Embracing Complexity and Contradiction
May God use me today as a mouthpiece of His word.
I am calling in today from my home in London as I finish up my PhD. I’ve had the opportunity to spend the greater part of the last decade traveling all over the world. I’ve spent extended time in Latin America, studying and working. But, I’m originally from a small town in Central Illinois. A farming community with one large paper products factory that employs most of the surrounding area. I now only visit the US once a year. Thus, the way I keep up to date on what’s going on in my home country is mostly through my family and friends.
When all of the protests for the Black Lives Matters Movement started up again my dad called me to discuss what I thought about it all and about where he stands in the whole privilege debate as a rural, white man who grew up in extreme poverty. Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me blankly, “Do you think we are better off today than we were in the 1960s regarding racism.”
I, ever the academic, offered an explanation for why that wasn’t the right question. Listening to my spiel on the “hidden” institutionalized racism in the prison systems, he finally cut me off to say, “Claire, I think it is clear. We are much WORSE off than we were in the 1960s. We have so much more information now. We are more aware of what is right and wrong. There is no longer any sort of reason that we should still be racist.”
Humbled by my father’s succinct insight, I began to wonder, why is it that we still allow for racism to exist so blatantly and obviously in our world?
I think it has something to do with our limitations as humans. Too much information, although my dad sited it as a positive attribute of today’s society, also reveals how complex and full of contradictions our world is (and perhaps always has been). In order to confront each day, our brains protect us from losing all sense amongst all of the information by placing things, places, people, actions into simplistic categories.
I’ve been feeling a real call from God recently to avoid simplistic categories and instead to sit uncomfortably in the complexity and contradictions of our world. And so, I offer you all the invitation today to accompany me in this space to see what God might be saying to each of us.
The readings for this week are filled with a wonderful array of human emotions. Upon my first reading of them, I was left a bit numb. Overwhelmed by how I might be able to weave these various parts of the Bible together into one coherent sermon. I think this might, in part, be a reflection of how I’ve personally reacted to all of the events that have taken place around the world since January of this year. I’ve felt overwhelmed and relegated to a state of numbness, a sort of suspension of emotions, for quite some time.
I feel that it would be an easier task to set for myself to simply pick just one of today’s readings to meditate and comment on. But I felt this deep calling to ty to hold the segments together as one coherent piece. Just as God holds each and every one of us in his precious embrace, I hope to do the same with these excerpts of our Holy Scripture.
We are first given the story of how Rebecca becomes betrothed to Isaac in Genesis. Isaac needs a wife with a few rather specific qualities, and so he sets his servant out to find such a woman. We enter the story at the point where Isaac’s servant has traveled for a time without much luck of finding a qualified suitor. The servant prays to God for a woman to offer him a drink of water as a signal of whom shall become Isaac’s wife. Lo and behold a woman walks up in the next verse, she offers him water, she has all the right qualifications, he performs the betrothal ritual, he gets her parents approval, and they journey back to Isaac.
I think that we are supposed to be inspired by the way in which the servant sincerely prays, and God answers him. This immediate fulfillment of prayer is something that I know I could really get on board with! The Old Testament world is filled with these sorts of cause and effect stories. I find great comfort in them really. Someone prays or is asked by God to do something and the thing happens. Or there is some sort of back and forth, maybe someone tries to run from God, but God’s will gets accomplished in the end anyway. It’s comfortingly simple.
The next swath of readings that we are presented with are poetically beautiful coming from Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Zechariah. They note the loving way that we are to be in relationship with God. We are lovers, fair ones of the Beloved. We are daughters of the King. We are the faithful ones of the LORD.
In Psalms 145, we get a clear view of who and what God is according to David. God is compassionate, slow to anger, loves all of his creation. We get a real sense of a comforting God. And all we have to do is praise God’s name and tell others of His love. Simple.
All of these readings from the Old Testament point towards an assumed state of positive relation with God. We might be able to read these and rejoice in how loved we are, or how easy it is to pray and receive God’s answer so quickly. We even might begin to find ourselves at the center of this relationship. God works for us. God loves us. End of Story.
But, we know that this isn’t actually the end of our story as Christians. Yes, we so desperately want to see our relationship with God as one of simplicity and deep love. But then we are pointed towards Paul who writes a rather soul-emptying letter to the Romans. In the cultural context of which I now live, here in the UK, Paul’s verses might even be considered an uncomfortable demonstration of Paul’s inner thoughts and emotions. Beyond Earthly cultures, as Christians who just read of all the wonderful aspects of our humanity in relation to God, Paul’s words might leave us with tensed shoulders and furrowed brows.
Paul writes that he, and really means all of us, are at the core sinners. We might want to do “the right thing” but there is something that stops us—the sin which is found at the center of our beings.
This is a rather drab, depressing depiction of the human condition if it were left on its own. Today, we could easily replace sin with the word selfishness or racism. These are the sins at our core in 2020. I have felt this same hopelessness that Paul expresses in the first few verses over the seemingly long durée of these past few (can we say several yet?) months.
But luckily for us, Paul doesn’t leave us completely with this sentiment of despair. No. He ends his lament by pointing us towards God. Through holding God at the center, we may be able to begin the life-long journey to overcome our sinful human nature.
In the last reading we have Jesus’ insight to all of this that I’ve said so far according to Matthew. Jesus seemingly brings together all of these readings by provocatively telling us that although we pray and claim to believe, we missed all of the signs that our prayers have been answered.
