I’ve spent much of my life in a rigid dance with perfection, believing my perfection would be what convinced people to believe in Jesus. That the pristine state of my soul would be what won people over to the faith.
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The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Last week I was reading a book about farming and decided it would be fitting to read it in the middle of a field. I pulled my car over and entered into the salt marsh just south of Newburyport—super close to the ocean. With my backpack and my Chacos, I began to walk down the path leading from my car.
Look at me. I’m really a naturalist now—my Patagonia aesthetic is on fleek.
I wondered why I didn’t do this more often, why I stuck to coffee shops and air conditioning. I was uneducated in the ways of nature, merely a boy entering into the fields of real men and women.
Little bits of sulfur floated through the air like a Starbucks bathroom, and everywhere I looked I saw bent, yellow husks of grass—a vast farm of Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils growing in the raw. Every hundred feet or so a small irrigation ditch held low levels of salt water from the Atlantic. It was the kind of sticky mud I’d imagine clams hiding in, the type of mud that was nasty enough to make me not want to search for any of them.
The fragile pencil husks made every step a guessing game of whether or not my Chaco would remain dry or be trap-doored into an inch of mud and peat.
* * *
In high school, I tried to prove the legitimacy of Christianity by not letting anyone see the anxiety and depression bubbling up inside me. I needed to be perfect in order to prove to everyone else that God was real.
I don’t feel very good, but look at how I smile. Look at my smile and believe in God!
* * *
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
After about a half a mile, I found what looked like a petrified stump—the perfect place to contemplate life and take a picture—and began to wade through the clabitat (a clam habitat—trust me it’s scientifical) towards it.
If only Wendell Berry or my mom could see me now—just a solitary man emerging from a yellow sea, leaving mud-stained Chaco marks stamped in his wake.
I paused briefly to look down and see how much mud had gotten on my carefully-cuffed jeans. A few dots here and there, nothing the washing machine couldn’t get out. But when I looked a moment longer, I noticed the mud dots were moving up my pant legs. I looked even harder and saw legs attached to those dots.
Finally, I realized the truth…the dots of mud weren’t dots of mud. They were actually an army of ticks crawling up and down my pant legs.
I’m screwed. I’m not a naturalist.
* * *
In college I tried to prove God existed to people by knowing everyone and being perfectly nice all the time.
I feel lonely, but look at all the names I know and how well I talk to people! Doesn’t that make God real for you?
* * *
On Sunday in church my pastor, Bobby, noted that every pearl comes in a clam. And clams are ugly.
And he said that Jesus set the example of what that looks like. That for the joy set before him he endured the cross, just like the man who bought the field sold everything he had “out of joy.” Bobby said Jesus was willing to enter into the depths of life, to put on human skin and get acne and indigestion and headaches. That he was willing to wade through clabitats just to free us from the stupid things we do that separate us from each other and from God.
That he was willing to sell everything he had—the power he had in heaven, the safety of being God, and most likely endless Chick-fil-A sauce—in order buy a tick-filled field and an ugly clam.
* * *
For so much of my life, I have taken perfection as a dancing partner and danced to the tune of an uncomfortable prayer.
But God, I’m not perfect enough for others to see your love. I’m broken, filled with fears and insecurities and a troublesome, restless heart. How are people going to believe in you if I don’t look like a pearl or a treasure? Will they even consider you if I come with ticks and crustaceans? Maybe I’m not the right guy.
* * *
We ended the service on Sunday by having communion. Small trays of cracker pieces were passed around the sanctuary, and when I received my piece I held the cracker in cupped hands, amazed that it was Jesus’s body, broken for me. Amazed that I would be allowed to hold something so precious, to take it and eat it and live a life with that kind of love and sacrifice and power inside me.
I looked down at the cracker, jagged and white, and a thought slipped quietly and uproariously into my brain.
I am the clam. I am the field.
I sat there with Jesus’s precious body in my hands and realized that I am not the pearl, I am not the treasure.
I am the tick filled field and the crustacean covered clam that someone found and sold everything to purchase. I get to carry a great and endless treasure, even with my ticks.
* * *
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
-2 Corinthians 4:7-10
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Next the ushers passed the grape juice around the congregation—Jesus’s blood. I held the clear church-shot-glass with both hands, careful to protect such precious drops. When Jesus died on the cross, his blood wasn’t protected then, so I want to do my part to protect it now.
In fact, the Bible says when he came back to life, his scars were still attached. The holes in his hands, the holes in his ankles, and the hole in his side, like mud-stained Chaco marks, remained stamped there.
He didn’t have to keep them, of course. He could have photo-shopped them out or painted over them or something. But he didn’t.
I wonder if he kept the scars to remind everyone that death wasn’t the end of it. That hurt and pain and struggle would happen, but they didn’t need to have the last words.
And as I drank the juice—Jesus’s blood—I felt more and more like my tick bites and my muddy Chacos wouldn’t become fully clean on earth. That they shouldn’t be painted over with the gloss of Instagram filters or fake-perfection. That they should be used to remind myself and others that hurt and pain and struggles don’t have the last words.
Loneliness and anxiety and fears of the future may hold for the night, but I know the morning is coming.
I know the morning is coming because I ingest it with communion.
* * *
Something exciting happened when I started talking openly about my struggles, about loneliness and anxiety and fears of the future: people started asking me about Jesus.
They started emailing me and setting up coffee, wanting to know more about how I’ve found joy in the midst of struggle, beauty in the midst of fear.
I get to listen and nod and hug and tell them, simply, Jesus.