Writing Contest Third-place Winner: In the Flesh

This year, The Banner sponsored an article contest for young adults aged 16-25 on the topic of “Christian Love in Divisive Times.” We wanted to hear what young people had to say about the difficult conversations being had in North America right now. We received 25 entries from young people in the Christian Reformed Church. Our three judges read each one without seeing any names attached, and they agreed on three winners (see judges’ comments at the end). This is the third-place winner. Read the first-place winner here and the second-place winner here. We will be publishing some of the runners-up throughout the next several weeks here.

Sometimes my body recognizes the tension before my mind does. Nausea starts to build. My muscles begin to clench. Whether I’m sitting at dinner or scrolling through social media, division feels new every time it emerges.

But of course, of course, division is not new. It is not a 21st-century invention. And Iand so many other Christiansmust not pretend that it is. Perhaps this discussion is unfamiliar, but this pattern is well-worn and dangerous. If we are not tethered to the history of controversy (both outside the church and inside it), we start to long for a world that never existed.

Sometimesmany timeswe smooth the divisions of the past into calm, clear-cut disagreements, ignoring thousands of heartrending realities. The Nicene Creed was not created with unanimous cheers; the Reformation was not isolated from the politics of the Renaissance; slavery was not abolished through a series of polite handshakes. The present is difficult, and it has always been difficult. Even our corner of the world might have only seemed quiet until now.

Still, despite all our human failings, God is faithful. God did not abandon us sinful, squabbling humans then; he will not abandon us now. When we remember our true, complicated past, we remember God’s long history of faithfulness to unfaithful people. We remember the God who became flesh and dwelt among us unfaithful people.

Theologians have called the incarnation “the scandal of particularity”: the wonder of God in one particular place, one particular time. God clothed himself in specifics, from a winding family tree to the dusty roads of first-century Judea. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are not abstract treatises on love; they are love embodied.

Pastor and podcaster Mike Cosper writes in Recapturing the Wonder that love is a “feast of attention.” And Christ in the flesh was constantly paying attention. The gospels brim with stories of Jesus noticing the smallest details. He sees Nathanael under the fig tree. He spots the anxiety behind Martha’s preoccupations. He watches a widow give two tiny, precious pennies.

Even in the middle of a bustling crowd, on the way to help someone else, he recognizes a sick woman’s brush with the edge of his cloak. When he calls out, she rushes forward and falls at his feet, knowing thatlike all of us“she could not go unnoticed” (Luke 8:47).

I cannot give a three-step plan for Christian love in divisive times, but I know Christ often embodied love by paying attention. When I talk about division, I start to imagine arguments in abstract terms. But vague love is meaningless and without cost. Like children muttering sorry to their siblings without any context, like a Hallmark card with a hasty signature, it is too easy and too forgettable.

Part of me longs for a time without division, for a time of shared purpose and agreement. In a sinful world, however, that unity would be just as dangerous as open division. If we can never change, we can never grow: we must not cling more tightly to our pride than we do to Christ. Besides, quiet is not always a sign of peace. Some divisive voices are poison; some divisive voices recognize poison for what it is. Discerning the difference requires time, thought, and plenty of attention.

If God loves us in specifics, then we need to give others the grace of specifics. And we discover specifics by noticing. All too often, I find myself nodding along with the call to love my enemies, then excusing myself from loving this particular enemy. My enemies are somewhere far-off, faceless and cackling, not next door or in the next office or in the next pew. Claiming to love an abstract enemy is simple. Claiming to love an obnoxious coworker or relative is much more complicated. But when we pay attention, we begin to love our real neighbors, not the stereotypes or caricatures we’ve created in our minds.

When my muscles flinch with tension, when my senses recognize division in a conversation, Christ calls me to love in specifics. Sometimes this means asking questions, different ones in different conversations. (When we argue with Christians, we do not disagree about who to reflect; we disagree about how to reflect.) Sometimes this means shutting up and listening. Sometimes this means speaking.

Christian love is an embodied love, a love that draws from every created and transformed element of our lives. Our response to division should grow from the prayers we pray, the gifts we hold, the Scripture we read. Reading the Bible must not always be comfortable: the words should spark on our lips, live coals burning with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

“These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts,” says Deut. 6:6, and the following verses list just enough places and times to remind readers thatoh noGod means our whole hearts. My heart in the morning, my heart at night. My heart at work. My heart when I travel. My heart when I dive into a divisive conversation. My heart when I form opinions and make decisions.

In divisive times, we pay attention to our neighborshow else will we have real conversations beyond the well-trodden phrases? We listen; we pray; we speak. We will sometimes squabble with one another, and we will sometimes sin against one another. But we press on, always grounded in a faithful God who isin all the difficult, amazing ways we are notlove.

 

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

The writing is lovely, and I admired the point made about how paying attention is so important, how Jesus paid attention to the details of people's lives.

An original take on the issue, with some solid and well-written arguments: "If we can never change, we can never grow: we must not cling more tightly to our pride than we do to Christ." A well-developed piece with effective use of examples and quotes.

About the Author

Courtney Zonnefeld graduated from Calvin College (now Calvin University) in 2018 with a degree in writing. She grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and now lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she worships at Encounter Church. She writes for the post calvin, an alumni nonfiction blog.

X