I’m a little bit of a hoarder. It’s not that I enjoy clutter, or that I want my house to be so crammed full of stuff that you have to turn sideways to walk the hall, or call the fire department for a rescue mission to get out of the bathroom, but I find comfort in the familiar. In the gifts people have given me. In the memories attached to the items. In a huge stack of books next to my bed, just waiting for the mood to strike for me to read the right words at the right time. (There are 27 currently, just next to the bed, in case you’re wondering). It’s definitely a fault of mine.
The thing is, for better or worse, I tend to attach the same behaviors to thoughts and memories and feelings. It’s not always a bad thing. There are Christmases from fifteen years ago that I still remember like the back of my hand, and I gravitate towards having exactly the same experiences each year just to reclaim a bit of that joy. When I was growing up and we decorated the Christmas tree every year, my dad had this silver bell ornament, and every single year when he pulled it from the ornament bin, he would tell us the story of how his third grade teacher gave him that ornament. It’s predictable, yes, but sometimes the predictable is comfort embodied.
Here’s where it gets sticky, though. What happens when you attach these same expectations to your faith? In case you’re wondering, I can tell you exactly what happens. When the predictable becomes chaotic, and when God doesn’t behave the way you were taught that he would, and when Jesus feels so far away that you can’t even remember if he was real or if he was just something that you held onto for a while so long ago that you’re not sure you imagined it, your very foundation implodes. It’s a lonely place to be, and a scary place. A place that feels like there is no purpose, no rhyme or reason, just a gradual unveiling of your secret fears. And it feels interminable, as if nothing will ever be the same again.
Mine is not a unique struggle. There are many people who have wrestled with their faith after hard things happened in their lives. Some of them in the Bible, some from modern life, but we all have one thing in common: We desperately want to give up, turn our backs, and admit defeat, but for some reason we just can’t. In talking to My Crazy Lady about it, the reason I have come up with for continuing to wrestle when everything in me wants to give up, is the Spirit of God. That same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead who now lives in you (Romans 8:11). As My Crazy Lady is fond of saying, “Either you’re holding onto him or he’s holding onto you.” Thank God for that.
In wrestling, though, you can count on a few things. One, you will be exhausted. Your mind will constantly race in attempts to reconcile what you were raised to believe, what you read in the Bible, and what you are currently experiencing. There is this fierce need to make your beliefs and your experiences congruent, like arm wrestling between good and evil. Two, you will be misunderstood, maybe even judged, by people who are either more trusting of the process than you are, or who are threatened by your audacity. This has been maybe the worst part for me, the fact that many people who I have respected in the faith have rebuked me for my questioning, or have felt sorry for me as if I’m a sinner condemned to eternal damnation because I have bought into the lies of the world, rather than respecting the fact that any faith worth having must have enough substance to withstand my questions. Three, it will hurt. Not a little bit. It will hurt like a piece of you is dying inside, as if your soul and your spirit and your psyche are being torn from each other and separated and hung to dry like meat in a salt house, drying out until you’re not sure it will ever be anything useful again. Filet mignon transformed into beef jerky. Like Jacob, wrestling with the angel until dawn when he is renamed Israel, you may limp for the rest of your life from the injuries you sustained in the process. Four, there is no rushing the process. It takes how long it takes, and the process might never be over.
The church I was raised in was pretty conservative and traditional. It gave me a rock solid foundation for the scriptures and how to live out my Christian walk in real life, and there were good people there who loved me and prayed for me and supported me. They did the best they could. But, let’s be honest. No matter how well-intentioned, it’s possible to get sucked into the routine of faith, and stop asking the “why” questions. In knowing the scriptures and being trained in practicing my faith, I found myself gravitating towards my “favorite parts.” Parts like, “God will work all things together for good,” or “He will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is stayed on him,” or “For I know the thoughts I think towards you says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” These are the mantras that make the hard parts in life tolerable. These are the things that give us hope. These are the promises we are taught to stand on when sickness or poverty or depression or anxiety or fear come knocking at our doors and decide to pull up a chair and stay a while at our kitchen tables. We forget, or we ignore, or we neglect to ever realize in the first place that the message of God having good plans that came from the prophet Jeremiah was written to a people in exile who were suffering and far from home and under persecution. We forget that God working all things together for good was written by Paul, a man who was repeatedly in prison, shipwrecked, blinded. We forget that these are not platitudes to be emblazoned on a t-shirt, but real responses from people who suffered. These are not get out of jail free cards. These are words that make the prison sentences or exile more bearable.
