We’ve had a lot of hours in the car lately, and downtime in hotel rooms. Road-tripping between Texas and Michigan has meant plenty of time to catch up, to reflect on life.
My kid was just at church camp, the one I grew up going to, where so much of my early Christian formation happened and where I first quietly dedicated my life to Christian service before I had a clue what that would mean. The faces there seemingly never change but just get older. When I’m there, my body remembers an old geography.
But I have changed, we have changed, the thousand or so miles of distance between camp and our daily life being both physical and spiritual.
And so I honestly worried a little about what camp might expose him to. I was cautiously confident in his ability to think critically, but our context is very different – urban, diverse, liturgical, progressive, ecumenical. We are aimed toward a particular kind of radical Christianity, the conversion of a whole life, whether or not we are achieving it.
“They were all so wholesome, Mom.” We’re on the interstate, the flatlands of Arkansas spread out before us, the rural pastoral scenery like an echo of that word: wholesome.
I turn it over and over in my mind an hour later, when he is asleep with his earbuds in. The road, the engine sounds, the silence are mine alone. Wholesome. I fiddle with it like pennies in my pocket.
It does, on some days, feel like wholesome is what we’re missing — what I’m missing. Some sense of abiding goodness, some kind of gentleness and purity in the world, the ability to let feelings go all in spiritually. I have in the quiet privacy of my mind often longed for the restoration of some kind of elemental organic nature to everything, some aspect of my faith that feels like new love.
As I write this, I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know what the longing is exactly, what accounts for it, or what loss it marks out.
Hours later, we wind our way through Houston at night, the downtown buildings towering, the lights in the windows like domesticated constellations against the night sky. We pull back into our neighborhood a little after midnight, concrete everywhere, and the air is so humid you can drink it. I step out of the car to stretch, feeling the disorientation of returning to here, this place. As I drift to sleep, his thoughts are still on my mind.
I have struggled long post-divinity school to make good sense of my life in this season. It’s not only the literal urban geography of Houston and the culture shock, but something about the geography of my imagination and my own heart.
This is no doubt probably a reflection of my own white fragility, hetero-normative fragility, ablist fragility, all my fragilities for I am legion, but at moments I feel enormous pressure toward outcry.
Some of this is a hold over from Duke, where good arguments and right activism are the bread and butter of everything. But I have felt intense performance pressure to say the right things in the right way in a loud enough voice – to show, somehow, that I am doing the inner work of trying my damnedest to act justly.
I don’t resent that pressure; it has been the catalyst for me to get my shit worked out. On some days, it has driven me to repentance, the turning to go a new way.
But love mercy? But walk humbly with God?
These, I think, are the checks and balances of justice. I have begun to wonder if justice in the name of God but without mercy and humility is a form of idolatry. The allure is the intensity, the performance of grave seriousness, a certain veneer of righteous anger – but with it a deep sense of despair and almost powerlessness.
I say this from the inside of it, three fingers back at me, condemnation of myself first.
I’ve spent quite a bit of the past year trying to parse out my relationship to earlier ways of thinking – whether my home church and upbringing, or a particular framework for ethics and theology learned somewhere along the way of undergrad and grad school. I feel like I was given tools for one kind of life, and then was abandoned by God into another. I rarely feel like the thought tools I have fit the raw reality of where I am.
And where I am feels incommunicable on some days – though I wonder if many of us feel some version of this in this political moment, that there wasn’t preparation for what we face, and so our outcry is also an act of improvisation. And in our lack of preparation, we feel shame, and some measure of alienation. Or I do.
A week before we left to drive north, I was asked by a friend if I could draw feet. She was working on art for the bulletin of a footwashing service, a service I’m usually at, but was struggling deeply to attend, because of everything I was finding problematic about the gathering, my critical mind in overdrive.
The topic was “Church as Politics,” a longstanding question in theology about the relationship of Christian faithfulness and witness to the needs of society and the politics of the nation-state. As I worked the chalk pastels into the paper, reaching for the right contours to make the feet come to life, it occurred to me that to wash the feet of another is a certain kind of justice, but with mercy and humility before God.
It’s a kind of justice that feels void of anger and outcry. The feelings are intense, but other than what I usually feel. And while I do think outcry is the right expression in some contexts, I fear that in the moment of injustice, it’s easy work to cling to righteous anger and tough love. Yet I wonder how I will know it’s righteous anger, and I wonder if there is a deeper justice to tenderness.
It isn’t only the loss of humility and mercy I’m lamenting. It’s something about communion, the intermingling of bodies. The loss I feel and the longing for something wholesome is something about feeling the right kinds of things in faith, connecting in true ways with God and human beings, bodily and with vulnerability and integrity.
And decrying injustice, while important, rarely feels like communion in that sense.
For awhile now, faith for me has felt like that performance of outcry and the parsing of fine-tuned theological arguments. Rarely lately have I been touched by anything other than the suffering of others, which thoroughly undoes me because I am spiritually malnourished in other ways.
I long to be moved in the “ecstatic experience of Beauty” sense, where I am taken outside of myself to be connected to God and human beings in some way I could not have orchestrated alone.
I don’t know exactly what my kid meant by wholesomeness – the contours of his longings. We tried to name it, talk through it, but I’m not sure he has precise language for what’s missing.
Nor do I, for myself. But I resonated deeply.
My fear has been that in moving away from a more evangelical faith conviction, something more than a particular worldview is being left behind.
I fear that I am losing the ability to be touched by the Spirit, or the belief that the Spirit touches, and true communion is possible.
In moments of deep struggle the past few years, a friend has often said, “Shannon, press into Christ. Remember Christ.” And it’s so startling, so outside of the way we talk in the daily as to be jarring.
Perhaps this sounds foolish, but at moments, I am nostalgic for a faith that was easier in some respects, more naive, that took for granted God’s activity in the world, God’s involvement in the lives of human beings on some personal level. When suffering is most easy to see, it’s far too easy to question where God might be.
When I long for wholesome, it’s something about this. And I wonder if this is what folks mean about the need for contemplation for our activism, mercy and humility as symbols for all that makes us human, balancing the press toward justice and anchoring us in trust of God and one another.
What I long to learn is how to hold together the outcry with the crying out to God – how to believe in flourishing, wholeness, and justice for all and fight for it fiercely without compromising a confessionalism at the center of my Christian faith and questioning the goodness of God because of the injustice I see.
What I long for is not wholesome in a Polyanna sense, but instead the felt experience of being whole – whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and even a whole strength.