I can find myself sometimes falling down my rabbit hole of anxiety and despair. There’s plenty of reasons to lose a sense of hope these days. Black churches in Louisiana set ablaze by a white terrorist, our president’s rhetoric and treatment of asylum-seekers at our border are just some of the ongoing, crushing news items. We are living in a climate of fear and hatred and ugliness that permeates our news cycles and Facebook feeds, sometimes stirring me to action, sometimes making me want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world.
I’ve been struggling, especially these days, with the notion that I’ve found myself fairly committed to that the world is not an evil place. Of course, evil is alive and well in the world (if I’m fully honest, it’s alive and well in me which is a startling realization in some moments), but I am committed to seeing goodness as the starting point, the root, the center, the end. It’s hard to hold this image of “original goodness”. I fear it could become a pollyanna view of the world. I wonder if my own privilege plays into my commitment to this kind of world view, blinding me to the very real dangers and fears that people without this level of privilege face on a daily basis. But I cringe when we use words in our worship or daily lives that seem to exclusively make the world out to be dangerous, dark, ugly and mean. I do not want to deny the things that are broken, hurtful, hateful—I want to be courageous enough to face these things (in myself and around me) and hold them up to something more whole, more truthful, more loving—something that, I believe, is at the very foundation of our existence.
I think our starting point for viewing the world matters. If we start with a sense of the world being fallen, that humanity is doomed from the start with the marks of original sin, we may very well see evil around every corner, people as “good” or “bad”, and a God who is in the business of punishment. But if our starting point is a place of original blessing, a song that God sung at the very beginnings of life—your life and mine, the life of our world—then our eyes become trained to see beauty, not in a denial of struggle, but in the midst of it and we learn to see one another not as threats but as people (who may be very broken) sharing the same spark of God’s image deep within. J. Philip Newell writes about the ancient song of creation and blessing that we have largely forgotten even though its notes are still printed on us like our DNA.
None of this is easy or clear-cut. The older I get the more I am able to see just how much of life is soaked in paradox. It’s not at all a comfortable thing, but I’m learning that life becomes more beauty-filled and mystery-pregnant when I choose to hold the tensions rather than fitfully try to wrestle them apart into opposing sides.
And so, as one miraculously mundane example, I’m struck, any day that I pay attention, by the holding together of joy and vulnerability. For me this plays out most clearly in my relationship with my son. My love for him is fierce and it comes with a level of vulnerable risk that brings me to tears in moments. I can imagine all the horrible things that could happen, how easily my heart could break because of this love. But joy holds together with this vulnerability. I laugh every day because of my kid and his goofy, heart-warming way of being in the world. His eyes aren’t tainted with all the brokenness that comes in life and so I’m gifted with “new-old” ways of seeing the world around me, with wonder and excitement and hope. And I can hear bits of the ancient song weaving its way through our shared lives.
Faith is filled with paradox. In some ways, it would be easier if my beliefs and worldview fit into clearly marked categories, but the more I hold the tensions and seemingly opposing ends, I find a lot of gray in my understandings of God and, while messier, it feels honest and humbling and integral–it feels like that mixture of vulnerability and joy.
Recently I listened to the book, “Tattoos on the Heart” by Gregory Boyle. I found it really inspiring—a collection of stories by Boyle who is a priest and works with gang members in L.A. providing employment, tattoo-removal, all manner of other types of support and love. Amidst many things, what kept standing out to me was Boyle’s conviction that God delights in the world that God made, not in spite of its brokenness, but as is. Boyle certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the struggle that these young men and women face, the violence, the poverty, the lack of opportunities—he’s given his life to witnessing these things and walking alongside, working in solidarity against oppression. He offers a perspective that, I believe, mirrors God’s own: there may be danger and evil in this world (and God knows these well), but God persistently sees the beauty and gift and wonder in the midst of the broken because that is how God’s eyes and heart work. And, it’s in seeing in this way, that the broken is invited to move towards wholeness (and those who do the breaking are invited to see and act in new ways). It’s in seeing in this way, that we are invited to also come alongside with our imaginations peaked, always watching for that spark of goodness in one another (and in ourselves), doing the justice work that is needed to take away whatever tries to tarnish the truth of what’s good, which is our true beginning and our end, the song of creation.
This Holy Week, we are faced with lots of action and paradox and tension. Children and adults with palm branches waving; a woman who kneels at Jesus’ feet, wiping them with ointment, tears, and her own hair; tables overturned in the temple; parables told; cursed fig trees; an intimate dinner where Jesus shows what it means to love by washing his disciples’ feet; agonized prayers in the garden; suffering, abandonment and denial; the tears and faithful witness of women; and death. Jesus shows us that God is there through it all – the struggle, the blessing, the beauty, the brutality (even in the places and moments when it seems like God isn’t). And, somehow, beyond my understanding, in God’s spacious economy of love, in the continuous refrains of a song as old as time, it all comes together to shape toward a story of life and resurrection. Goodness and love will win. And we can keep living in the tensions, facing the paradoxes because, as the beloved hymn says, nothing is lost to heart of God. No moment of goodness is lost—it’s all gathered up in the song that God continues to sing.