’s love for us. Who is our atonement. Who is our salvation. I will do this so that I will be able to press on with fear and trembling, so that I will draw near to my Creator for his gracious understanding, his mercy, his revelation.  I will do this so that the hard questions are answered. So that the beautiful mysteries are explored.


Just as it was not the religious elite who truly embraced Jesus’ pure and undefiled teaching, but rather the poor, the bottom rung on the social ladder, so I see the same pattern today (Matt. 21:16, Psalm 8:1). While those of us who are full time seminarians or in full time ministry have our morning “quiet times” with “our Lord,” I see the danger in being the religious elite, who are rejecting Christ’s teachings and only fooling ourselves that we are truly following after him. Meanwhile, it is often the weary, the oppressed, the silenced who dare to see the liberating Christ in his glory. Who dare to see him in his mercy and all-consuming love and power. I fear we miss out on that because we are so busy doing “our” ministry and teaching others about “our” religion within our comfort zones.


I guess the question I’m grappling with is, why is it that so often our “reality” is only our immediate surroundings? Those hungry, stoned, and weary in the city dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, competing with vultures and cows for scraps of food in the mountains of waste are just as real as seminary students, teachers, lawyers, painters, or supermarket clerks. Their pains are as real as our pains. Their tears are hot and salty, just like ours. Their minds wander before they go to sleep about the upcoming day just like ours do.  They hiccup and sneeze and laugh and fear just like us. And my deep, deep sorrow, due to our extreme isolation, detachment, and division from “them” is that they are not as real. Their pain is not as legit. Their eyes are not as clear. They are sort of “half-way” human.


This is not the heart of Christ. This is tragic.

 

The Reed College students applauded the reality, the compassion, the very truths that were screamingly obvious in Perkins’ life. They were applauding a life of Jesus Christ. But no doubt if one would have articulated it this way to them (hey, let’s give a big round of applause to Jesus!), they would have quit clapping.  This only reinforces the tragic disconnect that exists between the genuine love of Christ and the church. The Church truly is a whore, but man, we must tend to her because she is the one to whom Christ has chosen to reveal his love and compassion.  But if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.  This truly is life or death we are talking about. What is stifling and silencing the compassion of Christ? Dare I, dare I say, in many ways, the church herself?  And I bear responsibility, because I am part of this broken but beautiful church.


Steven Spielberg, in response to his resigning as artistic advisor for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing because of China’s involvement with the tragic oppression and crimes being committed in Darfur, said: “I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue business as usual.”  Although resigning from the church is not an option-my identity is bound to this church and it exists within and through me- I can repent and respond redemptively, thanking God, and so can you.


My prayer is that, as the heartbeat and conscience of the church, we throw out the “business as usual” structures.  I pray that we dare–with creativity, sincerity and responsibility–to grasp ahold of the lives among us and across the world from us, and allow them to grasp ahold of us as well, in the name of the all-encompassing, loving Christ who knows no division in his body. 

 

5 Responses to “Introduction- Part 2”

  1. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    Shattering…I know I fear the looks of those hateful eyes. More and more I fear the look of my own eyes and the hate they hold,veven worse the indifference I believe you when you say that you love the Church. I think we all do in various ways. I love it, it helped bring me home, it broke my heart and offered me a place to recover, to heal, to repent and to meet my Maker. It is true however that in our consumeristic culture we have turned the Church into an “incubator” that mass produces little weak babies, same size, height, weight, color, capacity. How does our Church fit me, I left that incubator never to return and developed a fairly ridiculous immune system, to press the metaphor. I feared, and rightly, that that same incubator couldn’t hold me and when it did, when Christ reconciled me, diseased and all I was set free. Does the Church make this business as usual, the reconiliation and redemption of people whose disease has marred them? I have experienced it, thank God, and I would hope to offer it to others in and outside the Church. I am not convinced though that churches strive to send their children out of the incubator but gleefully satisfy them into passivity so they’ll never desire to leave it. I know you want to have your eyes opened but this isn’t the way most people are, they want to close their eyes, their ears, their hands and be tucked in. When I returned to Christianity after having been away for over seven years I not only had my eyes opened, ( I once was blind but now I see) I straight up had my eyelids torn off. I saw firstly my own sin, my own love of sin, and even now my still strong desire to run from God. I was then shown the greatness of God and his power and the greatness of the principalities and powers that he battles incessantly on our behalf. He knows that we are “screaming and fighting for that voice of truth within that tells me something isn’t right; things feel too light, too sunny” and he frees us to both see the reality of His love that only becomes more magnificent and beautiful in light of “the very real and very grave injustices and oppression which comprise this world”. I wish the Church would no longer use its walls to look away from those powers but teach us to look through them to truth because it is the truth and “love that blazed through hate”. Did Christ atone, is He victorious, or do we have much to hide from in this world, is that what the coffee bars in our churches do, hide us? Give us success to veil our failures. To cloak the childs shattered hands in white kidd gloves. I can’t hide. I know that for some of us, we would if we could. I’ll admit to it. If it were up to me I would choose the sunny reality, I still catch myself hoping for it. Christ won’t let me, I have no eyelids. Neither should the Church, if it doesn’t open its eyes it will have them taken off.

