We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
– C.S. Lewis –
The greatest painful grace that the Good Lord gave me was to pull evangelicalism out of my tightly clenched fingers.
I’m not saying it didn’t hurt. It hurt so badly. Death always does. Holy Saturday never feels holy. Living in the gap between the loss of our mud pies and the full view of the ocean can feel like dying by inches.
But what can you do, when the places you first saw God aren’t places you can go back to?
You see the loss as an invitation to be brave, and step towards something new. You go further up and further in.
I am reading Peter Enns with some people these days. He is very big into the idea that Scripture isn’t a book of rules, but a book of stories from people who met God. The Bible is a collection of stories from the people who left their mud pies, ran up the sand dune, saw the Ocean, and tried to tell us about it. My group that is reading Enns is motley and we’re all in different stages of deconstruction. Some of us feel defensive about the Bible, and then some of us are so tired of the Bible wars that we want to give up on the Bible altogether.
What’s the same, though, is that none of us chose the deconstruction process. We ended up here against our will, kicking and screaming and fighting deconstruction all the way. We ended up here because when you follow fundamentalism to the end, it doesn’t work – even if you wish that it did.
The explanations for Creationism get more and more bizarre (God made the fossils look old to test our faith!) and the explanation for the God-sanctioned genocide in the Hebrew Bible gets more and more cruel (God had the Israelites kill all those other countries because those people were really bad people! Especially the women and children! Those kids were pure evil!), or you meet an actual gay person and start to study what the whole Bible says about sexuality…. and start to read all those Old Testament verses about rape being super OK and wonder if the Bible really is the best book to listen to about sexual ethics. Suddenly, the Bible can’t be a book of literal, inerrant truths.
It’s not that we decided that we didn’t want the Bible to be inerrant. It’s not that we decide that we liked liberal Christianity more. It’s that fundamentalism, and Biblical literalism, stopped working. It was not longer possible to believe in it. We had to give it up or go crazy.
I mean, to be fair, some of us did both. Unlearning our entire identity and the identity of our faith is not an easy thing. Some of us do it more gracefully than others.
I had a childhood and young adulthood that was marked by rigidity. I had rigid beliefs that could not bend with culture or time or the people that lived in front of me. My Bible was tight, controlled, and unbending. Like a room without doors and windows and ventilation, I was suffocating in my tightly sealed religious beliefs.
I’ve been afraid of moral relativism since I was old enough to be afraid. I have been afraid of my friend who told me she had an abortion. I was afraid of my friend who told me he was in love with another boy. I was afraid when she watched the R rated movie (cultural capitulation) when she wore too tight shirts (immodesty) when he ordered a beer (drunkenness) when she voted for Obama (liberals are godless). The unbending way that I marched through life meant that every time I encountered someone different from me, I was afraid of them. I was afraid for them.
I never imagined that there was a wild Ocean, in which ‘all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea” (William Langman).
I never imagined that the Holy could be that dangerously Grace-filled, or that unpredictable, or that free.
I never imagined that our rigidity was human, and not Divine.
I never imagined that all the mystics in all religions were right – that perhaps there is bending room.
Perhaps the salvation of Christ reaches out to all the ends of the earth even if the ends of the earth don’t know or understand or care. Perhaps our moral rules are rigid because of culture and not because of the Divine Will. Perhaps, even, there are ways to find intimacy with the Divine that are not Bible study or church or even, maybe, Christianity.
I love that quote by C.S. Lewis about mud pies and the sea. I think fundamentalism was my mud pie. I think the Holy was offering me holidays to the sea for years and years that I refused to accept, because I was so attached to this particular mud pie.
“See! I am making everything new!” is just as much a warning as a promise. Learn to hold the old things loosely, with open hands, or your heart will break while you watch the old thing get swept away in a thunderstorm of painful grace.
The rain washed away my mud pies!
And I don’t want to go to the ocean!
But when I read Rumi & St Teresa, in my heartbreak and confusion, in my young anger and self-righteousness, I hear the Spirit whisper – “There are deeper waters to launch into. There are higher mountains to summit. There is gold in these hills. Come further up, come further in.”
I’ve spent a lot of time this spring praying through the Easter story. I come back again and again to the story in the book of John, Jesus with his disciple Mary on Easter Sunday. I keep seeing Jesus at the tomb, all full of life and color, more vivid than he had ever been to Mary before. I see her eyes well up, she hasn’t slept in days, and she’s so tired that she’s scared she’s mis-seeing. I see her run to him to try and get him back. I see Jesus tear up too – as soon as she grabs him, he feels how exhausted she is and how sad she’s been. When he prayed in the Garden for the cup to pass from him, he wasn’t just praying to be spared from Good Friday, but praying that we would be spared that Holy Saturday, too. Mary, Jesus says to this exhausted, suddenly hope filled sister.
I’m going further up and further in. So don’t cling to me.
But honey, do go tell my brothers!
Good Friday and Holy Saturday are windstorms that knock down our carefully crafted buildings. They’re rainstorms that wash away those mud pies. I think that Jesus wishes that He could save us from those storms. But the storms are the only way that we’ll ever make it to the Ocean.
I am so grateful that those structures were there when I was young. I needed them then. And I know that Jesus mourned with me when everything fell apart.
And now that my old religious experience is gone, I have a choice. I can hunker down by my washed-out mud pies and pitch a tent by the tomb, refusing to leave what I loved. Or I can glance up, and notice that now that the rainstorm has passed, there are sea gulls calling in the distance. I can shake the dust, stand up, and head to the Ocean.
The journey is scary. The weather is unpredictable. I used to have the promise of Inerrant Scripture to command me and make sure I never made a mistake, but now my map is sketchier and I have to learn to listen to a lot of things – to my gut, to the Spirit, to God in the Other, to voices from the East, to wisdom of mystics and God-lovers over thousands of years. This journey is trickier and less clear. We’ve got to check the weather, watch the stars, listen to our stomachs, see how the river flows.
But this is what it means to be out of the backyard mud-pies. This is what it means to find our way to the Sea. Further up. Further in.
Art of the New Hampshire shoreline by my grandfather, Ed McKenney.