Boring Church and the Vulnerable God

There is a bit of the scientist in anyone who sets out to test in his or her own life if Jesus Christ is really all he is cracked up to be. “Prove it,” the contemplative says to God. Here are all these promises: freedom, joy, abundance, peace, wholeness, justice, truth, and life eternal. “Show me,” says the contemplative, setting out to experiment with divinity in the laboratory of experience.

In the beginning God is the object of the search. At some point God may peremptorily rise out of the test tube and take over the experiment. I find myself being dissected. My soul is flayed open by truth. I am blinded by glaring light and toasted over a Bunsen burner, where my impurities are burned away and I am distilled into my essence. I am no longer in control of this process. The knower and the known have shifted places. And truth is not something I can find, but something that has me in its grasp.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes, “Reason, even the most acutely critical reason cannot establish truth.” … [This is because] You cannot criticize a statement of what claims to be the truth except on the basis of some other truth-claim – which at the moment – you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticized. Any claim to know truth is, therefore, simply a concealed assertion of power.” (Truth to Tell, The Gospel as Public Truth, Eerdmans, 1991, pp 29-30.)

The work of scientist Michael Polanyi reminds us that “all knowing involves the personal participation of the knower, that knowing always involves the risk of being wrong, and that the struggle to know calls for the fullest exercise of personal responsibility.” Truth to Tell,  p.51)

Instead of seeking proofs of God from reason or experience, the contemplative finds fulfillment simply and humbly dwelling in love in God’s presence.  The contemplative gives God entry into the world, not through a claim of truth, but through a believing heart. Instead of an exercise of power through the assertion of my reality over yours via dazzling argument or feats of spiritual prowess, the contemplative takes the vulnerable route of allowing God to make God’s own appeal through the context of his or her surrendered life.

I acknowledge my vulnerability when I say, “I cannot know it all. I may be wrong. This is what I see. This is what I am responsible for articulating as clearly as I can.” We might characterize the spiritual journey as the process of discovering right relationship to this vulnerability, which we meet in ourselves, others and in God.

By vulnerability I mean capable of being wounded and wrong, open to attack or damage. Our vulnerability may include our sin and temptation to evil, our failure and weakness – wherever we are not whole, wherever we fall short of the glory which is our promised inheritance as God’s children.

We can relate to our woundedness in many ways: with anger, resentment, impatience, contempt, deceit, shame, and blame. We can so identify ourselves with our vulnerability that we know ourselves only as victim. Then, committed to our suffering and stubbornly resistant to healing, we may defend our wounds with fierce loyalty.

God sends into our consciousness, into the heart of matter, Holy Vulnerability in the form of Jesus. It teaches, heals, suffers, dies, and rises saying, “Look, watch me. This is what it means to be human. It is all right. Everyone is wounded. Follow me and be healed.”

Over and over Jesus’ ministry reached out to the vulnerable ones. He brought home the lost and the misfits saying, “You belong too.” He didn’t bring them back to turn them into Jews or folks like him. He just brought them back saying, “You, just as you are, are important. You have a contribution to make. We need you. You belong.”

Loving Jesus takes away our shame for being human like nothing else can. For he shows us how to be poor, how to value and appreciate our vulnerability. He tells us the vulnerable ones will see God and inherit the kingdom of heaven. He helps us get off our high horse and come down where we ought to be on our knees.

In the painful encounter with our vulnerability and diminishment, we meet the diminished suffering God and our own holiness. For in my poverty I discover my true worth. Stripped of what I can do, what I possess, how I am known by others – all the external ways I have attempted to create worth for myself, I find my true self in the center of my humility, which is also the dwelling place of the Trinity.

I used to read my children a story about a little girl who was born with a long tail like a dragon. Various characters seek to help the child with what is perceived by some as her disability. I liked Mike the cat’s approach best. “Teach her to love her tail,” he sagely advised. He shows her how to switch her tail back and forth, wind it around the fire escape railing and hang upside down. Teach her to love her tail.

Part of the task of the church is to teach us to love our tails and God’s tail, Jesus. Spirituality without Jesus Christ is spirituality that may be resisting the fundamental truth of our vulnerability. It may be a spirituality that, well or ill disguised, is exercising power, trying to be God.

The world holds vulnerability with fear and contempt. The church ought to teach us to hold it in our arms and love it. But the church is, of course, vulnerable too.

I was trying on a new hat when eleven year old Cicelia observed that you should always wear a hat to church. “It protects you from boredom, mom. The boredom rays, like the ultra violet rays from the sun are in church and sometimes at school. If you have a hat, you will be protected from the boredom.”

I hope the place where you worship is not boring. Maybe if churches had more to do with being with God and less to do with talking about God, things wouldn’t be so boring for Cicelia and others. As EvelynUnderhillobserved, “God is the interesting thing.”

A good deal of church seems to have little to do with God and is conducted as though God were, if not absent, at least very far away. Little time is given for God to get a word in edgewise. Our frantic activity and anxious busyness comprise our faithless creed that not much of anything can happen without our doing it ourselves.

Perhaps it is just too risky, too frightening. What if nothing happens? Nothing is changed or accomplished? Once Cicelia put a sign on her door painted in large red letters: KNOK or ELSE! Red paint ominously dripped from the letters like blood.

Jesus, we know you stand at the door and knock, but beware! We are resistant to transformation, devoted to our losses and the sins of others against us, and do not really trust your power in our lives.

The church will always be imperfect. It will be unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes, because we are unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes. Thank goodness God’s presence doesn’t depend on our winning academy awards in best Pentecost service of the year.

I have been in so many churches where you wonder why anybody comes at all. What with the dozen dusty arrangements of silk flowers and the sappy pictures of Jesus and the bad roller rink organ music you wonder what the appeal could be.

The appeal is, of course, Jesus. Jesus is there and active, because the people believe in him. Their vulnerable belief holds the door open for the vulnerable God to enter.

Knok or Else.  He is likely to walk right on in.

This post is an excerpt from my book written about learning to pray as I raised children in small town, Holton, Kansas. Loretta Ross (Ross-Gotta),  Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed and Ward, 2000,  pp 119-122.
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One response to “Boring Church and the Vulnerable God

  1. You said it so well. Being an engineer and having a physist as a spouse so often do we run into others who know we believe but try and challenge us to prove – and we try to explain you can not confine God to a beaker or box – you need to think outside the box! But it seems ironic how many scientists have trouble thinking outside the box when it comes to GOD and JESUS!

    “O Father, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for thy name’s sake. (Prayer of William Barclay, 20th century)

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