By William Scruggs
This title comes from a song—“Relatively Easy,” which is the last song on Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern. And these words come at the end of a verse about a brother on a “church kick.” Whoever tells us about it regards such seeking after salvation as akin to being “dope sick,” judging it better to “teach a dog a card trick and try to have a point and make it clear.” To have a point, to be heard, or just to say something true would be magical. No, it would be miraculous. It would require an intervention into the natural order of things.
But sentences mean nothing without that which precedes them. And I have cut these words free. And I have taped them to the wall above my desk. And I have put them with other detached words about writing. So when I’m trying to say something, and when I feel my own knowledge pulling away, the words don’t just mean that it’s how it goes. They also mean perseverance.
It sounds like the Gospel of John, which begins with that beautiful praise for the Word, which is really God, becoming a body. It ends with this confession: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). What a lovely tension in the tradition of English translations. The first verse tells of a word that fully exhausts time and space. The last verse insists that all the incarnated words written by hand (and surely those spilled over tongues in conversations) could fill time and space and still never enclose that word.
There is a point, an ultimate point, and not you, I, nor anyone else could make it clear. And so I love creeds, especially because in them I do not believe.
I didn’t grow up with the words handed down from Chalcedon. I can only say the incantational I-Believe from the Nicene Creed. Creeds exist outside of my worship and outside of my mind, but in the summer, I saw all these “Jesus 2020” yard signs in rural Virginia. They struck me as if they were a creed.
I don’t mean to say they struck me as true, as if the back roads my wife and I travelled because of traffic on I-84 were leading to Damascus. No, I mean to say that as we saw more and more, the less clearly meaningful they were.
It began with judgment. We are of a generation and a place filled with a certain kind of creed. They appeared on straw-wrappers and were stylized as logos on T-shirts. We saw Ten Commandments in courthouses, and speaking only for myself here, I was taught to regard such statements with suspicion. They sounded like words of exclusion. Even if they didn’t mean the violence necessary to uphold these borders, surely they meant absenting oneself from the work of justice and peace.
I’m not sure our judgments were wrong. I suspect they were right. But this is not the point.
Rather, every repetition of the sign made it more meaningless. That is what I thought until I realized what was really happening—curiosity about the people who set the out. I wondered about why they would do so. I wondered whether they meant it as support for the political process or apathy about it. I wondered whether it meant support for a candidate or opposition. It seems such a statement could mean all these things and every form in-between—an overwhelming abundance of meaning. To know it requires something more than words.
This is not, ultimately, about a yard sign. But it is about the words that animate out own communities—in prayers and creeds and in otherwise innocuous greetings. It’s about the simultaneous limitations and expansiveness of such sayings and our willingness to meet the words of our faith with curiosity, neither to change nor to preserve but to remember that these sentences are made meaningful through the words made flesh that precedes them. And such meaning turns outward to the living of our lives, forever and ever, amen.
William Scruggs is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing an MDiv at Harvard Divinity School.