I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:
It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.
I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.
I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.
How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?
In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!
Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.
I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.
My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.”
It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.
I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?
This new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.
We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.
We are old and we are young.
We are alive and we are dying.
We are honest and we are terrified.
We are many and we are one.
We are lost and we are loved.
We are naive and we are wise.
We are stupid and we are broken.
We are found and we are aimless.
We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.
How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?
I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.
I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.
It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.
…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.
So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)
The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.
And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.