The Ragged Garment

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
— Hebrews 10:23 ESV

If your faith is a little gritty, a little muddy, a little threadbare . . . that is probably a good thing. Just hang on. You are in good company.

God has been reminding me that the perseverance of the saints is often perseverance by the saints. This is a truth repeated again and again in Hebrews:

  • "Therefore we must pay much closer attention...lest we drift away" 2:1
  • "And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence" 3:6, 12, 14
  • "Let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it" 4:1
  • "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest" 4:11
  • "Let us hold fast our confession" 4:14
  • "We...might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us" 6:18
  • "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" 10:23
  • "Therefore do not throw away your confidence" 10:35
  • "Therefore...let us run with endurance" 12:1
  • "Do not be led away" 13:9

You get the picture.

Of course it is wonderful to have exemplars of the life of faith, so God gives us Hebrews 11. The inductees of this Hall of Fame are a unique lot. They are men and women of disparate circumstances, but they are united in a least two ways: their eyes were locked on Jesus and they "did not receive what was promised" (Hebrews 11:39).

So much for "easy believism."

I read the account of another member of that tribe of the tenacious thanks to Fredrick Buechner and his autobiographical musings, Now & Then.  Buechner attended Union Seminary during the days of contemporary theological giants Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Martin Buber, but for him, "there was no one on the faculty who left so powerful and lasting an impression as James Muilenburg."

He was an angular man with thinning white hair, staring eyes, and a nose and chin which at times seemed so close together that they gave him the face of a good witch.

This "good witch", says Buechner, "never merely taught the Old Testament but was the Old Testament." Buechner's appreciation for the man whose teaching antics were so compelling they made his classes "standing room only" is surpassed by his admiration for the honesty of the older man's faith. Buechner writes,

"Every morning when you wake up," he used to say, "before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind in and then see if you can honestly say it again." He was a fool in the sense that the didn't or couldn't or wouldn't resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times.

Should we be surprised by this tension? I don't think so. Remember those who were "sawn in two" for their faith in Christ (Hebrews 11:37)? I doubt those anguished souls were singing, "Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus."

Buechner continues:

His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm. In teaching the prophets, he wrenched into juxtaposition faith, on the one hand, as passion, as risk, as shuddering trust even in the face of despair and darkness, and, on the other, as mere piety, sentimentality, busyness. He held up Jeremiah in his cistern over against the [stewardship campaign], committeemanship, the mimeograph machine, and would prance down the aisle parodying the cozy old Jesus hymns--"He walks with me, and he talks with me, and the tells me I am his own."

I have been reflecting on Muilenburg and the words Buechner uses to describe him. I want a faith as real, as tried, as true:

His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

I'll wrap up this ode to Muilenburg and the Jesus for whom he lived with these words from Buechner:

He was a fool, I suppose, in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark, yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to; in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in his terrible candor. A fool, in other words, for Christ.

The longer I live, the closer I read Hebrews, the more I believe "fools for Christ" don't live snuggled up in cozy belief, but with a garment that we clutch about ourselves like a man in a storm.

Hold fast to Jesus today.


Notes:

  • "There was no one on the faculty ..." from Now & Then by Frederick Buechner. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1983, page 15.
  • "He was an angular man ..." from Now & Then, p. 15.
  • "Never merely taught ..." from Now & Then, p. 15.
  • "Every morning when you wake up ... "and "His faith was not a seamless garment" from Now & Then, p. 16.
  • "He was a fool ..." from Now & Then, p. 17.