"O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me." Thomas a Kempis
For years now, I've had this quote from Imitation of Christ as my email footer on my yahoo and hotmail accounts. I'm not a fan of email footers in the way I'm not a fan of personalized license plates, but I remember when I first read this quote, and knew that I was going to have to carry this around somehow and communicate it to people... it got right to the heart of my faith, which survives through everything because of experiences I've had where God was very very close, where He Himself comforted me. Some of these experiences happened when I was 10, 11 years old, some later, and those experiences of His closeness, of the Truly Real wafting into my awareness and gently overpowering me, are the bedrock of my faith. That's one reason I find it really hard to focus on complicated theological conversations... they seem surreal, beside the point. Combined with my tendency towards intellectual sloth, this has resulted in my ambivalence, and sometimes my outright hostility, towards theological discourse.
I guess you wouldn't necessarily know that from my bookshelves. I've always been drawn to theologians and to churches, because these are the people and the places where God is being pursued most visibly, and it used to be true of me that the pursuit of God was really at my core, or at least I believed it to be. I've always been drawn to the explanations that emphasize the Mystery of God, the relational, the difficult to describe. I have had these direct experiences of God in my life, but most of the time it's as though He is in my peripheral vision. Most of the time, the moment I try to grab at Him, He fades. My favorite poetic illustration of this is from the last part of "The Waste Land", where T.S. Eliot alludes to the Road to Emmaus:
"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead, up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you,
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?"
I've had many times where I've been with other believers, and caught myself repeating that line to myself over and over again... "who is that on the other side of you?" I hope I've never actually said that out loud... but it's possible.
So this weekend, I headed up to Philadelphia with five of the coolest guys I know to hear Pete Rollins speak. I was excited, but honestly, I didn't expect to "get" it. I've read most of How (Not) To Speak of God, and I've been having this persistent sense that he's saying things I feel but could never put into words myself... at least, I would never be able to frame them as philosophical arguments because I just straight up don't have the education to do so. I'd frame them in what I guess is the typically feminine language of relational dynamics, in large generalities about what I believe the nature of God to be from my experience. Of course, people politely listen to me when I pipe up, but frankly it is easy for folks to be dismissive of that kind of argument and my awareness of that makes me weak in my defense of my perspective.
Anyway, blah blah blah. Sitting there listening to Pete yesterday, I was struck by a couple of things. One was that he was non-linear, which was a great relief to me. People who try to talk about things as big as the nature of God and a radical re-thinking of the church piss me off when they try to be all linear and sermon-outliney about it. Something about that approach suggests riding a squeaky tricycle when you could be roller-blading, ice-skating or even jet-skiing. It lacks grace and it seems absurdly simplistic. I was picturing Pete painting on a canvas, throwing a blotch of color here and a shape there, and as he talked, the picture started to fill in and make sense. It was also like listening to a complicated jazz or classical piece, where you can't quite take it all in, but you'll hear a repeated theme, or a phrase of music, that takes your breath away, stops you in your tracks, and you're singing it for the rest of the day.
Another thing that struck me was a throw-away comment he made about some of his most profound experiences of God happening to him when he was alone in his room. I thought BAM! Just like me!... and I wondered if what I see in the emergent movement is a LOT of people like me, who are in love with God... even if they're really shitty at showing Him that love... and who are still clinging to that, taking their frustrations with the tribalism of the collective church experience, with so much that seems to distract from the primary objective of just being besotted with God and Christ, and coming together with the strangeness of these shared experiences of the Love That Will Not Let Us Go, experiences that you'd find damned difficult to coherently speak about on the best of days. So we're just trying to intuit and sniff out... "are you like me?" cuz you can't REALLY talk about it.
By the final worshippy bit, led by this really good group from Canada named The Filid, I was ready to face It... why I was here... and it sort of came at me all in a rush, this sudden recollection of who I used to be and how much I used to chase after God. I'm not unusual in the fact that other things have crowded it out... that happens to pretty much everyone... but I think I've tried to kill it, too... the pursuit of God, the longing for Him, because it hurts to want Someone who stays at the periphery, and it hurts to wrestle with all of the competing ideas folks have chucked at me about Him and it hurts to really REALLY struggle with my darker side. At the final song, "Water", written and sung by Dave Warne, I dissolved into a teary, runny-nosed mess of remembering and wanting and longing and regret and probably some confusion (along with an occasional mild sense of revulsion at all the snot pouring out of my nose)... and was astonished at the sudden sense of homecoming at the end of a day of philosophical talks. Ain't that just the durnedest thang? Really though... something happened, something cracked open. Not sure what to think about it yet, but there you go.
Ack. This post is too long. I'll leave it there. To be continued...