  2. Kelsi Johns Says:

    mmm amen. We need our eyelids ripped off in order to take in the awe inspiring, earth shattering love of Christ that begs to be seen. I love that but I hate how little I open up to absorb that love and compassion of Christ. It’s mind blowing to think how much love there is to go around, and how little we let it. But Christ is the only only way to access that love, and that is beautifully reassuring to me.

  3. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    What if we did open our eyes? What if we let Him in? We talked today about the contracts we try to eke out of Christ. I know that as a child Christ was the fix it, one part of a pie with me at the center. And as a “born again” I used him to attain the plans I had set up for myself. Those plans are quickly fading away, replaced by new ones. The new plans are ones I am still not certain I want to go through with, they scare me; His love scares me. It called me so far from what I had wanted. He wouldn’t leave me my contracts. I am getting a bunch of stuff I never wanted to want and desperate for more.
    The Church offers contracts, we call for contracts. Just like me the Church wanted contracts and instead is given covenantal love. We’re getting things we never wanted to want. He will press us into covenants, He’ll take no less. This press is loving; always out of a desire to commune with Us. We use the Church and its people to attain our individual aspirations but He won’t leave us there. Try as we might, He will not be contractual. His covenantal love breaks us and makes us desire the strangest things. Intimacy, mercy, reconciliation. I often wonder if I would ever have become a Christian if I had thought it would cost me so much, if I had known I would become this desperate for Him. I thought I was just going to be made right. And now I can’t help it, He’s captured me. Will the Church forego their contracts not knowing where His covenantal love will take it? I hope I do; I hope I let it go. I hope that I can deal with never getting what I thought I was entitled to, what I had worked for, what I thought was life itself. If we as the Church let go of our contracts, of our desire to consume our members it will cost a lot; it will make us desperate for Him. But in its place is His covenantal love and brotherly union. Can we afford it? Can we afford not to?

  4. Ross Halbach Says:

    This well-constructed short novel . . . I mean blog post . . . provokes many questions. One being: Can we really escape or insulate ourselves from ‘the burden of reality’? Or, is anyone void of suffering? I would argue, no. An escape to bliss from suffering is a myth. Let us look at Seminaries for example; they seem to be sterile incubators designed for growth, right? However, anyone who has been there knows they are filled with hurting, broken people facing divorce, depression, debt, etc. No, they may not be suffering like those living in the city dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, but in many ways the same ‘burden of reality’ faces seminarians—connecting them to those in Honduras and beyond.

    Maybe it is insulting to try to compare seminary burdens with those who are suffering of starvation, I tend to think so. But, my point is not a comparison of suffering, but a common thread that knits us together. Are we not all trying to escape suffering with no avail (although with different means)? Has the new generation finally unlocked the truth on this universal burden? This leads to my next question.

    Second question: Is the emerging church avoiding their own burdens by taking on the worlds? This is a question for me. I have a superman complex. I think I can save the world at times. It’s ‘cool’ to help the materially poor in slums, but what about the spiritually poor in wealthy churches?

    It is interesting, I think, that while the emerging churches hearken for reconciliation, often they have created further segregation by breaking away from the traditional churches they grew up in. The church is certainly a whore, but as Augustine said, ‘it is still my mother!’ Yet, haven’t we in the emerging church, in ways, run away from home? Haven’t we, to some extent, denied our parents? Does this break our hearts? This is our (us emergents) ‘burden of reality’. Can we fix the world and not our own family? Or is the world going to be healed outside the church—Christ’s one body, the universal church?

  5. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    Ross, I find your last two paragraphs really good, and in a lot of ways the direction that I’ve been thinking lately. If we are emphasizing reconciliation but are not seeking ways that we can maintain connection and relationship with the traditional church, we aren’t really doing a very good job of living reconciliation.

    And by this, I don’t mean necessarily trying to reconcile with every wingnut that attacks us for being heretics because we think that social action is needed alongside salvation, or because we aren’t modernists. But I do think we need to maintain connection with the traditional church (I think it needs to be broader than just traditional protestant churches too). I just wonder sometimes if the reformer gets run out of the thing that needs reformed because people don’t want to be challenged by sacrifice.

    So if we are branching out, it must always be a branching out for the sake of the health of the church. For instance, it is always easier for church plants to lead the way on things that need to be changed. And many times it won’t be until the younger(by this I mean age of church, not congregants) churches show that things can and should be done differently that the older churches will come around. This requires though that those branching out are also seeking the good of the already existing churches rather than just their own good.

    What I think is profound about you asking about us trying to take on the world’s burdens is that it makes me think we want to play savior without being saved. One of the things that I really appreciate about Metzger is that he gets this and points that it’s only by our being saved and having God’s love poured out on us that we can pour out love for others.

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