“We Fall Down”
By Donnie McClurkin
“This is what it means to be penitent: to face ourselves honestly and with hope. Truth — the kind of truth that sets us free — is hopeful honesty. It makes change possible. There is, of course, a way of being honest that is less than truthful, an honesty that is lacking in hope.”
By a lot of accounts, this is an embarrassing time to be associated with Jesus. Many of our worst ideas and fears about God are pegged on Jesus. A quick glance through church history seems to reveal that most denominations have accepted, in one variation or another, that Jesus will someday come back to account for all the wayward things people have said and done. For some, this teaching may evoke the image of an exacting, unforgiving, even bloodthirsty Judge who desires vengeance. Not surprisingly, it’s easy for me to reject this kind of “savior” who is so unlike Jesus!
But I feel doubly troubled by the absence of justice in a world where death-dealing powers are ostensibly in charge. I feel frustrated with stock phrases like, “God is love” or “Be the change you want to see.” Although this language is intended to focus on inclusivity and personal agency, it often results in the preacher taking a nap. Spirituality of this kind seems to unwittingly pacify the vulnerable and grieving with promises of unity based on self-sacrifice and unreality. Rather than inviting us to a radical call of nonviolent liberation and holy disruption, this form of inclusivity seems focused on avoiding conflicts and, strikingly, still leaves the work of righting wrongs in human hands. Indeed, no one from the Christian left seems to know how God himself will accomplish justice or end evil in the human story. Yet Mary, our matron, saw this narrative burst wide open as she experienced justice from God’s own powerful hand:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).
She indeed rejoiced because of this “good news.” I also joyfully welcome a strong God who makes good on his promises. Of course, I’d be lying to myself (and you my friends) if I just left it like that, as if faith in those promises were as simple as believing certain things. So let me complicate my longing for God’s powerful intervention by admitting to some real doubt—not theoretical doubt—but doubt that began in my own weaknesses, in particular times and places.
In the season of Lent we try to make space to single-mindedly focus on God. It is a needed moment in our yearly rhythm to clear away the dusty and cluttered grip we often can’t seem to loosen so that God’s Spirit begins to possess us in a new way. I’ve chosen to focus on the role of honesty on this second Sunday of Lent, which seems fitting because so much of what needs to be cleared out and swept away are the lies we tell ourselves. The second half of Psalm 19 points us truth-seekers precisely on that path:
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
12 Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.
13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
In a world of “alternative facts” and governmental secrecy, combined with those of us who live in quiet desperation, we must not allow ourselves to compartmentalize the truth. We must see ourselves as members, one to another. We must see ourselves in a coherence with the world, which includes all the good and all the ugly. No separation.
Burley Coulter, an iconic character in Wendell Berry’s fictional Port William membership, says to a world he knows is coming to an end:
“What is done is done forever. I know that. I’m saying that the ones who have been here have been the way they were, and the ones of us who are here now are the way we are and to know that is the only chance we’ve got, dead and living, to be here together. I ain’t saying we don’t have to know what we ought to have been and ought to be, but we oughtn’t to let that stand between us. That ain’t the way we are. The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t. What has been here, not what ought to have been, is what I have to claim. I have to be what I’ve been and own up to it, no secret faults. Because before long I’m going to have to look the Old Marster in the face, and when He says, ‘Burley Coulter?’ I hope to say ‘Yes, Sir. Such as I am, that’s me.’” (p. 136-137)
Or perhaps Jesus puts it better,
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
“See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Luke 13:34-35)