Maybe because of the area of the country where I grew up, or because of the conservative faith I was raised in, Jesus always seemed pretty safe. In the pictures I saw of him, he was sometimes on a cross, but there was no blood and guts, and his nakedness was tastefully covered with a white linen cloth, free of any stains. His eyes were usually blue, and his skin was usually white, completely ignoring the true heritage of a middle-eastern Jewish man. He was portrayed as peaceful, soft-spoken, everyone’s fun Uncle, ignoring the fact that he also overturned tables in the temple and said he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword. In choosing to believe in this oversimplified gospel, I was set up for failure. When tragedy came knocking on my door, even though I knew the scriptures and doctrine and understood where my spiritual foundation came from, the sanitized version I was living out couldn’t stand up to the blows of circumstance.
I have struggled with anger at God, because I felt like he let me down. Like he didn’t intervene the way I thought he should. Like the very least he could’ve done was provide a way out of some of the suffering I’ve experienced since he dropped the ball. I think that’s OK. I think it’s honest and necessary to be transparent with God and explain to him our struggles because how else can he address it? Hiding my feelings from him only causes further alienation and division, the equivalent of a marriage where you keep saying, “No worries, I’m fine,” instead of telling your spouse that if they forget your birthday one more time you’re leaving.
But yesterday, I was reading a passage, and I realized, “The reason you’re mad at him isn’t because he’s not who he says he is. It’s because he’s not who you thought he was, and it’s not really his fault what you thought about him.” Ouch.
Let me tell you how I realized this. I was reading the book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber (note- this is not a book endorsement or recommendation. To be fully transparent, most of the Christians in my own life would find this book completely offensive and be unable to see past the profanity and sexuality discussions to appreciate the gospel message. If you read it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you do read it, just wow. She’s so real, and real is what I crave, regardless of whether or not I agree with anything expressed. It’s fierce and courageous and God can use it). In each chapter, she uses a passage of scripture to introduce the main idea. Chapter 16 is called “Dirty Fingernails” and the passage she chose is John 20:11-16, which is about Mary Magdalene standing outside the tomb, looking for Jesus’ body which is not there. I was hit in the face with one line from that passage: “They have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And I felt a little nudge say to me, “Who or what is your they? Who took me away?”
It was a profound question that I hadn’t considered before. So as I’m sitting in the 2 hours of traffic to get from work to home on a Friday night when it’s already dark at 5 pm, I thought about it. Who is the they? What is the they? How did Jesus get taken away from me?
I thought about the past two years. I thought about the cancer diagnosis and death from a brain tumor. I thought about cardiomyopathy and liver cirrhosis. I thought about sudden death while walking into your house after being discharged from the hospital less than an hour before. I thought about a routine surgery where someone was in recovery joking with her nurse one minute and bleeding to death the next. I thought about respected members of the church who attacked my mother because she didn’t fit into any certain box— she was irreverent, and didn’t give two craps about the status quo and loved people and worst of all she was a woman which is only like number 3 or 4 on the top 10 list of things that the denomination I was raised in doesn’t like. I thought about the pain she suffered, the stones that were thrown at her for her entire ministry, and how again and again after some men’s meeting where she was censured or told that she wasn’t worth a $50/week raise unless she added cleaning the gym to her list of responsibilities she would tell me, “Amanda I don’t work for them. We don’t do things for people, we do them as unto the Lord, and look how the Lord was treated.”
