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I worry that our discipleship groups, catechism classes, and sermons teach us how to defend a God who needs no defense.
Our faith prioritizes being correct, not meeting the God who invites us on a journey, on a path alongside others who are nothing like us. We become people with answers instead of people with the Spirit, people who end conversations instead of start them.
The cohort of young adults I lead traveled to Washington, D.C., last week for our first big learning intensive: a 10-hour road trip in a 12-passenger van, a full-day visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture, a 3-hour conversation with Navajo author and leader Mark Charles, a panel with D.C. leaders, and a celebration of HBCUs at a Black Baptist church founded in 1802. All in three days.
We’re a diverse group from varied spaces: Black, brown, and white, richer and poorer, Baptist, Methodist, and Reformed. Last night over my mediocre cornbread and better-than-average venison chili, we debriefed the trip with a simple question: “How did you experience God last week?”
As I listened to our cohort share, I noticed that we had all found God most fully in the trip’s messiness and tension, in raw and honest wrestling, not in neat and tidy doctrines. It was encountering ideas, opinions, and views that challenged, pushed, and prodded us to look at scripture through fresh eyes, to rehash our theologies as they intersected most directly to real suffering and real hope.
The most impactful experience of God for the majority of our Cohort was our conversation with Mark Charles. Mark spent two hours openly sharing his own wrestling with a God who didn’t seem present on the Navajo reservation, a Jesus who didn’t seem to like Gentiles (calling the Canaanite woman a dog), and more presently: our nation’s push for the sort of reparations that seem more like a thinly veiled attempt to redistribute stolen land from one unrightful owner to another. This was hard stuff that did not lend itself to tidy answers.
I think we resonated with Mark Charles because we felt a sense of deep belonging in his theological honesty. We didn’t need to meet his wrestling with fear, anxiety, or an immediate rebuttal. Instead, we met God.
The enthusiasm these hard conversations generated for our cohort made me think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote, “But we note that some of the best theologies have come not from the undisturbed peace of a don’s study, or his speculations in a university seminar, but from a situation where they have been hammered out on the anvil of adversity, in the heat of the battle, or soon thereafter.” And Allan Boesak, South African anti-apartheid leader, who echoes Barthian language when he wrote, “It is in the concrete experience of actual human experience that the word of God shows itself alive and more powerful.”
These D.C. wrestlings so genuinely brought our cohort into a deeper love of God and love for scripture. It makes me wonder if we often approach discipleship from the wrong direction. We start with clarity — with clear and simple answers — and then move into messiness if we have the time. But perhaps, we encounter God most fully when we begin in the middle of the mess.