by Will Small
This post is the first part of a loosely themed series called ‘God in Skin’.
At one stage in my life, I was an MSN evangelist. A keyboard crusader. Tapping out urgent warnings to the friends I thought were headed to hell in a hand basket. I justified my behaviour with the classic lines: ‘If your friend was about to jump of a cliff, wouldn’t you try and stop them?’
My turn-or-burn pleas weren’t guilt-inducing, fear-driven manipulation — they were an expression of love. At least, that’s what I genuinely believed at the time.
I am sure many people still believe that.
I no longer do.
If I was to tally up the number of beliefs I held with charismatic conviction as a teenager that I can no longer stomach it would be a long list. From what I believed about the beginning of time, the cosmos and everything, to what I believe about the end of time, the cosmos and everything, and basically everything that resides in between, if you laid my 18 year old theology next to my 30 year old theology it may be easier to do a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle than a ‘spot the same’ one.
And yet, here is the strange thing.
The remarkable thing.
At the centre of both would still be this God-in-skin Christ man.
This Jesus of Nazareth.
On the one side he might appear a little more Hollywood and ‘Christian’, and on the other a lot more Middle Eastern and Jewish. The way I see Jesus has shifted over time, along with all that surrounds him.
But somehow, his life, his presence, his words — these have remained at the centre.
I have doubted nearly everything.
Exchanged many things.
Let go of lots of old things.
Taken hold of some new things.
Let go of lots of new things.
Taken hold of some old things.
But I have not doubted, exchanged, let go of, this Jesus.
Perhaps I have not taken hold of him either?
Every time I think I have him pinned down, he slips through my fingers. Perhaps this is what keeps me following. He does not stand still. He does not sit like a painting on the wall, gathering dust. He steps through history, pulling us forward, inviting along for the ride the hungry and thirsty, the doubters and sceptics, the confused and confusing, the rightys and leftys — even keyboard crusaders and MSN evangelists like me — who wish to travel along behind him.
And so, I am still travelling along behind him.
These words are for my friends on the fringe.
For those who find themselves a little on the outside and a little on the inside. It’s for those who shelter doubts in their back pockets and try to keep their questions hidden away somewhere safe. It’s for the thinkers, who can’t get themselves out of their heads, but long to feel faith deep in their bones.
It’s for the sceptical but spiritual. The disillusioned but not disengaged.
It’s for the ones the system hasn’t been designed for.
And it’s a message that just because you don’t belong in the system, doesn’t mean you don’t belong.
For the ones who want Jesus, who identify with Christian spirituality, or at least resonate with the commands to love neighbour and love God. And who have found themselves on the outside of the church. Or barely hanging on to a church. Or have never even dreamed of stepping into a church. These are my people. These words are for you.
And yet, I have to make a confession. A disclosure for the sake of transparency.
I sit in a somewhat strange place in all of this.
I’m a pastor. I’ve preached a lot of sermons. I’m still more or less deep in the guts of the denominational tribe I grew up in. I even make a podcast with them.
Which is a strange place to be when you often feel like a fringe-dweller. When you feel like you harbour more questions than answers, when your faith has been drenched in doubt and you have wondered many times how long until you are found out, branded, exiled with the rest of the modern-day heretics you have witnessed the church toxically toss to the side.
This is not always a comfortable place. It is often a tightrope walk.
And yet, I believe it is exactly where I have been called to be.
I believe the Jesus church, the family of God, the kingdom on earth ought to be the safest and most welcoming place for the doubters, the fringe-dwellers, the ones who don’t quite fit.
My greatest grief is to see people begin to experience the reshaping of their faith and to feel the only choices are:
a) crush it down and ignore it so you can stay in the tribe
b) surrender it all — the community, the practices, the beliefs you once held tightly
c) slip out the back quietly, hope no one notices and try to carry the best of your tradition in your trembling fingers, as you begin to walk a lonely path.
The fact that people often feel it is safer to disconnect from church than to speak publicly about their process of deconstruction and doubt, is a contemporary tragedy for the western church. Does it have to be so? Could our churches become the safest places to wrestle with our doubts and demons? Could we learn to let some more humanity shine through the cracks inside our churches, while learning to see more divinity in the world beyond?
It is the paradoxical mix of dust and divinity, humanity and ‘Godness’ that continues to draw me back into Christ. What if this blend exists all around us? What would it look like to open our eyes to it? What if the fringes — the in-between spaces, the edges, the cusps, are the very place where this happens the most? What if ‘God-in-skin’ is all around us?
And so, this.
What you’re reading — this began in the form of a book my friend Hannah and I started to write together. Maybe one day it will still hit the shelves in book format, but in our respective juggling of life’s responsibilities and complexities we recognised breaking it down into smaller chunks might allow us to get some words out to the world a little sooner. And engage people in a conversation along the way.
So here we are. This website. Hopefully a place for community and connection and dialogue. We’re setting out to take an honest lock at the negative realities that have evolved along with our beautiful tradition. The judgmentalism, the fear, the tribalism so many have been wounded by. But we also longed to create a cry of hope for our future, and indeed our present; an invitation to see Jesus doing his restorative work right in the midst of the mess.
So join us for the ride. Up next. Hannah’s story.
Questions you might want to chew over/chat to someone about:
- If you laid your teenage worldview next to your current one, what would be different? What would be the same?
- If you grew up with the Jesus story, what parts of it still resonate with you? What parts do you most struggle to reconcile?
- What do you think of the phrase ‘God in skin?’ What would happen if you saw this ‘all around you’?
To read the next post in the ‘God in Skin’ series, click here.