I thought about “youth leaders” from my past who told me I would never be financially secure because I was getting married too young, and how I should have a back-up plan for not getting into my BSN program because surely I wouldn’t get admitted. I thought about another spiritual leader who, seeing my struggle and my wrestling, chose to post passive-aggressive scripture references, weaponizing words meant to comfort and lead, because my theology disagreed with hers. I thought about prayers I prayed that were answered with “No.” Prayers like, “God please don’t let my mom die. I need her.” Or “God please protect my friend. The wagons are circling and it’s not fair.” Or “God, can you please take this pain away? I feel like I am dying, like my soul can’t take it anymore, and I don’t know what to do.” And nothing changed.
I know that you can make any argument you want for how God is really there, and we’re never alone, and how I have so many other prayers that he did answer with a resounding “Yes”. I know it makes me sound entitled and selfish and that’s the point— I am. My view of Jesus was. That’s how I got here. But it’s important to be honest about it. The truth matters. And the truth is, that there are many people even within my own community who have been through infinitely harder things than me, and done so with grace and faith that I can only aspire to, but that’s not my story. My story is wrestling. My story is struggle. It’s not pretty, but it’s mine. And if it’s also yours, then welcome. You are not alone. You are safe with me, because I get it.
Anyway, reading farther into the passage from John 20, we see that the only reason Mary Magdalene is even able to ask this question is because she wasn’t alone. There were two angels at the tomb, and they were the ones to ask her why she was crying. When she responded to them, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him,” she turned and saw another man, one she supposed to be the gardener.
It never occurred to her that this man could be Jesus. This man didn’t look like what she was expecting.
She had been with Jesus for most of his ministry. She saw him cast out her own demons and knew the power that he carried. But the kind of power she thought Jesus had would never have been overcome by a bunch of mortal men with clubs and spears and nails, would it? She saw the man who held all wisdom teaching in the synagogues and welcoming questions from prostitutes and thieves and religious leaders who were plotting his demise. Surely a man that wise would know better than to keep pushing his luck until they killed him, right? She knew that he had all power of heaven and earth and could’ve prevented his own pain, could’ve surely prevented hers. But he didn’t. So if I’m Mary Magdalene, the thing running through my mind is, “Either you weren’t as powerful as I thought you were so you couldn’t stop any of this, or you were powerful enough but you let it happen anyway, and I don’t understand why you would have us all suffer like that. You were my friend. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did you let this happen? Why did you leave me here? What am I supposed to do now?” Maybe she neglected the fact that he told her all these things would happen, and to expect suffering in the world, but those parts of his identity were overshadowed by his absolute power and ability to heal. So maybe she didn’t expect the horrible things to happen because she chose to focus on what she knew him to be capable of.
But now, she had to accept that the Jesus she knew was dead. She had to accept that he was placed in a tomb, and that because of the Sabbath she couldn’t even express her love and devotion by being able to prepare his body for burial. She just had to spend the day grieving, at loose ends, trying to make sense of her life and figure out where she was supposed to go from here. But death itself was tangible, and there was still something she could do. He might’ve been dead, but at least she still had his body. She had the memory of her days with him. She had the comfort, even if his spirit was no longer there, of caring for his body. So she packed up her spices and went to the tomb, ready to prepare him for his final burial.
And then she gets there, and even that is gone. Even the shell that held the power wasn’t there anymore, and now she’s weeping because not only has her intellectual and spiritual understanding of his identity been called into question, but now she doesn’t even get the satisfaction of the mundane funeral duties she’d hoped to carry out. It was now as if, not only did he die, but there’s no tangible proof that he was ever even here at all. She sees these two angels, and misses the miracle that there are angels right in front of her because she is so utterly flabbergasted by the realization that it wasn’t enough that her Jesus was killed. Now she can’t even give him a proper funeral. And she looks at what she has left, two angels and a gardener, and she is desperate for answers.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” She’s still looking. She’s still wrestling. She’s still refusing to believe that he’s gone. He might not have saved himself. He might not have stopped the death. He might still be gone, but she refuses to believe it’s forever. She refuses to stop searching for him, so consumed by her pursuit that she misses him when he’s standing right in front of her because she’s so focused on not letting go of this idea of how he’s supposed to look right now. Kind of like me. She has no idea who she’s talking to until he says her name. “Mary,” and she turns to him and cries, “Rabboni!” Or “Teacher.”
