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I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the phrase. In a backyard Bible school. Yes, that was a thing for a while, holding Vacation Bible School in neighborhood backyards. Some sort of outreach emphasis, I suppose.
“Everyone has a Jesus-shaped hole in their heart. We all try to fill that hole with lots of different things, but only Jesus fits. Only Jesus can fill the hole,” said the charming, earnest mother teaching our little gaggle of kids.
Obviously, it left an impression on me.
Six or eight years later, now I’m in high school. My youth group crooned, “Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above him there’s no other. Jesus is the Way.”
More or less, I suppose I still agree with those youthful statements. They’re not how I speak now. I’ve read careful, convincing critiques of them both. The “answer” metaphor in the youth group paean is problematic. I recall a college classmate in the 1980’s telling me the only “answer” for apartheid in South Africa was relentless Billy Graham crusades.
Nonetheless, neither my VBS nor youth group memories is that far from Augustine’s well-known “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”
Restless in Seattle
Visiting Seattle—my childhood home—is always stimulating, stretching, filled with memories, and a mini-spiritual crisis. Seattle is so thoroughly secular, and hardly seems the worse for it. In fact, its “happy pagans” really seem happy.
I’m in a crowded grocery store on Sunday morning when normally I’d be in worship. The place seems exciting, abuzz. The Seattleites—so many varieties and so many colors—are picking up stuff to eat during the Seahawks game or to take on their sailboat or toss in their daypack before a small hike in the mountains. I’ll concede I’m probably over-awed, bright-lights-big-city, country parson agog over a mundane grocery store on a Sunday AM.
Of course it isn’t so simple or so clean. Hiking may be good for you, but hikers are still anxious and overwhelmed like the rest of us. All of those exciting people in the grocery store were troubled souls, with fractious relationships, fears, neuroses, loneliness, and the rest of the lineup.
But are they any more so than the Christians I know? Any more so than those whose Jesus-shaped hole is filled, whose hearts are no longer restless? I’m not sure. I don’t see any great difference between the happy pagans and the middling Christians I know.
Obviously this isn’t a scientific study. I’m sharing my immediate, gut-reaction. In reality, these are deep, complex issues. And I don’t want to hold Christians to some shiny, perfectionistic standard. But I do wish I could sense a greater (or any) difference. And I kind of wish that I’d stop envying those happy pagans.
To Its End
Meanwhile, I see struggling, little churches in Seattle. To call the church in Seattle “irrelevant” is to over-estimate its power and influence.
In the parts of Seattle I frequent, the church buildings are small and dated, often surrounded by a high chain-link fence. A tired plastic banner on the fence proclaims “Welcome” or some invitational message, often both in English and another language—Amharic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish.
I don’t doubt that good mustard seed things are happening in these churches. In fact, many of them double as daycare centers for kids or shelters for the homeless. They distribute food and give space to public health clinics offering free flu shots. Needs like this are multiplying rapidly in a teeming city. And whether anyone notices or not, lots of churches are responding. But it feels as if the demands just grow and grow, while the church becomes smaller and weaker.
The church as we know it is disappearing. But the church as we have never known it is appearing. I saw this on Facebook. It makes me hopeful.
I believe that the Son of God, through his Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community, united in true faith, gathered from the entire human race for everlasting life. This Christ has done from the beginning of the world and will do to its end.*
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
But they really do seem to be such happy pagans.
*Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54