Written by Paul Earheart Brown
Guess what! It’s finally 2018!
If you ask me, it couldn’t have come soon enough. 2017 was a struggle, but hey, new year new me!
We’re just over a month in, and I don’t know about you, but I’m doing great. My resolutions are still intact, and I’m well on my way to finally bettering myself like I always wanted to. I’m finally going to eat healthy and exercise to get myself back in good shape, I’m going to reinvest in and revitalize my relationship, I’m going to be a better friend to my friends, I’m going to actually read my Bible every day, I’m going to pray more, and I’m definitely not going to miss a Sunday at church! This is really going to be my year!
OK, I can’t do this anymore.
Truth is, I’m still the same person I was last year. Truth is, I haven’t done any of the things I wanted to do this year. Truth is, I still struggle. And truth is, I’m sick of falsely optimistic motivational Christian posts telling me to just pray more or trust God more or believe more and everything will be OK.
Oh, you too?
Well, at least we aren’t alone in this.
At the beginning of this year, just like the beginning of every year, I’m confronted by the terrifying fact that my “new beginning” that I have been looking forward to all year is really just another day. Another week. Another month. Another year. It’s still hard to get up some mornings. It’s still hard to want to take care of myself. It’s still hard to get motivated to do school work. It’s still hard to be kind to people I don’t want to be kind to. It’s still hard to pray.
I think it’s incredibly tempting as Christians, especially in times like the turn of the year when everyone is focused on newness and happiness and improving themselves, to gloss over the difficult realities of life and portray ourselves as happier than we are, stronger than we are, better than we are just to keep up with what we think the ideal Christian should be. It’s so easy to put on a mask and do our best to keep anyone from knowing that we’re struggling. Because, let’s be honest. The church hasn’t always made it easy to admit our struggles. Sometimes I think we hold ourselves and each other to a standard of “holiness” or “Godliness” that makes it difficult for us to be genuine with each other.
This makes us further internalize the things we struggle with, which allow them to further eat away at us over time, ensnaring us in a cycle of destructive behavior. Trust me, repressing emotional, mental, or spiritual struggles only makes them worse. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, but sometimes it’s nice to hear it anyway.
It’s hard to be a Christian, and for too long, the church hasn’t acknowledged that. Instead, we shame ourselves and each other for falling short. For struggling with the things that “good Christians” shouldn’t struggle with. And sure enough, that makes us struggle more. Which makes us dig deeper into dependence, or depression, or guilt, or self-loathing, or anger, or bitterness. Next thing you know, we’re stuck in something so deep we don’t know how to get out of it.
I can’t help but think of a certain Samaritan woman who, perhaps in the midst of her deepest darkness, stumbled upon a wandering stranger at Jacob’s well. I can see the wrinkles on her face, the skin that had been scorched by too many lonely trips to the well at noon (while the other women visited the well early in the morning), and the emptiness behind her eyes as she sighs and musters what little strength she can to draw just one more day’s water. She is physically marked by her exclusion, her unending anguish plainly displayed on her downcast face. Ostracized by even her own people, she is stunned to find a Jewish man who is willing to look at her, let alone speak to her. She’s told of a spring that flows with living water, a spring that leads to eternal life, a spring that is available even to her.
But how could that be? If he knew the things she had done, the shame that she had brought upon her family and her community, he surely would understand that she was unworthy of this living water. And yet he did know. He told her all about her own struggles and invited her to participate in something beautiful anyway. I imagine this was the first time in this woman’s entire life that she was able to be honest and real about her past. About her continued struggles. She didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t. And in her vulnerability, she was met by grace. By forgiveness. By unconditional, agape love.
I’ve worked with youth and young adults for some time now, and it appears to me there is a common stumbling block that keeps young people stuck in this perpetual cycle of struggling with matters of faith. Too many Christians refuse to believe that they are worthy of the gift of grace that Jesus willingly offers. Too many Christians are unable to see themselves as worthy of the love they expect themselves to give to others. Too many Christians go to the well at noon, alone, suffering through the loneliness of their own self-exile because they are convinced that the living water we speak about in church can’t possibly reach them wherever they are. No uplifting Christian blog post, no inspirational quote, no admonition to just pray harder or read your Bible more or be better does anything to deal with the root of the problem: we don’t love ourselves. We can’t possibly see ourselves as worthy of love.
But there is a wandering stranger. A man who tells us that despite what we’ve done or who we are, the blessings of grace are extended even to us. Living the Christian life cannot proceed until we believe this. And I don’t mean “believe” like Americans like use the word, meaning we intellectually comprehend and agree with something. I mean ”believe” the way the New Testament writers use the word, meaning our new understanding transforms and transports us into a new way of being, a newly imagined reality where we live as if what we believe was actually true. Where we actually live as if we are loved. Such a new way of being caused this Samaritan woman to run back to her Samaritan village and tell her Samaritan friends and family that even they were welcome in this newly imagined reality called the Kingdom of God.
So as this new beginning called 2018 continues, I invite you to be real.
I invite you to be who you are with all that entails. I invite you to be liberated from the unrealistic, idealistic standards of what Christians should be. I invite you to explore yourself deeply and come to the belief that you are in fact worthy of love just as you are. I invite you to know that it’s OK to have bad days. I invite you to know that you are not alone. I invite you to feel comfortable struggling with your faith openly. I invite you to resist the temptation to visit the well at noon, alone, bearing your own burdens, but rather, I invite you to participate in vulnerability in community, to “bear each other’s burdens,” thus fulfilling the law of Christ. I invite you to participate in the glorious unfolding of the Kingdom of God that has drawn near, where even you are offered a seat at God’s banquet table. I invite you to be open and honest, genuine and vulnerable with each other and with yourself, embracing and living into the image of God that is and always has been present inside you. And I invite you to imagine a new reality, to be transformed and transported into a new way of being in this world, a way of love, grace, peace, and forgiveness where you are welcome as the child of God you are.
2018 will be hard. Just like 2017 was. Just like 2016 was. And that’s OK, because I promise we’ll get through this new beginning together.
So, here’s to all the new beginnings to come. May they be filled with genuine openness, celebration in the good times, honesty and vulnerability in the bad times, and God’s peace in knowing you were created to be worthy of grace and forgiveness. And love. Lots and lots of love.