I love church mishaps. Once, at a Baptist service, I spilled my little cup of communion Welch’s on a neighbor’s new white pants. He was so kind about it but also probably mad, and I was so embarrassed. There was a soft piano playing in the background while the preacher, up front, invited the congregation to commune with the Lord and, when we were ready, to go ahead and drink. I tried mopping up the spill with my sleeve, until parishioners from all sides descended upon me and told me to stop: “It’s okay,” they said, “it’s okay.” It didn’t feel okay. I wondered if I should ask for another cup.

Silly now, but at the time I couldn’t make sense of it. Instead of praying to God, as my neighbors seemed to be doing, I was wondering, well, why did that happen? Looking back, it’s just kind of funny, I guess, and does help me understand Proust’s well-instagrammed proverb: “Instead of what our imagination makes us suppose and which we worthlessly try to discover, life gives us something that we could hardly imagine.” I think it’s true. The world is full of surprises, good and bad, and no where, not even church, is safe from them.

I was recently tickled by this intro from “What the Swedes Read,” a column by the esteemed Daniel Handler, in the current issue of The Believer

Here is a quick test for you. Read the following passage [from a play called Beyond Human Might by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson]:

ELIAS: Both of us believe that God is something we have to work out within ourselves.


ELIAS: That He is evident in the eternal order of the universe, and that to man this order means justice—the growth of justice.

BRATT: And of goodness.

ELIAS: But isn’t He evident in war also? Could he stand outside of that? …

BRATT: There are so many kinds of war.

ELIAS: This is the kind I am thinking of: to sacrifice oneself in order to destroy those that will evil.

BRATT: If that kind of war comes within the order that is justice—?


[A MAN IN BROWN has stolen up close to them without being noticed by either one of them. At this moment he puts his head in between them, with his face close to that of BRATT.]

BRATT: Ugh! What is the use of that sort of thing? Why must he always come like that?

MAN IN BROWN [Crouching on his haunches, with his hands resting on his knees, begins to laugh wildly]: Ha—ha—ha—ha!

[He hops around like a bird until, at a sign from Elias, he suddenly disappears.]

BRATT: Is it never possible to have a talk with you without that fellow getting in between us?

Now, then, answer honestly: what was the most interesting part, to you? Was it the conversation about God and war and sacrifice? Or was it when a man dressed in brown started hopping around like a bird?

What a passage! I can’t be the only one who wants to learn more about this Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Moreover, if you’re anything like me, Handler’s ‘test’ pretty much answers itself. Of course my attention was stolen by the bird-mimicker-in-brown. Who was that guy?

Admitting this, though, comes with a mild dose of guilt, because…well, what about God? Shouldn’t I find God more interesting than a wildly laughing MAN IN BROWN? Is this still a Christian website?

The bird mimicker doesn’t outshine ‘God’ for any one reason. I think there are several. There’s the fact that he’s just bizarre. There’s also the fact (opinion?) that his intervention saves us from what was shaping up to be a pretty boring conversation. In a play that is lulling its audience dangerously close to a mid-act nap, the bird man is a welcome surprise.

Today, the Christian church finds itself in a similar situation, full of fascinating Eliases and Bratts—those of us who want to puzzle over the important things of God and salvation, justice and war. We love our jargon. We love discussing what it means to “live well,” to “love on” our neighbors, to be “a good witness.” But that stuff puts the audience to sleep. What we need, as weary, heavy-laden people, is a surprise. The good news is, that’s what so much of Jesus’ ministry was: him walking around, telling people they were wrong, that their expectations of God and of what it meant to be a good person were wildly incorrect. “An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.” “[Crouching on his haunches, with his hands resting on his knees, he begins to laugh wildly]: Ha—ha—ha—ha!”

When we expected glory, he went to the cross. When we expected performance, we got disaster. And instead of condemnation, he gave us love. When we were clinging to the law, he gave us the gospel. And the gospel, much like Bjørnson’s bird man, is specific.

When we consider the bird man, what do we know? Well, a lot actually, even from such a brief encounter. We know that he can appear and disappear, that he is a man, that he wears a brown suit. He’s mysterious for sure, his motives remain unknown, and yet he is drawn in full relief. By contrast, Elias and Bratt’s talk of ‘God’—along with war, and sacrifice, and justice—is pretty unclear and distant and so much harder to connect to, despite seeming very, very important.

If ‘God’ has any hope of connecting with us, he has to get specific. Which he does, as a person, as Jesus. This is why theologians always talk about the “event” of justification, the moment, constrained by time and space and geography (and, for that matter, culture and race and gender), during which Jesus was crucified, and subsequently resurrected. In the words of Paul Tillich, the Christian “claims the universal validity of the Christian message in spite of its concreteness and special character. He does not justify this claim by abstracting from the concreteness of the message but by stressing its unrepeatable uniqueness.”

When you think about it, it’s a lot like the moment when a man in a brown suit sidles up to Elias and starts acting like a bird: concrete, disruptive, impossibly interesting.

One thing that will always catch me off-guard is the mangled body of a good man. The Church has made its best effort at normalizing the crucifixion of Jesus, abstracting it and beautifying it and making it something you can look at without blinking. But I believe its staying power is in that brutal specificity. That God came into the world at a specific time, in a specific body, with a specific message, meant for you and me. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were yet striving to find our worth in talk of politics and God and justice, a man named Jesus went and did something crazy, to definitively say once and for all exactly what we are worth to him. Whoa!