Looking back at my life nine years ago, I can’t help but ask myself what it was about that moment that made me suddenly want to follow Jesus. Why then, ten years since attending church for the first time, having had countless conversations with friends and relatives about their faith, did the Jesus story suddenly seem real and applicable to me?
Another journal entry, this one from September 2004, gives me the best answer I’ve found so far. (Again, not edited for language.)
Here are, in my mind, the fundamentals of Christianity:
1. Humility. We all fuck up, every day, like clockwork. It is part of being human. We can’t escape the flaws of our minds and souls any more than we can death, the ultimate flaw of our bodies. And as much as we all hate to admit it, we cannot do anything about this. We cannot become perfect, blessed, pain-free beings through force of will, good intentions, experience, book learning, or anything else. What, then, can help us?
2. Hope. The main story of Christianity is about a man who died and rose again. This is ludicrous, impossible, stupid. Yet aren’t all forms of hope? Hope means believing that, impossibly enough, love can come from our emptiness and weakness, that when all we see is dead ends and sacrifice and suffering, something else will come to fill the suffering and transform it. This is what I have a hard time believing, not to mention arguing, because what if it isn’t true? Still, even if those who hope are wrong and deluded, maybe they will still be able to do what they thought was impossible. At least they will have a reason to keep trying. Is it weak to need a reason? Yes. But so are we.
These, not particular Bible verses, are fundamentals worth clinging to. Neither one should be compromised. If you have humility without hope, you give up. If you have hope without humility, you become proud, and then you fall. If you have both, you just might be sane. Also, you just might be Christian.
Frankly, it blows my mind to read this, for one thing because I still believe it. Out of the mouths of babes! This is still the crux of my central struggle as a Christian: to accept my deeply flawed nature and to cling to hope despite that. One of those things that Shane Claiborne might describe as “simple and hard as crud.” It also blows my mind how close this is to Romans 7:15-25, a poignant description of the hope of Christ breaking through the apparent hopelessness of human nature. And I know I didn’t get it from the Bible, because I wouldn’t really read the Bible for years.
But this entry encapsulates my mental state at the time very well. Poised on the edge of adulthood, soon to leave home and go to college, I was getting to know both humility and hope better than ever before. On the one hand, as a teenager, I was struggling with the knowledge of my own limits, my inadequacy, and my propensity to do things I knew were wrong (disrespecting my family was a big one, according to those old journal entries). On the other hand, I felt that in leaving for college I’d be able to make a new start, and anything seemed possible.
My adult life stretched out before me; so far, it was unmarred by mistakes, but I knew it soon would be black with them. Also, I was painfully aware of all the adults around me who dealt with their mistakes and subsequent regret in all kinds of unhealthy ways, from addiction to complete social disengagement to unbridled anger. They were good people, nice people, well-intentioned people, but this did not save them from an endless cycle of pain and bad decisions and pain and bad decisions, lather rinse repeat. And I think all this made me unusually disposed to hope that somehow, there was a Way out of such a cycle.
I was scared and guilty and confused and unprepared. In short, I was ready for some good news. I was listening hard for it, and I heard it, heard the Good News as if it were spoken directly to me: blessed are the desperately lonely, the inveterate losers, the constant screw-ups, for they shall receive, because they don’t deserve it, the gift of abundant hope.