New writing coming this fall! For now, it's all school, all the time for me. But I figured you guys might enjoy this. Two posts I wrote last year stand out to me as the closest I've gotten to saying what I'm trying to say, and I revised them into one piece to send to a magazine. This is that piece.
I have a print of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling artwork hanging on my wall. It's the scene they call The Creation of Adam, and it shows God’s hand reaching out towards Adam's. The details are interesting: God's hand is stretched, making an effort, while Adam's is limp and apathetic. But while the details of the image stir up a lot of reflection, they aren't the main reason I bought it at Ikea a few years ago. The basic idea of the whole thing is what really gets me: God is making Adam alive.
I like this because Adam isn't Christian or Evangelical or American. He predates all of that. He transcends all of that. His name can be translated "mankind," meaning in some way his story is our story. All of ours. And in reaching out to Adam, God isn't making him a denominational convert or asking him to sign a 10-page doctrinal statement. He's simply giving him life.
Later in the Bible, in the New Testament, Jesus and Adam are lined up in a few passages, and the writers say that Jesus is a second Adam of sorts. This helps me, because if Jesus's story has something to do with Adam's story, then Jesus's story might also be bigger than a Christian story or an Evangelical story or an American story.
I was praying recently, or at least I was trying to pray, and after struggling for a while, I expressed something to God that was true and from my heart:
I don't want to be a Christian; I want to be a human.
My prayers feel flat when driven by Christian duty. My desire to be like Christ fizzles out when I associate that too closely with figureheads who are famous for being Christian but whose way of being Christian looks very different than the way of being human I see in Christ. I get tired of Christian music. Christian bookstores make me depressed or bored or mad. Christian conferences used to get me amped, but now they usually wear me out.
So like I said, sometimes I don't want to be a Christian. I just want to be a human.
You might want to critique that statement. I do, too. I could write pages about everything that’s wrong with it. But there's also something right about it. I feel it when I look up at that image of God and Adam.
Jesus showed us God. He says seeing Him is like seeing the Father. But He also showed us us, because we were meant to bear that image. And Christians of virtually every stripe have believed that He wasn't just God; He was human, too. Fully human. So sometimes I play a little trick on myself. When opening the Bible or praying or going to church or doing any other 'Christian' thing seems utterly unappealing, I remind myself that this doesn't have to have anything to do with being a Christian. It could just be an exercise in being human. And of course it's not a trick at all, because that is precisely what I believe following Jesus is about. He has the power to make us so much more than Christians. He has the power to make us alive.
I don’t know of anything more life-giving or humanizing than love, but it’s hard to love someone if you’re not connected to them in some way. This makes me think that one of our fundamental problems – one of the things we need to heal from and be forgiven of – is all the ways we have insulated and isolated ourselves from each other and God. And I take Jesus’s command for us to love to bring with it a promise: that He will help us love, that He will help us rediscover what connects us.
Moments when following Jesus has led to that rediscovery have helped me come alive. Whenever He leads me to cross some boundary that I have placed between me and someone else, something dead in me gets pruned. Most of these boundaries are subtle and unnamed in my life. They go unnoticed until I need to cross them to follow God. Then I discover the kind of hidden tribalism in me that I'm afraid sometimes characterizes what many of us think of when we hear the word "Christian.”
I went to the Middle East because I believed it would be an act of following Jesus, and because the friend who invited me is someone whose way of being Christian seems to me very human, very alive. I've never explicitly thought of a Muslim or a Palestinian as an enemy, but being an American in a post-9/11 world makes it easy to feel some anxiety about people who share a label with the people who flew those planes. When I sat with Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank, sharing strong coffee and stories, I felt more connected, not just to them, but to everyone.
I wonder if Jesus’s command to love our enemies wasn’t meant to be a burden. If you live in a world full of enemies, you'll likely be anxious and fearful and hateful. But what if you lived in a world full of people you love? Wouldn't that be a remarkable place?
When I’ve served Communion to people in our church, I’ve said, "The body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you," to every kind of person. Some are bold, smiling and surefooted as they walk up. Others are timid, almost embarrassed. Maybe uncertain of our ritual. Maybe uncertain of their place in it. Some smell like too much perfume and some smell like cigarettes. And I see something of myself in every one of them. We share so many vulnerabilities and so many hopes, and God loves every one of us. This feels very connected. Very human.
And I have been loved by people who would point to Jesus and say they love the way they love because of how He loves. They have treated me with uncommon patience and have gone far beyond kindness to a kind of sacrificing that should feel like a burden but instead brings them joy. (I have been well-loved by others who would never point to Jesus as the model or source of their love, but whose love looks very much like His, so that even with them I can't help but associate that experience with Him.)
This isn’t just about our connection to each other, though. It's about our connection to God, too. Sometimes I am puffed up by self-righteousness or plagued by guilt. They often go hand in hand. The guiltier I feel, the more compulsively I try to justify myself. I begin to hide from God, and then it is what I see in Jesus that overcomes all of that in me.
And sometimes I see some breathtaking beauty in the world. It weighs on me, heavy, and somehow lifts me up, too. That experience is like a spark that could set something on fire in me, but the moment ends and the spark is gone unless it can connect me to some kind of fuel that keeps burning. When I read in Colossians that all things were made in Christ, and that He holds all things together, it makes me think those moments are meant to connect me to Him in worship, an experience that can burn forever without ever burning up.
When worship comes to mind, I also think of surrender. I say this as someone who wrestles with songs like "I Surrender All" because all is a big word and I fall short of it. But surrender seems like the most human response to God. It helps if I see it not as a surrender to an opposing power, like after the end of a hard fought battle that I have lost. I’m talking about the way you surrender to someone who loves you, an opening of your heart that may be slow, because each degree of opening brings with it new breaking and healing and deeper trusting.
Maybe everything I'm talking about here feels very Christian to you. And I believe it is, if we're talking about the real thing. But the context that's created by our motivations and expectations can reframe this stuff entirely. Worshiping together, reading the Bible, praying, abstaining from the unholy and embracing the sacred, caring for the underprivileged — we can get into this stuff for so many different reasons and it can take us in so many different directions. But all of this can come from love and lead us toward love. I believe the Bible when it says God is love, especially as we see it revealed in Jesus. And I think that love is what makes us connected, what makes us come alive.
Pope John Paul II once said:
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal."
So if being Christian doesn't sound that great to you, that's ok. I understand. I honestly think Jesus does, too. Maybe redirect your attention to being human, and ask yourself if He might be qualified to help you with that. I think that question will take us in the right direction.