Have you ever been dominated by a single word? One that follows you around like some indelible curse, tacked on by barbed comments or dragged along by a tether of your own design?
Mine was weak.*
It coated me like a toxin on my skin, in my soul; I saw it in every mirror and tasted it in every breath. I hated it. And yet, at the same time, I needed it to survive. So long as I was weak nothing could be demanded of me and I could push away all that might complicate my life. If I’m so weak, I thought, I must protect myself. Tension and complexity and nuance became the enemy—threats to my fragile stability and brokers of an inevitable compromise. After all, I’m weak, I can’t handle it. A pious and poisonous half-truth that I believed for most of my life.
But that’s all changing. Through the years, as I have been increasingly involved in the discussion on faith and sexuality, God has used my weakness in countless ways to bring about moments of life and grace. Over and over I am reminded that being weak isn’t the problem—being selfish and bitter is—and what used to be a barren scar of paralyzing insecurity has proven to be fertile ground for solidarity and passion.
So you think I’d get it by now. But…
Sometimes the damning refrain creeps back into my mind.
They’ll tear you apart.
You’re so disgustingly weak, you’ll never make it.
A year ago I was sprawled on the couch of a friend unsuccessfully trying to convince my exhausted brain that, really, it’s more fun to sleep than implode, watching tattered visions of all that could undo me flicker in an out of focus. It was my first week back in the States after months abroad; DoMA and SCOTUS were still trending on Twitter and lighting up my Facebook feed. From the moment I deplaned I was confronted with the fact that I was, once again, caught in a controversy. An old anxiety started gathering around the fringes of my awareness and I couldn’t shake it off.
You’re going to fail.
I pulled the blanket over my head. I’d spent the afternoon hanging out with new friends—a warm and hilarious couple who let me tag along on a date—and I was wrestling with my tired mind about it.
You’re weak. Protect yourself.
Those old lies that would have me believe it was “dangerous” to hang out with a loving, affectionate gay couple—two passionate Christians, at that!—kept replaying because wouldn’t life be simpler if you isolated yourself from anything that would complicate your beliefs? Wouldn’t it be easier if you spent all your effort on drawing lines and defending yourself and pushing away those who disagree? You’re going to crumble if you keep this up.
I carried these bitter thoughts with me to church the next morning. Having been out of the country, it had been almost ten months since I’d attended a eucharistic service, though I wasn’t really thinking about that as I waited in line to receive the elements. I was starting to feel a little bit crazy. The decision to begin living and writing more openly about my sexuality and faith seemed increasingly foolish in light of the mounting tension and you won’t be strong enough to help anyone, much less—
“This is Christ’s body, broken for you.”
—yourself and the controversy will consume you and you’ll be—
“This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.”
—ridiculed and misunderstood and abandoned and—
The accusations ended abruptly as I watched the chunk of bread slowly turn crimson. My mouth started to water. Then my eyes. I gently placed the elements in my mouth and breathed deeply.
“Epiphany” is the only word I can use to describe that moment: a sudden burst of clarity that overwhelmed me and my whispering fears. The confusion of the preceding moments dissolved and in its place there appeared a calm certainty: this is the shape my life must take.
The eucharist rendered my life intelligible again.
Please bear with me as I gush:
We follow a Christ who was, and is every day, torn to pieces. He was misunderstood and ridiculed, or sometimes understood perfectly well and hated for what he said and did. He was nailed to a low-hanging plank and slowly suffocated outside the city gate. And this is how we are told to remember him.
Because this is our story. This is who we are becoming. People who love so fiercely that we throw ourselves into the midst of things so that there may be peace, so that the unloved would know the touch of a friend, so that the hopeless would see with new eyes and the neglected would discover what it means to have a family. We proclaim Christ, and him crucified.
And people may tear us apart for it. The tension will pull at our seams and always feel as if it is a second away from undoing us. We will have to struggle against the impulse to move back to safety, relieve the tension, remain untroubled, and bury our weakness.