John the Baptist wailed while Jesus “played the flute” and neither approach clued us in to what was happening. God’s chosen people missed that the prayer that they had been praying for generations, that prayer for the arrival of the messiah, was if fact being answered! There is something in this about the ego of these “beloved” followers getting in the way of them recognizing God when He presents Himself to them.
Jesus even remarks that at the end of the day, it is probably better that the learned didn’t recognize what was going on so that the story of God revealing Himself to the world could play out through, what Matthew terms over and over again, the “little ones.” The ones that the rest of society had cast away and judged as unworthy.
A message that we take for granted as something that we know and understand in particular configurations of the Christian church today, would have been incomprehensibly radical at the moment when Jesus said it or when Matthew wrote it down. This is of course what we call the preferential option for the poor. Our love and attention should be placed on those who society marginalizes. But more radical still, these marginalized people are meant to be at the center, those leading, Jesus’ church.
Today, I hope to emulate this radical-ness through focusing the rest of my time on the concept of complexity and contradiction as it applies to us as Christians living in 2020.
We are just as much beloved followers of God as we are sinful human beings. We are just as much those who expectantly pray as we are those who miss the signs when they are right in front of us.
After days spent prayerfully mulling over today’s readings, I only saw their contradictions. However, now, I am so very grateful for those very contradictions themselves.
For me, they point towards a way of being Christian that I don’t know that we are always very good at. We have a God who holds contradictions together seemingly effortlessly through a sort of grace and mercy that we as humans cannot comprehend. He does it so effortlessly that in Psalms 145, we take for granted what it truly means to be slow to anger and merciful.
He welcomes us into His embrace as contradictory-filled human beings. Not asking us to completely end our sinfulness, as that is not possible, but rather to offset it by placing Him at the center of our lives.
I know we are in a moment where complexity and contradictions in our world and in the behavior of others feels, and to some degree is, unacceptable. I hold this is in part due to the unprecedented insecurity and uncertainty we are now collectively facing world-wide. The curtain has been lifted for those of us who have lived with the privilege of never having experienced this insecurity before. We are now so incredibly aware of all of the world’s evils.
However, as Christians, I do think that God calls us to veer away from any sort of “cancel” culture where we disregard anyone or anything that offends with one (or many) action. He invites us to uncomfortably sit with one another in the contradictions we create, live out, and experience in others.
This is not a call for any sort of “white-washing” of history or current events. This is meant to be a tension filled observation. How do we hold those who endanger the lives of others in the same accepting embrace as those who are in danger? How do we remember that our heroes also made mistakes and were even cruel at moments to those who were closest to them?
Returning to the conversation with my dad that I began today’s talk with, when we were discussing difference between a white person versus a black person growing up in poverty, I felt so viscerally the complexity and the contradictions that lie in the current discourse on privilege. It is easy to ignore these comments made by white impoverished America, because it makes us uncomfortable and perhaps doesn’t always help the narrative of justice for Black people that we are so adamantly want to promote. The way that my dad and I were finally able to reconcile privilege was not through a sort of base point of entering this world with more or less. But rather through focusing on how he and I get to move through this world anonymously with no one questioning our right to belong.
My dad taught me from a young age how to change the words that we use and the accent we have to fit in with those in our surroundings. This has helped me a great deal as even now, I’m not speaking to you all in what could perhaps be considered my native accent. In this way, my dad, even coming from extreme poverty, gets to reveal his socioeconomic background when and how he wants. I offered to my dad, look Bal, my husband who is British Indian, doesn’t have that same privilege afforded to him. My husband is second generation British, grew up in urban poverty, but is trained as a finance lawyer and speaks more eloquently than I, yet still when a senior lawyer saw him walk into a room, he told my husband to go fetch him a cup of coffee because he thought he was one of the wait staff. My husband doesn’t get to control his own narrative as he moves around in this world.
Privilege isn’t something that is as simple as cause and effect. It isn’t the Old Testament beginning and end stories that we crave. It is complex and at time counterintuitive and contradictory. We must begin to embrace this and steer clear of the reductive buzzwords.
I don’t come to you with answers about how to fully embrace complexity and contradictions. But, I do offer the various examples that God provides us across the Bible. Jesus gets angry in the temple and overthrows tables, yet he teaches about the radical love we should have for each and every one of our neighbors despite race, nationality, or creed. He is given the name of Prince of Peace, yet so clearly states in Matthew’s gospel that he did not come to create peace but to cut pre-existing ties in this world. He preaches to his disciples to keep faith when they are full of doubt, yet his last words as he hung on the cross echo across time, “My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus is a confusing, complex figure filled with contradictions. We tend to shy away from his contradictory nature as well. But, it’s all there. All in our Holy Scripture. We aren’t asked to pick the parts of Jesus that we like or feel comfortable with. The same goes for the Bible as a text on the whole. And I think that this notion can even be expanded to apply to all of the humans with whom we are cohabitating on this earth at this moment in time.
Right now, across the globe, people are calling for radical change. But, we know, as Christians that truly radical change won’t happen if we stay divided. We are meant to be exemplars on this Earth for a different way of being. We are meant to be building the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now. The glimpses of the kingdom that we get in the Bible are filled with diversity—and not just the type we might be comfortable with. It is filled with tax collectors, prostitutes, and children.
And so I leave you all with the charge, in this time where we are demanded to take sides, to take a moment to find ways to hold the complexities and contradictions of this world together as God so readily holds and accepts the contradictions that we, his followers, are made up of.
In the space of complexity and contradiction, while we take a moment to sit uncomfortably and deeply listen, may we hear the message that God has for each of our lives. May we have the strength to emulate the mercy and grace that our Lord exemplifies for us. Amen.