I’m slow on edicts these days, but here’s one I’m willing to venture: a church should not teach people to lie.
But we do.
Whenever we sift through Scripture in search of ideals, all the while missing the humanity, the struggle and the long plod toward love, we abuse the story but we also abuse the soul. No matter the clarity of our moral perceptions, we are no friend of grace whenever our pronouncements weigh people down, whenever the burden of our expectations delivers the subtle message that we must ignore or squash the realities simmering just beneath the surface. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people.” And real people come with real desires, real foibles, real fears, real longings.
When Jesus passed blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, have mercy.” I love this prayer. There are plenty of days when it’s all the prayer I can muster. Jesus stopped, looked Bartimaeus’ way and asked the plainest question: “What do you want?” Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to identify what he should want. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus what desire Torah would suggest. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to conjure an obedient word on virtue, responsibility or human sinfulness. Jesus asked what the poor fellow longed for, and then Jesus waited for the answer.
Bartimaeus’ desire was obvious; he wanted to be able to see. For most of us, however, our want lies buried under so much neglect and rubble that it’s nearly impossible to locate. Few of us know what it is we actually want, what we crave, what would make us truly giddy if it happened our way.
If we ask someone Jesus’ question: what do you want?, many of us religious folk will offer a squeaky-clean reply, something straight out of a tame Sunday School lesson. The answers are fine, but they possess all the verve of a dead fish. I want the real stuff, what makes the heart race and the energy peak and the sorrow sit heavy as lead.
Often, it would be more truthful if we said: I really want my wife to enjoy sex with me again or I want to stop puking in the toilet or I want money so I can fly the family to Italy for the summer or I want the voices to stop. If it’s true that what we really want is to land on the Times bestseller list or to be kissed like mad, why don’t we say so?
Whenever we are able to locate that first layer of our wants and desires (no matter how healthy, noble or immature they might be), we’re scratching at the truth – and then we’ve got something to work with. If we follow that longing deeper and deeper, eventually we’ll find something more potent, something more profoundly true. I’m convinced we’ll find something very near to God.