A Letter to the Broken: A Meditation Inspired by Contemporary Christian Artist Ray Boltz
"Have I crucified you, Jesus, with my sin?"—Ray Boltz
Last night I had another one of those dreams where I am a youth pastor.
It is probably one of the most frequent recurring dreams I have. It’s been a frequent night-time visitor since I left ministry some 15 years ago. The dream is always just me on the stage of some church, preaching a sermon.
For years, the dream sermon would be along the lines of what I used to preach, but more and more these oral missives are a reflection of what I am coming to believe about God and spirituality. Beliefs that most American Evangelicals would condemn as outright heresy.
Last night’s dream sermon consisted of me talking about my childhood and how one of my absolute favorite music albums of the time was Moments for the Heart by Ray Boltz (I was not a cool kid, even by church standards). I remember riding in the backseat of my parent’s car on long road trips with that CD playing on repeat inside my super-cool skip-resistant discman. Outside of the big dramatic story songs like Thank You and Watch the Lamb (which I would frequently act out during church services with my youth group), the one song that I listened to the most, the one that would almost always make me cry every time I listened to it, is a song called Feel the Nails.
I can’t say for sure why I dreamed I preached a sermon about a song that I used to listen to on repeat last night, but I found myself singing it as I got dressed this morning. I have subsequently listened to it at least twenty times today (it is playing on repeat even now as I type).
It is a deeply emotional song. A heartfelt lamentation of sorrow and repentance. The chorus goes as follows:
Does he still feel the nails
everytime I fail?
Can he hear the crowd cry ‘crucify’ again?
Am I causing him pain?
Then I know I’ve got to change.
I just can’t bear the thought
of hurting him.
It should be noted outright that most would not consider the above a theological sound statement.
Even for the majority of Evangelicals that believe in penal atonement, that the reason Jesus died was to pay the penalty for all of our sins, such a thought is probably a bit much.
I’m sure that even Ray Boltz would admit that he was merely being poetic and that he did not believe that Jesus was actually being re-crucified every time one of us commits a sin.
But it should also be noted that emotion often trumps rationality, especially if you are an impressionable and highly emotional and sensitive little kid with a pretty vivid imagination.
It was also a sentiment that I heard more than once. Offhand, I know that the Christian ska band the O.C. Supertones (again, I was not a cool kid) once sang that “every time I fail, and fail, I know I rail a nail straight into the cross of Jesus, straight into the wrist of Jesus.” I also remember youth pastors and evangelists and bible study guides all offering the same or similar sentiment: my sin, my behavior, doesn’t just offend and disgust God, it hurts him. If not physically, then at least emotionally.
What a horrible thought.
Especially given what constitutes a sin in Evangelical and Fundamentalist circles. Was Jesus really reliving the abject horror of The Passion of the Christ every time I had an errant thought? I believed it. And I was painfully aware of every instance in which I failed to live up to the standard set by Jesus.
And though even then I knew that this was a standard that no one could possibly live up to, that this is the reason why Jesus died and grace existed, there was still a strong feeling that I was still somehow expected to manage it.
“Go and sin no more,” that’s what Jesus told the woman caught in adultery. He stopped those trying to stone her, he said he did not condemn her, but then told her to “go and sin no more.” Almost as if to say:
I don’t condemn you...this time. Consider this your warning. Look at all the trouble I went through, all the pain I endured, to forgive you and wipe away your sins. And you just turn around and drag mud all through my clean house all over again. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be better?
The fact that Christianity made me come to think of myself as vile, corrupt, sinful, dirty, and nearly above redemption is one that I revisit a lot on this blog. I keep returning to it because it remains so persistent. This is an idea that's soaked into my marrow.
Even after years of therapy and dozens of self-help books, I mostly still think of myself as the person who hurts Jesus. The sinner that just can’t get it right, no matter how many new chances I’m offered.
Maybe I am thinking about all this now because for the last few months I have been suffering from severe mental illness and am again committing all the sins against American productivity. Why can’t I work? Why can’t I take care of myself? Do I like living this way? Why do I keep blowing up every opportunity offered me? Why don’t I dig myself out of this? Why do I choose to be like this? What’s wrong with me?
Why do I keep hurting Jesus? Why am I such a burden to everyone?
I only mention these things now because I suspect I am not alone in feeling these feelings and thinking these thoughts.
When Ray Boltz wrote the song Feel the Nails he had already been secretly wrestling with his homosexuality since he was a teenager. It would be another ten years before he would come out to his family. As he said, “For 30 years, I denied the fact that I was gay and did everything the church told me to do. I prayed, I fasted and I went to counseling. I confessed constantly.”
I think about this as I listen to Feel the Nails and am certain that this is the struggle he was thinking of when he wrote it. I can hear the deep pain and pleading in his voice when he sings “I am tired of playing games, I really want to change, I can’t bear the thought of hurting you again.”
This was not about a particular action, but something at the core of him. Feelings so strong and so hard to resist that even some of the (frankly evil) gay-conversion people tend to now admit is not a choice but an aspect of identity that is beyond one’s control (not that this stops them from still trying to change people).
I am sorry, God, for the way you created me. I am sorry my existence causes you pain. I am sorry that my natural being is a disgusting smell to you and that you can’t bear to have me in your presence as I am. Thank you for loving me, wretched filth that I am.
How does the church so often say it? When God looks at us in his judgement, he doesn’t see shameful sinful blotted us, but only the blood of Jesus? Like we are tricking him. Wearing a disguise to get into the party we’ve been kicked out of.
I think maybe dream-youth-pastor me reminded me of this song and all the feelings that come up from it as a reminder that this is no longer even close to what I believe about the character and nature of the thing that we call God.
The God I want to believe in is not keeping some tally of right and wrong actions. How would that even work in a world as complex as ours? No, the God I want to believe in, the God I so badly wish were real, is a God committed to our wholeness and well-being and wants nothing more than for us to live our truest most authentic and genuine lives. For us to be the beautiful thing we were created to be.
This is the main goal of my spirituality. This is my quest. To be whole and healed and unhindered by all the damage and lies that we are wounded with just through the very nature of being alive.
I can’t presently speak to such a God or whether such a belief is the mere folly of a broken man.
But to anyone who can relate to my experience or stories like Ray Boltz’s, I say to you, dear fellow broken and broken hearted soul, I am so sorry. I am sorry for the generations of Christians who have made you feel dirty and a failure and unworthy of love or anything good.
I can’t prove it to you, but I am certain this is not who you are.
And whether you are like Ray Boltz and could move on from such teaching and come to the conclusion that God doesn’t hate you. Or whether you rightfully have distanced yourself from the entire notion of God and church and everything associated with them. Or if you are like me, forever stuck in the middle. I want you to look in the mirror today, look yourself right in the eye.
Can you see how beautiful you are? Can you see how wonderfully you were made? You, my friend, are perfect. You are loved now just as you are. There is nowhere to go, nothing else to be. If there is a God, she delights in you. If there isn’t, then it is all of nature itself that marvels in your creation.
Try to believe it as best as you can. I’m always here if you want to talk. I’ll just be over here trying to convince myself of the same.