Kind of like when I’m grieving the loss of this idea I had of who Jesus was and what he should do, and he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Amanda, who took me away?”
The deaths of my family members were the roman soldiers beating his broken body and placing a crown of thorns on his head. The patriarchal system that tried to force my mother into a box and created such resentment for the church in my heart was the man saying, “Carry your cross.” The discouragement from people I respected became the cry from his very own lips, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Until the idea of the Jesus I had always served had been completely crucified, placed in a tomb, wrapped in stained linen and laying in the dirt of a dark, stone cave, waiting for me to show up with my burial spices and finish the funeral service so I could go on with my life.
Except I can’t, because when I go expecting to find a Jesus who is dead and unaware of my pain and unwilling to reach out to me, I find instead a tomb that is empty. But it was necessary. My idea of Jesus, of him as the one who would protect me from pain, who would always provide a way of escape from suffering rather than allowing me to go through with it, of the white guy with the blue eyes and no blood stains on his perfectly placed linen shroud, that was what needed to be crucified. Someone like that could be killed and left for dead and wait for me to give him a funeral. But the real Jesus? He’s the gardener. The one with dirt under his fingernails, as Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote. I’m searching for Jesus, and I can’t find him, because I’m looking for dead Jesus. I’m looking for my idea of who he was, and he’s trying to show me his real identity. I’m looking for the one who was killed by my experiences and my lack of understanding, and he’s standing behind me, waiting to be recognized.
When Mary has the revelation of who she’s talking to, she doesn’t call him Jesus or Emmanuel, “God with us.” She doesn’t call him “Prince of Peace.” She doesn’t even call him “Savior.” She calls him “Teacher.” In that moment when he was revealed to her, she was learning from him. If I’m Mary Magdalene I’m realizing that I still have so much to learn about who Jesus is, and seeing this step as the next step in the revelation. And he responds to her saying, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Don’t hold onto me. Let go of what you thought. Let go of your need to hold me as what you always thought I had to be. Let go of your expectations, and let us both get busy about what God has called us to do. And it’s at this moment that Mary Magdalene responds with, “I have seen the Lord!”
I didn’t want to see him this way. I wanted to see him as the one who spared me all this pain. As the one who healed my mother. As the one who took my anxiety and depression away. As the one who restored everything back to my idea of perfect. But he wanted me to see him this way. He wanted me to see, “I’m not the pristine guy, hanging on the cross in holiness and beauty, who provokes thankfulness but no revulsion.” He wanted me to see him as the one who was beaten within an inch of his life before being savagely nailed to a tree. He wanted me to see him as the one who stumbled when carrying his own cross because it was just too heavy for him after everything he’d already been through. He wanted me to see him with dirt under his fingernails, enough for him to have been mistaken for the gardener.
As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “…perhaps Mary Magdalene thought the resurrected Christ was a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails. Of course, the depictions in churches of the risen Christ never show dirt under his nails; they make him look more like a wingless angel than a gardener. It’s as if he needed to be cleaned up for Easter visitors so he looked more impressive and so no one would be offended by the truth. But then what we all end up with is a perverted idea of what resurrection looks like. My experience, however, is that the God of Easter is a God with dirt under his nails. Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like those in Easter pictures. I would have never agreed to work for God if I had believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsciously knew, even back then, was that God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new.”
No one took him away from me. But my idea of who he was had to be crucified so that I could start to begin to glimpse a small peek of his true identity— the Resurrected One. I came with burial spices, but he came with new life. And all I had to do was let go of everything I ever believed to make room for what he wanted to teach me. Wow. What a Savior.