Unpaint the Rock

Unpaint the rock.

One of the things I noticed during the 2020 Pandemic Virtual College Tour is that several of the dozens of schools Betsy and I virtually visited share a tradition of painting a rock. In one case, we actually visited a campus in real life that had a rock like this, but we saw lots of pictures of others on college campuses. They were remarkably similar, given that they were trumpeted as unique.

Here’s the deal: big rock in the center of campus gets painted by student groups to promote their organization/cause/marriage proposal/whatever. Rock gets painted a lot, sometimes hundreds of times a year. Groups have to schedule with an office in Student Affairs as to when they get to paint the rock. The rock, essentially, has a social secretary.

When we visited one of these college rocks, we joked that, if you ever stripped all the paint away, you might find that the rock underneath wasn’t big at all and might be shaped totally differently. It was the thousands of coats of paint that we were really looking at.

Metaphor, as Ted and Coach Beard would say.

I wrote a too-long blog post last week to say this: our problem as Christians is that we have painted the rock. The essence of the Gospel is pretty simple, if profound: we are broken but loved unreservedly. Nothing can overcome that love even though it’s a love we have not earned. And what’s asked of us, if we’re grateful for that love, is to love back and love others, especially those who might be fooled into thinking they are outcasts.

That’s it. That’s the whole rock.

But we have painted on a bunch of layers on top of that rock. About social norms and respectability. About politics and economics and culture. About what words to use and what clothes to wear and where to sit and stand and live. About what to do with our time and our money and our power and our planet.

Now I’m an optimist, so I’ll say that I think that all of those things started out as corollaries to the foundational message, the rock. If you love God back, here’s how you can show it. If you love other people, here’s how you act. But at some point, you start rounding off the corners and go straight from claiming to be Christian and these corollaries, just like you start painting on top of paint that may really be on more of the sidewalk than on the rock. And in the process, we get to the point where we equate being a good Christian with only loving some people, not all of them, and with protecting the people inside the circle rather than inviting in the people who are left outside of it.

And here we are.

We Christians, faced by some pretty appalling examples of people claiming the same faith but committing some pretty unloving acts in the name of that faith, we need to own up to painting on paint. We need to commit to stripping off the paint and getting back to the rock.

Here’s another perspective of this metaphor: painting the rock, at these colleges, started as an act of rebellion and ended up being co-opted into the institution. Surely it was vandalous undergrads who first painted the rock, in defiance of the administration and at risk of punishment. I bet what they painted wasn’t even wholesome. But then it caught on, and the administration realized that alumni remembered painting the rock fondly in a way that encouraged donations, then the school leaders decided it was no longer a rebellion but a venerated tradition. And they gave the rock a social secretary, to make it orderly and avoid conflict and keep it all organized.

If rocks had memory (and I do not believe that they do), they would cry out, “That’s not at all how this started.” 

God’s in-breaking into normalcy looks more like rebellious vandalism than venerated ritual. That may be hard for a Catholic to say out loud, but it doesn’t make it less true; in fact, I’ll tell you that what draws me back to the rituals of the Church I belong to aren’t the soothing predictabilities of rote tradition but the possibility that God sometimes shows up there in a table-flipping, life-changing way. Just as I go back to baseball games, not for the bucolic and predictable ritual, but for the very live possibility that I might see something completely new and amazing. Perfect games. Triple plays. Game 162. Brett Phillips buzzing around the outfield like an airplane.

If we want to really expose ourselves to that vandalous rebellion, we need to strip the paint off the rock.

Here’s one more metaphor of unpainting the rock. We spend a lot of our lives taking who we really are and what we really care about and adding on. The job. The house. The status. The image that we have it sorta all together. And if we do that too much, we forget what the rock underneath was really about.

While we may have to decide to strip the paint off the rock of our faith, collectively and individually, you should know that life will sooner or later strip you of the coats of paint you put on your core. It might be late in your years, but it might not be. Either way, we all eventually sit with Job and face the question of who we would be without all those coats of paint.

We need to do ourselves a favor and be preemptive. Unpaint the rock. It’s more beautiful that way, anyway.

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