But eucharist is the utmost display of weakness. The cross is weakness.
And this is the beauty of it.
The celebration of bread and wine is a sacrificial, destructive act. But the miracle of it is that as the body of Christ, the bread, is torn to pieces the body of Christ, the Church, is made more whole. We are nourished and drawn together and given the strength to carry on. We are empowered to boldly live in weakness.
This is how the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness: that although we are vulnerable we press deep into the suffering of the world and make it our own, although we may receive blows from every direction we refuse to let our capacity to love and forgive be beaten out of us, and although we are silenced and misunderstood we never disdain the sacred act of listening to another and seeking to understand. It seems like I will never cease having to relearn this most basic of truths, and I imagine that is why celebrating the eucharist will never cease to astonish and amaze me.
Vulnerability is not the enemy of truth, and we cannot lose sight of that as we continue engaging the fraught complexity of sexuality and faith in the public sphere. This is easier said than done, of course, and I am often overwhelmed by what seem like insurmountable barriers of ideology and rhetoric, especially within the more conservative traditions that I call home. It would be simpler just to give up.
And yet, as I have solidified my commitment to serving with my local church and growing in community with the wonderful not-like-me people I am blessed to know, I find I am more aware of the living grace of my God who offered himself to the world and more in love with his Church that sustains me and inspires me to act in truth and humility. I am seeing more clearly what will enable me, enable us, to proclaim the gospel of hope to an understandably cynical culture, and I am praying that we will allow that gospel to take hold of us in new and profound ways.
Please pray with me.
Matt Jones is a student at Fuller Seminary who blogs over at A Joyful Stammering and can be followed on Twitter: @AJoyfulStammer.
* Like, if Harry Potter and all that were real (deep breaths deep breaths) my patronus would probably be an asthmatic woodland rodent of some kind.**
** Just kidding, I’ve actually thought about this a lot and it would totally be an otter, which is, according to trustworthy friend-sources, my “animal personality” (i.e. playful, creative, smelling of shellfish and brine, intelligent, et al.).***
*** It is also, I’ve been told, my gay bar body-type classification. Layers, you guys, layers.****
**** No, mom, I’ve never been to a gay bar. *****
***** I’d rather not end on that note, so here’s 2 Corinthians 12:9—“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (NRSV). Blessings.
Really compelling meditation, Matt. Thanks for sharing this.
Yea man, of course! Hope you are well.
Thanks for thinking out loud Matt. This post really spoke to my heart, and has encouraged me greatly. I am also encouraged to see another brother wrestling through this, and to know that I am not the only one. Maybe one day we will meet each other…until then, thanks for sharing.
*Your end notes are great! lol 🙂
Thanks dude, I appreciate the encouragement. You definitely aren’t alone. 🙂
Ugh, Matt…why do I always cry when I read your stuff? Thanks for that, I have felt the exact same things as I have engaged in the conversation. Appreciate the reminder, bro.
Man I don’t know. Have you tried just, like, stuffing your emotions deep down inside and becoming an immovable stone monolith of unfeeling apathy? That might stop the crying. Totally healthy.
Thanks for the kind words! I appreciate them. And thanks for the work you do.
I think I need to read this six or eight more times because it’s beautiful, but I love that you have the same Patronus as Hermione.
Thanks for the beautiful reflection Matt, it couldn’t have been better timing for me as it proceeds the Sunday of the Feast of Corpus Christi within my tradition of Christianity. It adds another angle to meditate on how the greatest power known to humanity can manifest in something as humble as bread and wine. Arguably weak, yet transformed to brilliance!
Nice piece. Still, I think it’s worth giving some thought to the contingency of our constructions of concepts like strength and weakness. For example, in the US, we tend to believe that indulgent men are strong, whereas other cultures view disciplined men as strong and indulgent men as weak.
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