As I write this, it is still Holy Saturday. Just barely. The sun is sinking below the horizon. And Jesus is still dead.
Good. There are times I wish he would just stay that way. Stay dead. A dead Jesus is a lot less troublesome.
A dead Jesus makes no demands. Asks no tough questions. Appears in no locked rooms. Doesn’t meet us on the road, or ask for some fish to eat. Breathes no Spirit upon us.
Most importantly, a dead Jesus cannot ask us to follow him, to preach and teach baptize in his name. And mean it. Because none of those things could matter to a dead Jesus.
When I was a Protestant, I didn’t believe that God loved me. when I was a Catholic, I didn’t believe it. And now that I was Orthodox, I still didn’t believe it. Not really. To affirm it in your mind, as I did, is not the same thing as taking it into your heart.
At last I knew why this had been impossible for me. As my father was on earth, so was my father in heaven. He was so good, strong, and wise that his judgment on my worth (as I perceived it) must be true. If only I could make myself perfect, maybe he would accept me.
There it was. The lie, unveiled. I had enthroned family and place — and their personification, my father — in my heart in the place of God. This was the greatest sin that led me to the dark wood in the middle of the journey of my life. It was my sin, not the sins of others. I had to own it and repent of it. This sinful disposition, the refusal to believe that God the Father loved and affirmed me [emphasis mine, CHF], formed an impassable barrier around my heart, one I had spent a lifetime reinforcing. Tearing down that wall would require nothing less than divine intervention. But at least now I knew what I was dealing with. (p. 126-27)
Jennifer lived with a very similar fear for the longest time — that God could not possibly forgive her. And so what Dreher writes makes some kind of sense to me.
But only a little. Because I don’t share the same fear. I never have.
I’ve always known that God has loved me. No, that’s not quite correct. I’ve never feared God might not love me. Never wondered in terror that my sinfulness separated me somehow from divine love and mercy. Perhaps this is because I’ve actually had God inside me, met the Crucified and Risen Christ. God has been an overwhelming presence in my life as long as I can remember. Whatever the people around were doing to me, God never abandoned me completely to despair. Somehow, that was always a part of me, always inside me. (For those of you who have read my book, The Love That Matters, this will make sense to you. The rest of you need to read the book.)
And so, in my most desperate moments — and there have been a lot of those in the last couple of years — I have not despaired of God’s love, but rather, I’ve wished God would stop. Stop loving me. Leave me alone. Rescind the call. Tell me, “go away!” Let me perish as an unredeemed and unforgiven sinner. Leave me to follow some other calling, such as that a friend and I jokingly devised our last semesters at Georgetown, providing professional services to international arms dealers and drug lords.
“God loves you” may be a good thing to say to someone who fears that might not be true. But to me (and to one other person I know who has suffered at least as much), there are times what that phrase is a curse.
“Yes, I know! And THAT’S the problem.”
Some people go running after Jesus, wondering what all the commotion is about, knowing God is there, and hoping against hope to touch a bit of the divine. Some people are just in the right place at the right time when Jesus wanders into town.
But some of us… For some of us, Jesus comes out of his way, finds us at the shore mending our nets, or minding our business in the marketplace:
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. ’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:9-13 ESV)
Not everyone is lost. Not everybody is struck blind while traveling on the road to Damascus. Not everyone needs it. My wife certainly didn’t. Her faith was gently but firmly pressed onto her heart almost from the day she was born.
She didn’t need terror and mass death to meet Jesus. Not like me.
There are moments when I hate — truly hate — this call to follow, to preach and teach and baptize. It has been nothing but trouble. I have little to show but failure and unemployment for it.
Leave me alone, Jesus. Stay dead. And buried. And decay into dust. I want to be lost, abandoned, left to perish.
Very occasionally, I will look upon the Christ hanging on the half-sized crucifix hanging in the entry way of the local Catholic church, and think to myself — “You had this coming. For calling me. To these miserable people, to this miserable work. And giving me no choice. Let me have a hammer and some nails…”
Stay dead, Jesus. Please, just stay dead.
But dammit, he will not stay dead. And every time, I’m overwhelmed by the God who stared us in the eye as we killed him, who meets us in our fear, our terror, our utter aloneness, and says to us, “Do not be afraid. Muck around in my wounds. Tell others I am risen.”
And, of course, that awful, horrible, compelling, amazing, wonderful, and irresistible call: “Follow me.”
He is not dead. And we are not lost. Even if we want to be lost. And what was despair, that God would never leave me alone, has become the gift of utmost grace.
“Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know I do.”
“Then feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
I’m learning, ever so slowly, in fits and starts, not to care about this. His life. Not mine.
“Follow me. My love is all that matters.”