A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to the music video to the Hozier song, “Take Me to Church.” I still haven’t forgiven her.
Artistically, it’s delicious. Anyone haunted by anthemic spiritual music should get chills the first time Hozier-Byrne riffs a phrase of amens. And his decidedly provocative lyrics call for an embodied theology that takes the human condition as seriously as the incarnation makes it out to be. Really good stuff.
Enter the video. [Trigger Warning: Disturbing Violence]
It’s a stark visual exploration of experience of finding love and belonging amidst a culture that demands secrecy, isolation, and fear through intimidation and violence that is too frequently enshrined in religious values.
That’s a very clinical way of saying it wrecked me in a way that was too close for comfort.
Next, enter the Lebron James commercial featuring the song, that aired while I watched the last Seahawks game.
“I’ve got to look up that song,” said my friend. To which I replied, “I have a link to it somewhere. It’s amazing, but the video is REALLY disturbing.” Truthfully, I couldn’t remember anything about the content of the video. I’d pressed it out of my mind, but the music had brought back my strong reaction, and all I knew was that it had been a source of disruption.
Then I watched the video again.
I’ve written a good deal about grief in my process of coming out, in wrestling to find my voice in the church, and in taking my place at the Christian table. But this song, with it’s arresting melody and hookline dug into me in a different kind of way.
I started this fall with a pilgrimage of sorts, walking for four days, by myself, along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was my first solo backpacking excursion, and I decided to walk as a way of exploring and unpacking the grief that I’ve found as the landscape upon which my life of faith has unfolded and found me flourishing.
It’s a strange thing to describe–walking as prayer; grief as a journey into a bodied experience; locating faith in wilderness. And this is a true gift: when the world offers up strange moments where our lives open up to us with clarity, if not with ease.
In the mirror of mountains and rivers, of deserts and oceans, we catch glimpses of how our spiritual and psychological selves are not disconnected from our human experience of being creaturely selves who are a part of a whole world that is, itself, subject to devastation and repair.
If there is any redemption worth pursuing, it must be in body; it must deal with the messiness of breakdown, lovemaking, aging, injury, hunger & thirst, interdependence, isolation, and deep connection to the earth. And this is something of what “Take Me to Church” is all about.
It’s about asking the deep questions of God, our religions, our communities, and the world–questions about belonging. Is there room in your cosmology for my body–my human experience? Is God found in places where our bodies open up to one another to offer shared love and mutuality or in places governed by fear of transgression that overflow into acts of violence in word and deed?
I’ve lost so much life trying to protect myself from people and communities that were supposed to be protecting me–supposed to be offering a space where I could be a member of the community, growing into the flourishing life of God’s work and play in the world.
And there is much to grieve. On my third day of hiking I crossed three mountainsides of skeletal trunks of fir trees, bleached white with decades under relentless sun and wind, following a fire. The ground was hot and dry; rocks exposed by erosion that raked away millennia of forest soil.
I wept as I touched the desiccated bodies of the unburied dead, still lingering across the hillside. Each excoriated tree, a hollow memory of billions of needles synthesizing sunlight and carbon into a massive gathering of life that offered life, now lost. And though these mountains will recover, it will not be in my lifetime–not by the measures of soil inches or canopy, raised 200 feet towards sky.
But there are Doug Firs, as old as I am, and three feet tall.
Though small, they, along with marmots, lichen, and songbirds, are feeding on the nourishment wrought from grief, to offer back a way towards another iteration of thriving forest. And this, too, leaves me weeping.
The grief is real and the life is real. They aren’t exactly linear or causal in relationship, but the reality is that they hang together in a history that is not the way I would like to have seen it unfold. Loss and life do not cancel each other out in some cosmic equation.
In the narrative of Christianity, resurrected bodies carry wounds. And hope born out of grief is always marked by body’s memory work of facing death–which is another way of saying, life that is pulled through the abandonment of death, while gaunt and trembling, is a holy force, not to be trifled with.
As I have wondered about the space opened up in me through my brief time in the wilderness, I am realizing the recognition that I need the reflection of the landscape to speak back to me the unspeakable spaces that live within my body, where I have struggled to draw nutrients for my life of faith out of a soil eroded of capacity to feed me what I needed to thrive.
One myth that the song “Take Me to Church” challenges, is that God is encapsulated in the thunder, earthquake, and whirlwind of churches that espouse a theology in which God is at war with human peculiarity. Instead, it insists that God is present with us, in our bodies and our bedrooms, moving towards us in all the failings and flowering of our humanity.
In my own life, I’ve encountered a God who is gracious enough to weep with me after the wildfires of well-meaning people who have employed theologies to try to strip away the parts of me they deemed unfit in the ecology of God’s community. This is not to say that the church has been devoid of goodness for me as a gay man. It is just that the goodness has come primarily as a counter-narrative of redemption within a broader landscape of devastation.
Rather than attempting to weave gold from straw, or overhaul the entire system to try to make do, the slow trek towards life begins (from my perspective), with attunement to the acres of grief inside of me and feeling the space opened up by loss of what should have been present. It is in these spaces, these gaps of abandonment, where life is pulled out of us through our bodies for the life of the world.
I do not yet know what these words mean. But I know that I am in the slow work of growing a forest. Or perhaps of simply witnessing the forest being grown in the space that grief is reclaiming from narratives of death and violence that I have experienced in the church. And this kind of space feels capable, at last, of offering room for me, in my body, to be welcomed into the sacred communion of the giver of life.
This is the 23rd post in the series “Queering The Christian Table.” Feel free to browse through older posts or start at the beginning by clicking the tab at the top of the page