“I can assure you: there isn’t anything very dignified about giving birth. And yet, that was the moment when I felt my carefully constructed line between the sacred and the secular shatter once and for all. The sacred and holy moments of a life are often our most raw, our most human moments, aren’t they? I could preach on a street corner for days about the metaphors of birth and surrender. I could write pages of poetry for the braided strength of pain and creation and surrender, of the potency of loving. But we keep it quiet, the mess of the incarnation – particularly at Christmas – because it’s just not churchy enough,and many don’t quite understand. It’s personal,private, and there just aren’t words for it – and it’s a bit too much. It’s too much pain, too much waiting, too much humanity, too much God, too much work, too much joy or sorrow, too much love, and far too messy with too little control. And sometimes it does not go the way we thought it was supposed to go, and then we are left with questions, with deep sadness, empty arms after all of the waiting – with sadness unto death for the longing of a life. My entire concept of God shifted through the experience of pregnancy, loss, carrying babies, birth –all of it left my brain and my life and my theology to catch up with what my soul now knew deep in the center: God as Abba. I caught a glimpse behind the veil of His Father-Mother heart, and I drank deep. No theologian or countercircumstance experience can take away what I know, what many mothers the world over know in their heart of hearts about loss, sacrifice, pain, and birth, raising babies to life, and real transformation: it is Love, and it is sacred in its very messy living out…There are so many stories in our churches –and I am not so proud and ridiculous as to think I am unique or that birth is the only experience that brings this kind of transcendent change. We can all testify to how God met us in our lives.”
(From: Jesus Feminist: An Invitation To Revisit The Bible’s View Of Women, Chapter 7: A Narrative Reborn, by Sarah Bessey)
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like,he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.”
(Romans 8:22-30, MSG)
I’m not exactly sure what it was about Sarah Bessey’s words that made me start thinking about my own relationship with God, or about relationships with God in general, but they certainly got me to thinking. Given I’ve never had any of my own children or even desired to have my own children, we wouldn’t think that an entire narrative about birth and the travails therein would speak to me on a spiritual level…but they did.
I think what it was about Sarah Bessey’s words is the raw way in which she brought humanity into our relationship with God in a manner that wasn’t the way we usually hear it. Many times, we talk about our humanity as if it is an excuse to avoid doing the right thing. We are quick to blame our sins, our faults, our obvious failings that are our own – on the fact that we are human. I don’t believe this is the way we need to develop a greater understanding of our humanity in order to better our faith, because it’s not bettering our faith. We are quick to excuse ourselves, excuse ourselves from pain or loss, excuse ourselves from doing the right thing,excuse ourselves from getting angry when we need to be angry and being sad when we need to be sad in the name of humanity, in the name of faith, in the name of everything except what we should be doing, thinking, feeling, or yes, acting upon. We conveniently put on our faith and our humanity at whim, to disguise ourselves with the dignity, un-messy realities (anything to keep from living life, right)? Anything to keep us from getting to a place where our relationship with God signifies our surrender to Him and it causes us to reach a point where we feel…uncomfortable.
We talk about hating mess…but I think the truth is, in church today, we’re just not getting messy enough. We aren’t getting to the point where we actually feel the mess…deal with the mess…hold the mess to us and say yes, this hurts, yes, this is hard, so we can come to terms with it. Instead, we gloss it over with cushy, comfortable teaching about not feeling, not letting anything bother us, not dealing with or confronting things or people in this life, and just feeling…nothing.
I attended a church service a few months back at what I would define as a comfortable, seeker-friendly church. There are plenty of reasons to want to attend that church. They have a full coffee bar and continental breakfast assortment upon walking in. The atmosphere when the music is played is akin to the feeling you might have at a rock concert: dark, lights on the stage, a vivid visual graphic delight to sing along with the song lyrics. The pastor allows people to call him by his first name as he stands up there in jeans and tells stories that entertain,albeit, they don’t teach much. Upon going in the service, there was a man outside, smoking his last cigarette before going into the service. When service was over, that same man was out there, smoking his first cigarette after service. All of that begged the question to me: where is the point at which faith, God, and all of these things starts to get uncomfortable? In striving so hard to make an atmosphere by which people are comfortable enough to come,people keep going because it means they don’t have to change. They hear about the love of God, that God wants the best for them, that God wants them to be happy, but they don’t hear about how to handle life, to handle relationships, how to handle the times with God when they don’t feel good about what they are going through or what to do when what God asks of them is hard. They don’t learn about relationship, because relationship is too uncomfortable and too messy.
