Surely you’ve heard what Hemingway said about writing, haven’t you? You know: “Writing is easy. You just cut open a vein and bleed.” (Or something like that.) At any rate, I was asked to speak in the “Encounters with the Risen Christ” short talks my local PCUSA church has as part of the Easter season services last Sunday.
I wanted to share the talk I gave in part because I really feel like I practiced assertive spirituality in that talk. And also because giving the talk, and the positive response to it, finally inspired me to start this whole Assertive Spirituality venture I’d been putting off. I’ve been struggling lately with even the idea of giving a “testimony,” since that’s such a fraught word. But I feel like the words helped me express where I was pretty well, which was really satisfying.
Here’s what I said:
Hi. I’ve been a member of this church for almost a year and a half. But I’m here to tell you that part of me died the day I met with the session to join this church.
Don’t worry—it wasn’t any of your fault, that death. It just happened that the decree for my divorce came through that day. I knew—and had confirmed with those close to me—that I had done everything I could in the matter of my divorce, and in a way, that made my marriage more of a death to grieve. I had done everything I could, and things still didn’t work out.
This was difficult for me, because I hadn’t realized until the divorce was a clear outcome how much I’d internalized messages my whole life about family values and the evils of divorce. I also didn’t realize how much I had unwittingly been complicit in that messaging.
For years I’d been silently judging celebrities, those I heard about, those I met as strangers, and even those few close friends I knew who had been divorced or had what my pat interpretation of theology saw as unconventional relational situations. I’d internalized a deep discomfort at the idea that even in the depths of scripture, relationships didn’t always fit in the perfect, eternally-lasting marital box they were supposed to. And didn’t always work out, despite best efforts.
Even though I had kept my mouth free of external judgment and been outwardly supportive, I had judged all of these people, deep inside myself. I had believed that surely, somehow, there ought to have been something else they could have done.
I knew, of course, that relationships were never perfect. I wasn’t naïve or egotistical in THAT way, I told myself. But still, on some level of sinew and bone, it had been inscribed in this little ugly part of my soul that surely those people couldn’t be doing the right thing. Surely there was something deeply wrong with them because they didn’t fit this pat narrative.
And I had internalized that message to the point where I believed that in my situation as well. Not with my head, of course. My head agreed with my family and friends that I had done everything I could.
But somewhere, again, in my bones and sinews the message had been inscribed that I had to be, that I somehow was “better than those other sullied humans” in those relational situations. I stayed until death parted, and that was it.
It’s taken a while to process all of this—to allow this sick, Pharisaical, shaming and shamed part of my soul to die. To face and accept the fear I had of being scapegoated and rejected from the body of Christ. Of not being good enough for it (for him?) somehow because shockingly I couldn’t—and perhaps wasn’t supposed to—control everything in the world myself. To accept that perhaps that belief that I could control everything was the lie, the twisted hubris-shame, the sin I had to repent of, that I had to allow that twisted belief to be put to death.
For a long time I wasn’t at all sure that the tissue would die and heal, that new cells would (re)generate. To be honest, it’s still ongoing—somehow resurrection in people other than Jesus takes a trifle longer than two days and a bit, it seems.
What I can tell you is this: I know the new cells because in them is a fierce desire to stand up for those who have internalized messaging that they aren’t good enough to be in the church for whatever reason.
Those pink cells have become super sensitive to the ideas that any of us can or should be able to fully control situations that involve things outside the small sphere of influence we are given.
Those pink cells tell me that maybe the image of God in us is paradoxically good enough for God’s love, even when we feel as ugly and rejected as the Man of Sorrows—and even when our souls are as wounded as he was, and as decayed as his body was supposed to become.
These new pink cells have made me aware of how easy it is for seemingly spiritual words and concepts to become lashes that will turn into deep wounds under the right circumstances.
To be frank, though, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with these new cells. They feel foreign, unfamiliar. Not righteous enough, or maybe too righteous? It’s hard to tell. And that’s how I know I can’t even promise that my inner Pharisee is even entirely dead. There are still some stubborn ugly cells hanging out with the new pink ones that just haven’t gone yet, or this new birth wouldn’t be so incredibly uncomfortable.
Like I said, not all of us get to be Jesus, with such a neat trick of conquering shame and death and hell over the weekend. But I do know that since this shame of mine became mostly dead and with it my judgment of at least a few categories of people who don’t fit the usual Christian molds, that I am seeing glimpses of what seems to be the risen Christ more and more in places I would have never expected.
It feels miraculous, these days, to go to a place associated with tombs—in this case, the status of divorced, behind my name—and to have found unexpected life—healing, release, and fierce compassion—there, springing up as surely as the crocuses in spring, the ones we never thought would come this year. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
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