You might have a story like this…
One evening when I was thirteen, I found myself sitting across the table from one of the youth leaders at my church. I was excited to share with her that I had come to a decision about what I believed. At the time, my Sunday School teacher was from a more evangelical background. He had given us the story, and I had found a way to get on board with it.
I remember telling my youth leader, It’s like this. When you die, you meet a judge and there’s a whole book of your life. The judge will go through the book, and if it turns out you’re a good person you go to heaven, and if you’re a bad person you go to hell. But get this! If you accept Jesus as your savior, then you’ll go directly to heaven!
Now maybe you believe that story is true or maybe you don’t, but surely you can see why it is enticing. It has narrative consistency, a clear invitation that is entirely doable; it explains the afterlife! I told her this story with shining eyes and a crescendoing voice. I felt like I had found my place to stand on the Gospel. I have got the promise of salvation! I know what it means to be Christian, and I am one.
My youth leader listened to me with love in her eyes. Then she said, That story is what many Christians believe. I asked: You believe it too, right? I mean, what else would happen to us when we die? That’s when she spoke the words I definitely didn’t want to hear, and I definitely needed to hear.
She said, I don’t know…
She went on to say, I don’t believe God has any interest dividing people into heaven and hell. Could be, we all come from one Spirit; when we die, we return to one Spirit.
I’m thinking, could be, sure, but here I had just figured out how to get into the standard story of being Christian. I had the certainty of my Sunday School teacher and my own Hallelujah to shout. Now when I ask her Can I get an Amen?, she says I don’t know.
I felt the dread invading my conscience because… what if she’s right? Her love-spoken I don’t know shot a crack through the Gospel I had been briefly standing on. And it could be something like this has happened to you. Next to every shimmering Hallelujah there’s the whisper asking: Okay but really? Are you sure? Because what if…
Here is what I’ve come to learn: Your confidence matters. When you hear your own voice shouting Hallelujah then you realize you believe it, that gives glory to God. And. Your uncertainty matters. When you hear your own voice whispering, I don’t know about this, that gives glory to God.
The location matters. When we go and stand in the place of the whisper, we make ourselves breathtakingly findable. The Spirit can find us in the whisper.
In the scripture Sylvia read, we hear a dispute between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees. You’ll notice in this passage, location matters. Jesus and the disciples are on their way. It’s after their boat landed in Gennesaret and before they set out for Tyre. It’s after Jesus healed the general public —anyone who touched his cloak— and before he healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman.
Here on the road, in between, Jesus and the disciples stop for lunch. This is the moment the scribes and Pharisees corner him. Now they had come from Jerusalem, so you know, they didn’t just happen upon Jesus. They were looking for a fight and they found one.
They surround Jesus and ever-so-innocently ask why his disciples reject the tradition of the elders. Just wondering, why is it okay for your disciples to violate the rules of ritual purity? But they’re making a show out of intimidating him, and Jesus isn’t having any of it.
He obliterates their accusations by quoting the prophets then calling out their hypocrisy. Next he summons a crowd so he can make his closing argument and drop the mic. Jesus is not afraid to shout! When he asks, Can I get an Amen? you can believe he does. The crowd is amazed! The disciples are, well, not so sure…
When they arrived at the house where they were staying, the disciples sat down at the table, and Jesus listened to their questions with love in his eyes. In this story, location matters. Jesus tells them, You’ve got to know where evil comes from. Because it’s not from the food. It’s not from the Romans. It’s not even from the scribes and Pharisees. He looked at them with love in his eyes and he told them, evil comes from your own heart. So good night, and off he went to bed.
I know Jesus meant to help. All through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus perceives the thoughts of our hearts. He knows the disciples were troubled, so here let me explain, he said. But I’m pretty sure Jesus’s “clarification” provoked more questions than it answered.
You know the disciples were whispering to each other, Um did Jesus just say that our actions don’t matter as much as the intention in our hearts? Did he just make the law even harder? And there’s this. When he said, evil comes from your own heart, was he talking about humanity in general or… was he looking at me when he said that?
Next to the shout of certainty, there’s the whisper going, Is that really true? I don’t know… The disciples don’t go to sleep that night feeling like they’ve got it figured out. They are worried. They are filled with the dread that invades their conscience because… what if he’s right?
We know this worry. Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, I’m pretty sure you have heard the whisper in your own conscience that goes, I don’t know. But I think I want to… In each of our hearts, there is the whisper of poignant doubt. Inside the doubt, there’s an inkling where our suspicion, ever so slightly, starts to give way to wonder. This is the tender turning where skepticism softens its gaze and becomes curiosity.
The first thing to know is that this is not evil. It is not wrong to doubt what you have been taught. There’s a place in your heart and mine where dread pours in and brings questions we never meant to ask. Our own convictions are overturned! There’s a place in your heart and mine, where we might change our minds, where Jesus knows right where to find us. And of course, there’s a crack in the Gospel. Leonard Cohen was right. There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
It could be that in our world, we need more appreciation for the whisper. We need more official blessings for the Holy I Don’t Know, But I Want To… We need more hymns that praise God for our blazing perplexity and our blessed uncertainty.
Thankfully, Charles Schulz shared my concern. In one Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown says this to Snoopy: “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy replies, “I have the perfect title. ‘Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?’” (I would read that book!)
You and I know. We live in a world that pulls us into opposite sides and gets us shouting. And it’s okay to find yourself on a side, and it’s beautiful to hear your own Hallelujah. It’s just, there are increasingly fewer places where we can sit down beside someone who holds a different worldview. There are fewer places where we deliberately subject ourselves to the risk of changing our minds. What if the church is uniquely positioned to be this place?
Recently, I had a conversation with one of our church members who is worried about the legalization of marijuana in Illinois. That same week, I had another conversation with a church member who is concerned about the invisible costs placed upon those who have to piece together several low wage jobs. Now you can guess the political affiliation of each person. Concern about legalizing marijuana is something we’d hear on Fox News. Concern about the working poor is something we’d hear on MSNBC.
Already we know our church is made of liberals, and conservatives, and those in between, and those who identify as neither. It costs everybody something to be here. It could be that our conservatives have to explain to their friends why they attend such a social justice-flavored church. It could be that our progressives have to explain to their friends why they even go to church because don’t you believe in science! So all of us hear ourselves saying, Yes, but my church doesn’t fit the stereotype.
Somebody here is concerned about legalizing marijuana and somebody here is concerned about the challenges of being poor and both of the people sharing these concerns spoke to me with love shining in their eyes. You could see plain as day, both of these concerns were coming from a place of deep compassion. This is where our hearts break for those who are vulnerable. It could be, this is what we have in common. It could be, we see this in each other. We can see where your heart is; we see where your heart breaks.
Come into this place and you might find your beliefs softening at the edges. A new story might lay a claim to your soul; it might change your mind or break your heart. (There’s a crack in everything.) Next to every shouted Hallelujah is the whisper confessing, I really don’t get it, but I want to. When we go stand in the place of the whisper, we make ourselves breathtakingly findable. Jesus will find us in the whisper.
Praise God for the shouting that comes out your mouth! Oh Hallelujah!
Praise God for the whisper of the wondering in your heart.