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My most anxiety-inducing assignment while in seminary was leading chapel. Students, still in the learning stages of grasping Reformed theology, took turns preaching a sermon to a room full of experts on the subject: their professors. We called it “worship,” but it felt like a de facto exam. On my chapel date, the lectionary text was from John’s gospel, but I hadn’t yet taken the course “John’s Gospel.” Every sentence got self-scrutinized by my rookie’s understanding of theology, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I think my most fervent prayer that week was that the professor who taught “John” wouldn’t come to chapel. (He did. He was very kind.)
I had a deep fear, at that stage of my life, of saying something that was deemed wrong. Because if I did that, everyone would know I was a fraud. That I wasn’t qualified. That I wasn’t called, or fit for ministry, or that women shouldn’t do this after all.
Oh, and I would feel stupid.
It’s been ten years since I graduated from seminary. I like to think I have more reliable instincts now, a little more information about what sounds Reformed and what doesn’t, what’s likely to raise eyebrows and what’s not. I have a better sense of which of my questions, inklings, ideas, and wonderings are better left unspoken. (Even though my hunch is that they are not mine alone.)
I’ve wondered about this impulse, and what is has taken from me. I wonder what the culture of correctness that I find myself in, what this idol of orthodoxy, has taken from all of us. I’ve wondered if saying something wrong — for which you later must apologize, or stand corrected, or change your mind, or be forced to reconsider, or choose to back away from — feels like a deeper sin than being selfish, or lazy, or unkind, or indifferent. When I think of pastors, I wonder if a worse fate awaits the ones who have been expressed the wrong ideas about hell or gender or sanctification than those who sexually harassed their intern or who have embezzled collection plate money.
It feels a bit like we believe that sin is to fall short, and we all do that. We shrug our shoulders at sin. But to say something that is deemed unorthodox is to betray the group. It is to risk your, all of our, God-given identity. And we don’t shrug at that — we turn our backs on it.
I was at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing last week, soaking up the beauty of words and the company of folks who have the courage to say them. There were three distinct moments during that weekend that I remember a rush of feeling come over me. A feeling of relief, of relaxing. A loosening of my spirit’s clenched muscles. All three were moments when someone celebrated the freedom that comes with being wrong.
“The revelation of ignorance is a beginning,” said Billie Mark during one of those moments. “It releases a creative energy.” Which is to say — it opens up space for the Holy Spirit to get in there and do her life-giving work.
I’m beginning to wonder if a life of faith requires me to be willing, ready, perhaps even eager to be wrong. I might discover — once again — that is it not my correctness, my right-thinking, my righteousness that saves me. That grace is not a riddle to be solved, but a gift to be received.
If there is one thing I know about God, it is that God shows up in the mess. The mistake. The weakness. God may be more present in our lack of certainty than in our dogged assuredness.
And if there’s one thing I know about being human, it’s that making mistakes is the only way we learn anything new.
“See, I am doing a new thing!” says the God we love. “Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
I could be wrong, but to me… that sounds like such good news.
Photo by Brooklyn Morgan on Unsplash
My four-and-a-half-year-old is learning to ride a bike. Or, rather, not learning to ride a bike, because she’s terrified of falling. She staunchly refuses to go fast enough to achieve the required balance. So, she rolls along in slow motion, weaving around precariously and begging me not to let go. The thing is, she’s wearing a helmet, and since it’s been so cold, she’s wearing multiple layers of clothes, and furthermore, her bike is tiny. A fall probably wouldn’t even hurt all that much. But no amount of this kind of reasoning makes a dent in her fear, and so for the time being she is missing out on the joys of a two-wheeler.
I sometimes wonder if that describes me too.
Great article, Kate. I remember those days at Calvin Sem, as well. I came into the Reformed perspective from a more evangelical/Baptist background, so I was always a little fearful as to whether I had my Reformed theology on target or not. As a matter of fact I wondered if others in Sem were on track, as well. I was afraid to talk out and afraid not to. But as you suggest, maybe we just have to lighten up. After all, there are so many differences among Christians. Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, and on and on into the hundreds. I don’t think any will be condemned by God for their beliefs. Do you? But beyond that there are devout Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, and on and on. And all are mutually exclusive, including Christians. Are they all going to hell?
I may be wrong, but if you ask me, when we get to heaven we will see people of every religion, even people of no religion. And when we Christians ask how could so many non believers be up here in heaven, God will say, “Those you see here in heaven are not here because of what they believed, but in spite of what they believed.” I may be wrong, but I believe in a good and gracious God. I’ll take my chances on being wrong, but I really think I’m probably right. As you say Kate, I could be wrong, but to me… that sounds like the really good news.