In my early formation as a theologian, I was taught to categorize the teachings of the church as primary doctrine, secondary doctrine and adiaphora (neutral or disputable matters).

These aren’t categories that I use much anymore, but I’ve asked myself about the hows and whos of the person of God — Jesus, Father and Spirit — as I have attempted to chart my spiritual and emotional healing from the trauma of the pandemic. While the traditional primary doctrines found in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds still speak immense truth to me, I’ve found myself needing something even more primal.

The primal doctrine I long to believe in is a God who knows all the pain and horror of our modern life and still seeks relentlessly to transform and liberate each and every one of us.

This yearning becomes obvious when I am browsing church websites, listening to sermons and scrolling through an embarrassing number of Christian TikToks. So very little of our Christian conversation tells me about how following Jesus’ teachings and conforming my life to his will actually change anything!

Sure, we scatter a few theological words about, but most of our conversations are far more detailed about the lifestyle we earn by being good Christians — quality coffee and marriages, fun neighborhoods and small groups, and material success, all with a side of perfectly curated brunch experiences.

What makes that Christian? And if all of this accomplished sheen does nothing to address the intractable crises surrounding the lives of everyone I know, do I even care whether what it represents is Christian?

We have incredibly difficult and important work to do as the people of God and of the church.

What we don’t need is the church to be just another capital-producing or ego-boosting venture. What we don’t need is the church to be another community that cultivates categories of who is in and who is out.

What we don’t need is the church to be another institution that doesn’t listen to its people and its neighbors about what is most important. What we don’t need is another organization that pays lip service to environmental concerns but takes no action against the massive crisis.

What we don’t need is another group of people that uses the words “justice” and “mercy” but enacts their meaning only when convenient and comfortable for the most powerful.

None of that says Jesus. None of that is gospel.

I need to know that God makes us, you and me, new and good and free.

We meet the God who can do this in the incarnation, the miraculous healings and feedings, the challenges to the law, the inclusion of women, the death and resurrection, the ascension, the prison breaks, the baptisms of deviant eunuchs and persecutors, the radical social reordering in the Gospels and Epistles.

We meet the God who can do this in the rainbow after the flood, the rescue from Egypt, the protection of the righteous remnant, and in the life-saving wisdom, beautiful poetry, and consistent renaming of the people who meet and follow God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

We meet this God in our baptism and Eucharist, in our liturgies, our songs and hymns, our lectionaries, and our sermons. Becoming new and good and free is the telos of Christian formation and discipleship.

God nurtures in us the capacity to face complex truths about ourselves: our complicity in oppression and our capacity to take action, our finitude and fragility, and our infinite belovedness.

This is our primal being and knowing as Christians — that we are not forsaken. We are not stuck in a desolate land; we are the delight of the Lord, and our land is enough.

This is actual gospel. Things are hard, and God has not left us alone in it. God is with us, and God delights in us and says we are enough.

We have incredibly difficult and important work to do as the people of God and of the church.