"We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb." - Christian Wiman
We all sat in creaky fold-out chairs. They were the brown kind, flecked with paint from a thousand art projects gone awry. Each one was stamped on the underside with "Property of _______" (fill in some church's name). A summer-blond, Steve leaned back until his weight was supported by only two legs of that brown chair. He was sitting on the right side of Jennifer, but — stealthily and with eyes all a-twinkle — reached around her back, past her long brown hair, and tapped her on the left shoulder. She turned around, and saw no one. When she turned back toward her right side, he was already facing the other way, feigning a conversation with Adam on his right. In those days, this is the way flirting was done.
We were in high school and this, after all, was church camp.
The sound system suddenly screamed its feedback and someone snapped their gum loudly. I don't remember much of what the speaker said (what with my eyes on Steve and Jennifer and all), but I do remember one phrase my friends and I gleaned from his talk:
"If not you, then who? If not now, then when?"
I remember watching all the Steves and Jennifers pair up and pray together and magic marker those words into the margins of their Bibles. I remember the zeal and the excitement of late night worship and confessing sins into a microphone, already soggy with tears. I remember unforgiving mattresses — creakier than the chairs — and mystery casserole from the camp kitchen. I remember long hugs and best wishes from so-sincere lips before September arrived with the promise of a new school year. And I also remember the challenges we gave each other on that last sappy day to pursue the kind of life that answered those rhetorical questions with action.
Those words became a mantra of sorts. A call to battle. A cry toward passion.
Because in those days, life and faith were most certainly about passion. And no one told Steve or Jennifer or me any different, there were no seasoned words whispered of a larger perspective in our ears, and we didn't know any better than to believe that "it" might really be about us—- that if the you that was me didn't go, then who would?
A big haunting No One is, of course, the implied answer.
But perhaps some questions are best left without an answer. Specifically rhetorical ones.
It would be years before I would begin do the hardest work of the Kingdom.
After the many times I raised my hand and committed my life to the mission field.
Past the degree in social work I obtained.
Through the season spent in urban ministry working as an advocate for racial reconciliation.
Now, don't get me wrong, these are all fine and good things — when they come from the right place. But there is a subtle pressure (that some of us are more susceptible to than others) to achieve superstar status as Christians. To see our faces on the flyers and our names on the headline. To do Great Things for the sake of the Things themselves. To speak to the young and impressionable with such resplendent fortitude and conviction that their eyes would well up with wonderment and aspiration, which would then find expression in radical acts of servanthood and love and sacrifice.
To teach the ants to keep marching.
To keep rupturing.
Because I've been a follower (or a fan, per the newest terminology) with the best of them and I've laid down my life and carried so many crosses that I began to think I was the savior to be crucified. I've jumped from one movement to the next, zealous to the point of blindness often. But what very few of the leaders of these movements ever did was turn me back toward myself. To the empire within, where Jesus said the Kingdom would be.
For me, action had become a way to look good and gain respect — but it obscured the more important inner work. It anesthetized the throbbing nerves of my aching interiority. And I needed it because my insides were bleeding so bad and hurting so raw from so many years of neglect that if I allowed myself to get off the action pill, it might just all catch up with me. An addiction to avoidance sanctioned by the church. Radical ruptures, indeed.
What I have asked myself in the days since those passionate experiences have left deafness and dryness in their wake is about the hard work of the Kingdom that has nothing to do with revolutionary activism. What about the work that is only done in the privacy of the human heart? Where are the voices encouraging people that they indeed can hear God speak within them — and that that is the Voice for which they ought to be straining? In all my followings, I rarely encountered a Christian leader who dared to enact Augustine's famous words and turn the Truth loose, trusting that it will defend itself.
There is a place for the doings. But there is a dearth in the land of those who proclaim that the Kingdom comes as a place to be. Perhaps rather than being taught, what we need more often is only to be reminded: God is already present. And active.
I have found some of these people. They are public school teachers with paper cuts. They are factory workers who enjoy beer and football. They are farmers and bankers and cashiers and students. They have dirt under their fingernails and when they stub their toe they tend to choose words a little more colorful than "Holy Moses!" Most of them, all their lives, have been bludgeoned by preachers to feel every inch of that clergy-laity distinction, and yet, they persist.
They give me hope.
Because when someone is hurting and shaking a fist at the sky for its silence or a blossoming young teenager graduates high school and wonders what she should do next, these are the people who have felt the tears well up in their own eyes or who have thought back to the many hollow unknowns they've tasted and had the courage to say, "I don't know."
They don't make up holy-sounding advice, dripping with disapproving morality. They don't quote a bunch of stiff Bible verses that invariable kill an honest conversation. They don't recommend passion or action as the antidote to whatever ails you. They admit their limitedness. In fact, they seem to have made friends with it.
And this gives people room to breathe. It makes them less fearful of making mistakes. It enlightens them to the possibility of God within them. To the promise of God’s specific guidance and the unique ways in which Kingdom comes in our individual lives.
It gives them room to find their own answers. Or to at least hear their own questions.
Rhetorical, though they may be.
Kelli Woodford lives in the Midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with her husband and seven blue-eyed children. There isn’t much she loves more than engaging conversations and crackling firesides. Especially combining the two. Kelli writes with some regularity at her personal blog and is a respected contributor for several online magazines, as well. Two published books also bear her stories, Mom in the Mirror and Not Afraid (a Civitas Press community project, edited by Alise Wright).
Image: Shattered dancer image, markos86 / Shutterstock.com