In an era of polarization, rage, and splintering, I find myself caught in some of these very tangled webs. The only path to getting untangled is pursuit of a life that pulls us beyond all of this.
One can simply read my blog posts from the last three years to get the picture. These last three years, up until I came to Limestone University, compose an era of frustration and exasperation in life—personally, professionally, and spiritually.
Would you care for a list of the frustrations, some of which border on infuriation? Politics. Social unrest. The COVID Pandemic. Job losses. And if I can be fully confessional: Christianity and the church.
That last one is the toughest, because it has created the most rifts and friction with family and friends. Worse yet, it leaves me in a horrible place of questioning my faith practices—a horribly typical and cliched place to be in modern Christianity.
I am also not some young person going through this, with plenty of time to “deconstruct” and decide if I want to “reconstruct” my faith. I am 50 years old. And if I needed anything over the last 3.5 years, it is faith—as in “the assurance of things hoped for and the promise of things unseen.”
I am overwhelmed by the sense that we have left the Christ out of Christian community on many levels in the current era. As a confession, I have too often let my “righteous rage” and indignation over this get the better of me on this topic. It is a struggle to see how Jesus has any part in certain expressions or actions by people who call themselves followers of Christ.
And I am at a loss for how to respond to this.
Several things help me to see a better way on this and challenge me to pursue holiness with less judgement and more humility. This fall, I completely altered my Religion 203 class on Spiritual Formation. The first part of this class is an overview of the New Testament, with heavy emphasis on the Gospels.
There is plenty of room in the Gospels for righteous rage. But there is no room for it outside of fully pursuing Jesus Christ and knowing more of who He is, what He does.
To clarify, I still get frustrated with much of what I see. Out of concern for my own spiritual (and mental, physical, emotional) health, I force myself to turn off the voices that send me towards righteous rage at the state of the world.
As much as some things should put us in an uproar, righteous rage can only take you so far before it turns into self-righteous outrage. If the love of Christ is not the source of our concern for the issues of the world, then we are simply living in judgment of those who are not like we are.
Teaching the New Testament has driven me back to the idea of seeing Christ through the mess and the madness that seem to consume the world right now. The quest to know and follow the Living Christ cannot become a secondary pursuit. It has to be a THE pursuit of our life, if we hope to find meaning beyond the social, political, or religious turmoil of this world.
It has become far too easy to talk about “holiness” as a list of beliefs to hold, ideas to support, or even as a candidate to vote into office. In youth group, we often hold up a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for students to abide in their lives. We impress the belief that holiness is about ending up on the correct side of that list in any given situation.
This is not the holiness that Christ calls on us to pursue. While our search for holiness may lead us to do (or not do) any number of things, living like Christ cannot fall into second place behind an invented checklist. Living by the checklist means that we are finished at some point. As long as the boxes are checked, we are good.
True Holiness means an ongoing, lifelong quest to live in the light of Jesus Christ. It is a never-ending quest because we are always becoming and doing more of what Jesus is and does.
Is this the tougher path? Absolutely—because we know there is always more to do. But it is the path of discipleship that Jesus calls us to follow.
My students this semester challenge me more and more to put down the anger and frustration with the way things are and become more of what Jesus calls on us to be. We cannot honestly look at the Christ of the New Testament without thinking of how we can imitate Him in our own life (Ephesians 5:1-2). Being and doing the things of Christ is how we walk an actual path of holiness.
One last thing: two books led to my renewal of the quest for Christ. One is The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone; and the other is The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann.
I could go on for days about these texts and their sharp insight about the nature of the Cross for humanity. But I will spare the reader and offer one hard-hitting challenge.
Years ago, I designed a t-shirt for my youth ministry that said on the back, “His Pain…Our Gain.” I have never felt so far off-base in my life. The Cross certainly does great things for us. But the point of the Cross is not for our mere personal “gain.” It is not for us to view as something that we hang in our churches or around our neck.
The Cross is our challenge, to be picked up and carried as we pursue Jesus. While Christ did all the work for us on that Cross to get us to THIS point, He now expects us to pick it up and keep going. That means seeing Jesus as one who suffered with those who suffer, and forgave without it being earned or deserved.
In other words, the Cross is not here to simply make our life easy. It is here to challenge us continue the journey. May we learn to be willing to take up that Cross and follow Christ’s path above all other things.