Christians spend a lot of time arguing about theological things.
I suppose there is a place for this, because there really are right ways of thinking and wrong ways of thinking about God. For example, we’ll never trust God if we don’t believe – on an instinctual, gut level – that God is fundamentally good. God is a monster if God’s plan includes making sure women get raped and kids get beaten in order to somehow prove God is God and we are not.
But these arguments usually end up pushing us to accept one dogmatic polarity over another. And I think the message of Jesus is just earthier, grittier, and more human than that.
I recently read a stunning book by Gregory Boyle called Tattoos on the Heart. Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has shared his life with the 86,000 gang members in Los Angeles for the past 25 years. He shares stories of the God who breaks through the darkness in the gritty barrios of L.A.
Early in the book, he shares the story of Rigo, a fifteen-year-old Latino kid who was serving time in a detention facility. Boyle asked Rigo about his father.
“Oh,” he says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”
Then something kind of snaps in him – and image brings him to attention.
“I think I was in fourth grade,” he begins. “I came home. Sent home in the middle of the day. Got into some pedo at school. Can’t remember what. When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, ‘Why they send you home?’ And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, you promise you won’t hit me?’ He just said, ‘I’m your father. Course I’m not gonna hit you.’ So I told him.
Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments, he’s wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable. When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, “He beat me with a pipe… with… a pipe.”
When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.
“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.
“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday – to see my sorry ass?”
Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses. She takes… seven buses. Imagine.” (Tattoos on the Heart, pages 26-27)
God, Boyle passionately shows us, is the One who takes seven buses just to see us. The expansive heart of God pursues those of us who have been discarded and abused, and we all have been in some way or another.
Do you need help? Where do you hurt? What can I do?
Those seem to be God’s fundamental questions for us when he finds us. I don’t think most of what we argue about is foremost on God’s mind.
Boyle goes on to write, “In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre – our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity” (page 27-28).
I don’t know the answers to most of the theological arguments that are spinning out there. I’m just betting everything on the hope that it is God who takes seven buses to get to me, and to you. That God is the fingernail, and I am the dirt underneath it. That when I am in the cracks and crevices of disappointment and failure, God finds me there and brings me home.