Tall. Chiseled features. Blue eyes. Flowing brown hair. Kenny Logins 80s-style facial hair (is that a trans-Atlantic reference or just USA? Well, Google it, I guess). Robes. Lamb draped over him like a towel over a beach-goer’s neck on his way to the sea.
Growing up, that was my Jesus. Or at least that was how he was depicted in a painting found in the traditionally stain-glassed, steepled church and Christian school where I grew up outside Detroit, Michigan. The painting hung above a side altar reserved for baptisms off to the side of the main sanctuary. The painting stuck with me, maybe because that was where my brother was Christened, and my four-year old self was more interested in pictures than the heady vows and words batted about and above my wee head.
To my head, like for many Midwestern kids, there was just church, where we worshipped God, and the way to God was belief in Jesus (because John 3:16, of course). Every one of my WASPy friends was loved by Jesus just the same. There was no anxiety. It was a simple transaction. It was a non-choice, really. Who would say “no”? Heaven in exchange for belief in Jesus because he loves you this-you-know-for-the-Bible-tells-you-so. Plus, your parents encouraged it. And as a kid, what more than that did you need?
As for the other option: hell. For disbelief. For untrust. For sin. At least, unforgiven sin. Don’t forget to repent, young Matt. Repent, and sin’ll just be washed away. Dirty, wash, rinse, repeat. We are saved… by this vicious cycle. Others outside the circle of faith who didn’t submit to the vicious cycle, however, would be assuredly hell bound.
Did I say there was no anxiety? Yeah, I lied. (Sin.) There was plenty: anxiety about a judgmental God staring down, seeing my every move. Every. Move.
Some years later into my childhood, a teacher during Christmas pageant practice led me and some friends to the side baptism altar with the painting of CrossFit Jesus. I remember being wide-eyed as she gave the altar a tug to swing the whole wooden piece outward, pulled a curtain aside, and revealed a secret of complete and utter… underwhelm.
Behind the altar was… wait for it… storage. A room maybe 12’ by 8’ held dust, cobwebs, boxes, the wooden manger for Christmas, and the seasonal banners that hung throughout the building.
How’s that for a metaphor? Behind Captain America Jesus was a room filled with dust and stuff.
Caveat: the preceding summary of my faith upbringing (with just a pinch – nay, a liberal dash – of snark and bitterness) is a tail of a much larger, more complex elephant. The teachers and faith leaders generally meant well. It was not, by any means, strictly evangelical in the most toxic interpretations of the label. They provided what many would consider a nurturing environment – in the best of times.
What happens, though, when true existential challenges test our mettle and faith? We all encounter pain to differing degrees, but what happens when those around you in positions of power and authority haven’t been tested – or in quite the same way? Or they lack caring instincts? Or they employ shallow faith slogans to address paradigm-shifting suffering?
My great (not my last, but certainly most profound) unraveling (deconstruction?) began with witnessing the abrupt death of my dad at age 11. That one sentence cannot begin to capture the anguish, journey, and redemption of the 31 years since then that bring me to now. Some in the church thankfully gave some care in the aftermath, but the Church’s care was arm’s-length and mechanical. I still cringe at the Christian and self-help platitudes that pummeled me, my mom, and my brother, and I’ll leave it at that. You all know them, Nomads. I know you do. I feel you do. I’ve read your comments and blog posts to recognize my kindred spirits, and I wouldn’t write this now if I didn’t feel in familiar, empathic company.
I can also say that experiencing sincere love and compassion rescued me, and frankly, it neither mattered from where it came nor did it always come from Christians. I found in bits and pieces, here and there, a few other surrogate father figures and steady friends along the way. Aside from my immediate family, I found the first divine words of acceptance, forgiveness, humanity, and empathy, not from a clergy person, but from a therapist. It was a revelation.
After many years of experiential journey, I married a wonderful woman who reintroduced me to church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, in an old repurposed shopping mall. The church was called Mars Hill, and it was pastored by some guy named Rob Bell. It was as contemporary as it got, which was a culture shock from my more stylistically-traditional upbringing. But musical choices aside, oh, did I have my eyes opened. I had no idea what the gospel (The Way), the Bible (not a book, but a library of books spanning centuries), Jesus (probably not blue-eyed; chiseled? unknown), God ( ), and first century context (a palm branch was political?!) could mean and not mean. Bell invited speakers like Shane Claiborne and Peter Rollins and referenced the works of Fr. Richard Rohr. A year-long series was built around a Brian McLaren book. It was… Nomadic, which probably groomed me and explains my affinity for this community.
My most powerful take-away from Mars Hill came in a single Greek word: metanoia. In the messy business of translation throughout centuries, that word came to me in English language Bibles as “repent.” Cracking the rigidity of some orthodoxies, Bell pointed to theologians wrestling over a more authentic translation as “fundamental transformation,” as in metamorphosis. Well, that just blows the doors off the box in which so many of our churches put Jesus, doesn’t it?
Today, I recalibrate repentance away from how I had osmosed it beneath a mythological Norse shepherd Jesus. I hope I am a more fluid thing – a hybrid sheep-shepherd traveling, not over his shoulder, but on the path beside a paradoxical Nazarean rabbi-healer. Ever transforming together. On a teachable path not just of belief but of radically-practiced compassion.
There is no transaction now, only journey with this sage savior.
“And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost
– Matt Jones