I’ve often taught that all relationships are built upon certain dynamics, and those dynamics are either healthy or unhealthy. What I have found since I first formulated that theory is that most relationships aren’t either-or, they are both-and. Most of us come into relationships with issues that haunt us, people who hurt us or situations that somehow taught us, and that all relationships have both healthy and unhealthy dynamics within them, working side by side, as one set of complications,thoughts, feelings, and beliefs bounces off the other. Relationships – whether husbands and wives,brothers and sisters, friends, family members, sometimes even leaders and followers – are messy. They are filled with good times and bad, joys, sorrows, hurts, healings, victories, defeats,moments of weakness and dependency, and moments of strength and independence. The point of relationship, however, just as the point in birth, is life.
We don’t seem to want to admit this today, however. We think that if we are only in a state of nothingness, one akin to being on Prozac, that we’ve achieved some state of bliss or spiritual perfection in our lives. If you listen to the teaching all-too-many people preach today, we aren’t supposed to have any feelings. We’re never supposed to be angry (too many teach that to be a sin when there is such a thing as righteous anger), we’re never supposed to be sad or hurt, we’re never supposed to feel anything except this vague concept of “fine” that makes it so nobody has to reach out to us and we don’t have to reach out to God.
Today we do teach a relationship with God, but it’s a dysfunctional one. It’s one based on denial and distance, where we acknowledge God as our Father only for the things about parenthood that make us feel “fine”: protection, distance, giving of things, comfort. We don’t discuss the aspects of parenthood that help socialize children: discipline, structure,experience, respect for authority. We don’t get down and dirty with God, dealing with Him, ourselves, our situations to the point where we need to change.
Let’s never forget that God wants us to get to a place where we are real with Him, just as real as we are in any of our relationships. Spiritual birth is messy,too. Eternal life is still life. As we can see in the verses above from Romans 8, we are, right now, experiencing a part of eternity that is not particularly blissful. We are dealing with the groans, the travail, the waiting, the hard work, the enlargement (that if you ask any pregnant woman, is not particularly comfortable), the pains, the anticipation. In your relationship with God, you are going to have times where you feel things toward Him that you would feel toward anyone else you are in a relationship with. You are going to have times when you are angry, sad, mad, hurting, confused, unsure, and yes, even your doubts. Some of what God is going to ask you to do –if you are truly hearing from Him – is going to hurt, some it hurt so much, you don’t know how you are going to get through it. Some of it will change you into someone you didn’t even know existed,and some of it will turn you into a better version, a better understanding of where you’re at. Every prayer we pray to God is not going to sound profound and elegant – some of it will be with yelling, some of it with tears, and yes, some with joy – but I think we need to remember that God is big enough for the different transformations, feelings,and experiences we will have in our journey with Him.
We’re trying too hard to buck against the mess. Maybe we need to embrace the mess. We need to embrace life, once again, and all its difficulties. I am reminded of Madeline L’Engle’s words, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot become sacred, and this is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” If we want God to transform our secular, our everyday, our ordinary, and turn it around for our good, we need to embrace all that we are and all that is for us. Some of it will need to change, but some ofit will simply be transformed. Whatever it is, we need to stop pretending it’s not there and start offering it up to God, along with everything we think is fun or desirable. We need to stop fearing pain and loss, grief,hurt, anger, and accept the good along with the bad in life. God desires us to have a whole experience,one that lets us know when we need to change, when we need to keep going, and one where we are not so sanitized that we can’t step in and get our hands dirty when someone else is in a state of need, as well.
In thinking of the principle of the Incarnation, I think about how much we have sanitized that aspect of life because the concept of the Word made flesh makes us uncomfortable. We want the image of Jesus, glowing in a manger, as Mary and Joseph sit around and glow, too, in His presence. We want to think of the nice, sweet-smelling hay, the animals breathing as the angels sang “Away in a Manger.” We want the birth of Jesus to be a Christmas card…not the reality of a pregnant woman making a long, hot, and unsafe journey to register for a census,only to get dumped in a barn and give birth in unsanitary, uncomfortable conditions. We don’t want to see the face of Jesus, the face of being unwanted and rejected, in the faces of people who are being unjustly killed by so-called authority figures, we don’t want to seethe infant Jesus in babies who are sick or abandoned, or the heart of Jesus in someone who is homeless and, therefore, also has nowhere to lay his or her head. We don’t want to realize that the face of Jesus is all around us, the reality that the Word made flesh is still among us, calling us to look around, to confront our own issues and help others confront theirs, and to challenge the comforts that people build around themselves in the hopes that they will no longer have to feel…life.
Once again, we are at a time of year when people remember when Jesus came into the world the first time. In looking at this time of year, we need to look deeper, look at the secular and see the sacred therein, see the relationship we need to have with God and the transformative touch we need as we birth into eternity this side of heaven. Let’s stop making relationship some sort of super-spiritual thing and realize it’s life. God is here for us to have life. Let’s shatter the ceiling between the sacred and the secular, and start living lives that embrace both unto the end of our growth and realization.
(c) 2014 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.