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Category: Theology

His Hands

I grew up in a church that had a tiny chapel just off the entrance: south-facing stained-glass windows, folding chairs and a stage. On the wall was an image of Jesus, the Sallman Head, a 1940 portrait painting in which a brown-eyed Jesus looks up and to the right (stage left). He has no hands.

We children gathered in the chapel for “junior church,” and the sun in the windows shone upon our Savior as we sang our love for him. It tinted his face red – a blushing Jesus. I suspected it was because of our singing.

We were loud.

One of our teachers reminded us, “There’s a difference between shouting and singing.”

She never raised her voice. She always seemed angry.

Every theology is both sexual and political.

A Jesus-head with no hands is intellectual and safely compartmentalized. In a frame. On a wall. Beautiful in the mid-morning light. This Jesus who only receives. This Jesus who never speaks. This Jesus, chin tilted up, eyes open, always looking above. He is transcendent. He is not present.

We sang to him.

We stomped our feet and clapped our hands.

But Jesus never joined us. Never even seemed to care. He had other, more interesting things to occupy his mind. That big, beautiful brain behind a high forehead. We could not wake him.

It made me suspicious. What good is God in a frame?

After all, there is no such thing as a neutral theology.

But I’d been given an immutable God: insensitive to the presence of children – calm in the face of our shouting, indifferent to our praise. And I began to doubt.

My church had set aside children, shunted us off from the sanctuary to sing our songs in a tiny chapel far removed from the meeting for worship. They were unable to see in children the theological partners they needed. There in junior church, we were invisible – entrusted to the care of a two-dimensional Jesus.

But we were the image of Jesus. Joyful. Exuberant. Chaotic. Creative. Loud. We kept forgetting, “There’s a difference between shouting and singing.”

Meanwhile, our parents sat silently in meeting, chins tilted up, eyes closed, waiting. Moved by the rhythm of our distant shouting, they struggled to still their hands.

On Hunger

Sexuality is theology. My desire to know and be known is physical. My need revolves on questions of vulnerability, of openness, of intimacy, of nakedness. Both mystical union and communion are full-bodied experiences – the bread and the wine and the ecstasy. Why, then, is sexuality so tightly bounded by our weekly Sunday morning discourses? Are we attempting to protect God? To control God? Are we afraid?

I’ve heard the stories of a sterile, effeminate Jesus – pierced but never impregnated. “Who touched me?” God asks. And I look around confused, not because there is a crowd here and everyone has come into contact with Jesus, but because We. Do. Not. Touch.

Except we do (at least in secret), and I am ashamed. Ashamed to admit the truth of my desire. Ashamed to let others see who I am.

In worship I’ve learned to cover myself with fig leaves and hide in the bushes. God enters our meetings, calls my name and yours, but I’m hiding. “Who told you that you were naked?”

I close my eyes, feign meditation, and hope he’ll just go away.

But Jesus stays, determined to undress my oppression: economic, political, theological.

Jesus upends decency.

“How can you ask me for a drink?” she asks.

“He would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is,” he thinks.

But they had forgotten that even David entered the house of God, took the consecrated bread, and ate.

I, too, am hungry.

The Problem

02

I tend to live in my head. I plan. I question. I dream. I replay conversations. I practice presentations. I worry. Sometimes, while composing a response to an urgent email, I’ll suddenly realize I’m in a crosswalk, that there’s a car coming toward me, that the driver doesn’t see me. I stop thinking and react (not necessarily in that order), but then I wonder how I got there. Where did I just come from? Where was I going? And I remember. That email!

Living in my head works for me. I like to observe. I like to dissect. I like to wonder.

But something I’ve learned, observing others – not everyone lives and thinks as I do. Middle school students, for instance, spend a lot more time in their bodies. Which can be a problem.

I envision an engaging theological discussion. They want to run and scream in the gym (preferably while throwing dodge balls at each other and with the lights out).

I plan a time for students to share the truth about what’s hard for them, to listen in silence, to pray for one another. They instinctively understand the sacredness of the moment. But for them, it is difficult to sit and to focus for much more than a moment.

I ask a question about a Bible story. A student raises her hand and quotes a line from a Veggie Tales cartoon version of that Bible story. Half a dozen middle-schoolers begin singing the theme song. Some of them dance.

Something I’ve learned about me. Living in my mind does not necessarily make me a more patient person. And I’m not alone.

Contemporary Christianity has lots of adults like me, but it also has lots and lots of middle school students. Several studies show that we can expect to lose at least two-thirds of these students before they turn 20. Which is a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. Observing. Dissecting. Wondering.

In the 2nd century, a significant number of Christians were influenced by Gnostic thought, a kind of religious philosophy that separated the spiritual (good) from the physical (not good). That’s a simplistic (and short!) overview, but I’ve found my mind returning to Gnosticism again and again and again as I consider this problem. Our problem.

It is a problem that sees someone like me as spiritually mature, as more Christ-like. It is a problem that sees middle-school students as immature and, therefore, not at all like Christ (or not enough like Christ). We demand that they keep their bodies in check: don’t look; don’t taste; don’t touch. But they cannot help themselves. They are overwhelmed by music, hungry for experience, delirious with sunshine and wind in the leaves and open sky.

We want them to sit down. To sit still. To sit quietly. Just for five minutes. Please.

We let them play games. But we sometimes intimate that it is a reward (and a privilege). That it can be taken away. I’m serious. Listen to me. Stop that. Stop. Go sit against the wall. Hand me the dodge ball, please. Hand it to me. Thank you.

I hear myself.

And I recognize, sometimes, that I am part of this problem.

I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross. I have imagined that if I leave the body behind, my mind might find a way to float over that deep, dark hole.

I call it freedom.

Middle school students recognize the lie. They would not leave behind their bodies. There is too much fun to be had. Shouting, for instance. Rolling down a hill. Jumping into water. Climbing a tree. Running. Running. Running. Running.

I watch them. Sometimes I join them. And I wonder – as I’m running – whether the problem is the problem. I want them to grow up and be more like me. Quiet. Thoughtful. Polite. They want me to join in the game, to help keep order, to know where the Band-Aids and ice packs can be found.

We are so different. But on a Wednesday night, running through a darkened gym, I get hit in the head with a dodge-ball. And I realize that the real problem – if it exists – is that we do not spend more time together.

I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross.

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