Rector's Blog: Angry and Beautiful
The first time I heard the band Nirvana, I was in 7th grade. Their breakout song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was all over the radio, and its video was in constant rotation on MTV. It was inescapable. It was loud. It was strange and scary and kind of repulsive and melodic at the same time. To be honest, I was kind of scared of Nirvana. I was a clean-cut suburban kid who mostly listened to slick, polished mainstream rock bands by musicians who smiled for the camera and talked about love. The three guys from Nirvana were edgy and sullen, and looked like they’d just crawled out of a basement long enough to angrily blast this song at you before heading back below the surface. The media of the time quickly dubbed their music “Grunge” – which Nirvana hated, because of course they did, but that’s what it was. It was grungy. It was angry and beautiful. I loved it.
I was afraid of this music and drawn to it at the same time. I was scared because their unabashed anger and frustration tapped right into my anger and frustration, and I didn’t actually know that I was angry or frustrated, much less that I was allowed to be these things. I could not articulate these feelings they were expressing, but I knew I was feeling them. I was not ready to admit that I was not ok. But Nirvana was. They were able to scream and shout and sing that they were not ok. They did this without any kind of shame or embarrassment. That struck something so deep within me that I had to admit I felt it too.
Six months later I found out my parents were getting a divorce. My mom came into my room and, with an unusually delicate gravity, said we needed to talk. “Did someone die?” I asked. “No,” she said. I followed that immediately with, “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?” “Yes.” She was sort of surprised and relieved that I said it before she had to. I was grateful for her bluntness. But the thing I remember the most about that moment was that I had guessed it. You know what that means? It means I knew it was coming. It means that even though I wanted to be a perfect kid with a perfect family and a perfect life, not too far under the surface I knew things were a mess. My parents weren’t separated. They had never mentioned splitting up in front of me. We were all trying so hard to be ok and to seem ok. We weren’t. None of us were. I had no idea how to admit that, much less articulate it. I couldn’t ask for help because I didn’t even know I needed help.
We might think we grow out of this, that I’m just describing adolescence, but I wonder if that’s true. Do we really grow out of not admitting we’re not ok? Do we really grow out of not knowing we need help? The most significant growth and maturity I have experienced has not come simply with age – it’s come through practice and intention. So if we do not practice the ownership of our broken feelings, how do we think we will ever actually get good at being honest with ourselves? If we only practice putting on the best face possible and moving forward as if things are ok, aren’t we just getting better and better at denial?
Nirvana’s music, that grunge, that angry beautiful wall of sound, tapped into the part of me that was not ok and gave me something I couldn’t even ask for: It made it ok for me not to be ok. It made anger beautiful. It gave melody to my fears. We’re all so afraid of being alone. They made me less alone.
Our culture’s collective mastery of denial has been made manifest during the last two years. We have made a practice of denying the seriousness of the virus, denying its magnitude, denying its impact. We have many times chosen denial of the obvious ways to stop the spread, denial of simple ways to save lives, denial of the fact that all this uncertainty and death has taken its toll on us. Nearly a million Americans dead from COVID – as one author recently said, that’s like 9/11 happening every day for a year straight. And here we complain that we aren’t back to normal yet. Normal. Our culture doesn’t know how to admit we are not ok. We are in denial of the fact that we are not what we were. That we have changed and been transformed over the last two years.
The desire to act as if we are ok runs strong and deep.
What angry, beautiful tune can allow us not to be ok?
As a Christian during the Season of Lent, I think it’s Jesus. I think Jesus is our angry, beautiful, repulsive, melodic song.
Jesus brings hope, yes. Jesus is Love incarnate, yes. He is our hope and our heart. And he’s perfectly fine not being ok.
Jesus’ life with us is literally God validating our experience, sharing our feelings, giving us space to not be ok even when we have faith and are doing good work and loving and changing lives. Jesus gets angry. Jesus gets frustrated. Jesus weeps. Jesus wails. He’s loud and strange and scary. Jesus loses sleep, and needs naps, and experiences complicated feelings. Sometimes we treat Jesus like he’s merely a solution to a problem. When we do that, we flatten him out. Jesus isn’t a solution. He’s God. And he’s human. Jesus’ life testifies to the reality that being a mess doesn’t make you less a part of God’s life, that not being ok doesn’t deprive you of your utter belonging to God, and your total belonging here in the world.
To follow Jesus isn’t to pretend everything is ok. To follow Jesus is to know you’re not alone, whatever your condition.
I have a lot of dreams for this community we call Church of the Redeemer. One of those dreams is that we can be not ok together. We don’t need to be in denial about this life. We don’t need to be perfect. We can be angry and beautiful and still be full of Love.
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