This story appeared in The Age faith column today, delighted to find it back to back with a piece on forgiveness by Clare Boyd Macrae
Close to where I live a new section of bike path has been built along the Merri Creek.
Not long after it opened, the pathway was visited by a spray-painter with earnest intent. There was no graphic artfulness involved, only messages spelled out in yellow paint.
The messages were to remind people about Jesus and the Bible and the necessity of believing. To me they carried no invitation, just the dead weight of Bible-thumping insistence. My take on Jesus, was that he invited people to know God in new and radical ways, but he also let them figure out how that would play out. There was freedom in his invitations, not compulsion.
The spray painter’s memo that really got under my skin was “God loves you if you believe.” Really? I imagined myself in contested conversation with this person. They probably thought of themselves as sharing the good news but I thought they’d got themselves snared.
I wanted to suggest that God’s presence in the world and abounding love is not dependant on our assent, belief or claims. The writer was making the love of God conditional, with little room for mystery or gift or grace in their declarations of the necessity of belief. Too often, the word “God” becomes imprisoned in a set of constructs that make the meaning small and human-centred.
I confess there were times in my youth when I felt an urgency about following Jesus that tipped me into ‘witnessing for Christ’, but I’m not a fan of compulsion, or any kind of heavy persuasion. When it comes to trust, I think there are some things you really can’t impose.
Looking up at the trees sheltering the edge of the pathway by the Merri Creek, I wondered what their presence would mean to the writer of the yellow messages. “Dear well-meaning spray painter”, I wanted to say, “put down your aerosol can, come sit near the water. Let the trees shelter you and perhaps you will hear the presence of God whispering through them.”
A friend of mine who has long been a follower of Jesus and has pretty much staked his life with his faith, told me of a time when he had no capacity to “believe”. He had to go through some medical treatment that was so eviscerating it took all that he had just to survive it. “I had to let others hold the faith for me,” he said, “I had nothing.” I found this to be a profound statement of faith. It was not about believing, he knew he could not manage more than surviving, but he trusted that he was held.