“In Those Years,” by Adrienne Rich
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
[Side note: The title of this blog post references a song by Depeche Mode (and wonderfully covered by Johnny Cash, I might add). It’s a catchy tune: great beat, good for dancing or singing along, meant to be kind of an ironic play on the way that people can become Jesus to each other. As songwriter Martin Gore puts it, the song was inspired by Priscilla Presley’s book Elvis and Me: “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationship; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?” (Fox, Marisa (4 July 1990). “Pop a la Mode” Spin 6(4). Retrieved ala wikipedia, 29 Jun 2012).]
Growing up in the Bible Belt, it was not at all uncommon to hear people talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and how this relationship is the only way one might be saved, might go to heaven and avoid hell. The basic premise is that Jesus is always there, ready to have a relationship with an individual, and that the way to enter in to that relationship is to pray – to confess that you know you are sinful, to recognize the fact that Jesus is the only way you might be saved, and to then ask Jesus into your heart. It is a sort of individualized theophany which could be brought about simply by saying “yes” to Jesus. Though I grew up Presbyterian (where this particular notion salvation is not really prevalent), all it took was one youth trip to Florida with the Baptists and I was introduced to the idea; and, I have to be honest, it scared me to death – I think I prayed that prayer about fifty times in that one week. I asked a Baptist friend of mine recently how many times he’d prayed the prayer for salvation when he was growing up, and he chuckled: “too many to count,” he said. Though I know I was assured that, once Jesus entered my heart, my salvation was assured, and he wouldn’t leave again, there is implicit in this message of salvation the notion that one’s inability to pray in just the right way, or tendency to fall “into sin” after saying the prayer, will turn God away.
I think about that week in Florida from time to time, and about the first time I prayed for Jesus to come in to my heart. I think about how that one experience was intended to color the way I saw everything, the way I understood my own life and salvation, and the life that was given in place of mine. This recognition would then be expressed in personal acts of piety – in avoiding alcohol, premarital sex, bad language. If you messed up, or “backslid” into sin, well, you just prayed the prayer again – got yourself back “right” with God by asking Jesus back into your heart again – a sort of re-focusing. Apparently, even though Jesus will stand outside the door of your heart and wait patiently, the gift of salvation which is given freely to those who would ask, he also won’t hesitate to walk away the moment you slip up. Even as I write that, I realize it doesn’t compute – why would the God who created heaven and earth, and who sent his son Jesus to earth so that God might live fully into the human experience, walk away at the first sign of trouble? What kind of personal relationship is that? Why would God be so eager to give us grace just to take it away at the first sign of trouble – isn’t that the very reason we need Jesus?
My intention here is not to take a knock at those who ask Jesus into their hearts, or believe salvation is experienced in this way. My intention is to point out that the effectiveness of such experiences may not be that we are granted some sort of salvation in the future, after this life is over, but that they tell us that we are beloved – that we are loved and cared for in this life and on this earth, here and now.
The challenge with the notion of a personal Jesus is that it is just that – personalized. There is, after the first big-date experience of asking Jesus into your heart, the realization that you’re on your own out in the world – hoping that God doesn’t change God’s mind and walk away. It’s as if we understand God as saying, “I love you so much, and you’re going to heaven, so just do what you’re supposed to do…and, for goodness’ sake, don’t mess up – I’d hate to send you to hell – I’d hate to leave your heart, and to leave you all alone in this world. I mean, if you do mess up, it’s okay…just come back and ask me in again, but you’re going to feel like crap…like the crappy sinner that you are.” The focus on and individual salvation experience, and living out some sort of two-dimensional personal piety just sets us up for failure. More, it creates the image of God who scares the hell out of us (pun intended…).
The problem with this is that, when we live our lives terrified of God, we begin to look around and wonder who else might be making God angry, who God might not love, or at least who God loves less than ourselves. If I see myself as doing everything I’m supposed to do, then why on earth can’t my neighbor? It’s like a free-market economy, where salvation is offered to those who can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, who can make a way for themselves in this dog-eat-dog world. Maybe then I start to look at my neighbor not as my neighbor, but as part of the problem. I start to hold on to my salvation, for fear that they will want to take it. I build a wall around my heart and around my house, and I start to see anyone who is not like me as part of the problem – they want to take what I’ve got, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them have it. Or, I become jealous of them, and not just jealous of their stuff, but jealous of their righteousness or holiness – jealous of their goodness, because I know in my heart, despite how I may look, that I’m just…not good enough. It’s like living paycheck to paycheck – hoping your piety will take you through for another couple of weeks.
To put it simply: we are all far too relational, far too connected, to experience a relationship with God, with the very thing which ties us all together, on an individual basis. God is experienced in community – in relationships, in the love that is expressed and shared in the spaces where we are able to be present and open to trust one another. It is in those spaces where we risk the possibility that, in being vulnerable and in being known, we might begin to defy the voices that tell us that God loves some of us more than others, or that God loves us “unconditionally, unless we mess up too much.” As we begin to trust that we are loved, and let it sink in, sink right down in to our bones, that we are loved and are lovable, we begin to live in to that confidence, to take risks – to break through the things which hold us captive to the notion that we are alone in this world, and that we will never be good enough for love. We will begin to believe that we are loved simply because we exist. We then begin to see everything through that love, and we begin to see that Jesus did indeed die so that we might live because he refused to give up on the power of being in relationship – he refused to give up on the things which give us life. The power of that defiance, of that resilience, brought forth new life and a new Spirit, which is shared among us all.
There is a tremendous amount of freedom in expressing our fears, in confessing things we have done which have been hurtful; even in sharing the deep, dark secrets we’ve got buried, the things of which we are so ashamed that we know they make us unlovable. Those burdens are heavy, and we cannot carry them alone – we aren’t meant to carry them alone. As we begin to share that weight with others, and they with us, may we begin to live into the love which calls us forth to serve others, to be known, to risk intimacy, and may we begin to understand that the best things in life – like trust and peace and love; and the recognition that we are loved – are better when shared.