Jesus looks down upon me, his weary head cast in bronze. His delicate frame is mounted on a wooden crucifix above the kitchen table. There’s a golden circle haloing his crown of thorns and a gathering of saints attending to him, their eyes rolled back dramatically in lament. The sorrowful gaze of his round, deep set eyes meets mine over a morning bowl of cereal.
I’ve always wondered how Jesus looked, sounded and smelled. With so few biblical hints about his physical appearance, we rely only on lore: of Robert Powell’s baby blue eyes and Shakespearean accent, the ghostly shroud of Turin, and pamphlets featuring a friendly, long haired white man cradling lambs.
Saint Paul promised the church in Corinth that one day, they would see their savior face to face. But not quite yet. For now, we’re in something of a fog. He compared our experience to looking through a dim glass; our vision is faint, obscured, and incomplete.
On cold nights and in the white light of Sunday mornings, I find myself squinting at that dark glass, pressing my fingers on the foggy frame. In an attempt to wipe it clean, I smear and scrape at the grime which distorts his picture. I want to see the man on the other side, but often find I’ve only smudged and further distorted his image.
With so many people speaking on his behalf, it’s hard to discern the voice of Christ. When we the actions and attitudes we experience in our churches do not match the Jesus we read about in scripture, it’s hard to know where to turn.
Jesus never wrote a book. What we know of him is what was written down by the men who knew best, who walked with him and called him their teacher and friend.
They wrote about how he shocked them with the things he’d teach, how he flipped classical ideas about servant-hood, leadership, wealth, and strength upside down. He said that in him that the hungry would be fed and the weary would have rest.
They described how he infuriated religious people by associating with sinners; sharing meals with thieves and sex workers, extending a healing touch to diseased men and women, and showing mercy to the least qualified. He dignifying people by listening to them, restoring them, and offering them a place at the table.
He demonstrated humility by washing his disciples feet, reminding Peter that it is only by coming face to face with our filth that he can make us clean. God, from the moment he was born to a poverty stricken teenager in a Palestinian barn, proved he was not afraid of a mess, least of all the mess inside of us.
When I read the scriptures, I’m overcome with him. I bet he smelled of wood chippings and the sea, of dust and sweat, of wine and anointing oil. He calmed the storms and touched the wounded and called a rich young ruler to give away his possession to the poor and to follow after him, because it is in him, and not in wealth, that the fullness of joy could be found.
Two Thousand years later, Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey sit comfortably in their luxury homes, television cameras filming as they roll their heads back in laughter. “What kind of God would want anyone to be poor?” They ask, rhetorically. “I just don’t see the bible that way.”
On another channel you might see Christians protesting gay rights, with picket signs and loudspeakers.
Another still may feature the story of a christian who feels he is being religiously persecuted by a lack of gender specific toy aisles at Target, or an abundance of “Happy Holiday” decor where “Merry Christmas” ought to be. Eventually, you just turn the TV off.
One of the main frustrations our generation has with the church is the dissonance we sense between the person of Jesus and the culture of American Christianity.
It would a terrible mistake to suggest that all churches are guilty of close mindedness, derision, or exclusivity. That may be an easy generalization for people to make, but it’s simply not true. However, it is also a mistake for Christians to decline to talk about the problems in our traditions, some which are not so obvious as the ones we see on TV. We should not ignore or excuse commonplace distortions of the gospel that affect people both inside and outside of the church. It’s okay to be frustrated.
I certainly have my own frustrations.
At many a Sunday morning service, a Christian’s job is to show up, smile, and listen to 40 minutes worth of good advice. We do not raise our hands to pose a question, we do not struggle out in the open, or bleed on the clean church floors.
We keep a checklist of the things we are for the things we are against: of things which are sins and things which belong on our moral to-do list. We remain in God’s karmic good graces by observing them.
We advertise our disdain for the actions and opinions of those whose theology contradicts our own, waging holy war with detailed, bullet pointed facebook messages, citing bible verses in our favor.
We disqualify our fellow Christians for having the wrong doctrine, wrong denomination, wrong music, wrong clothes, wrong scriptural interpretation, and wrong political party, as if these things were really the point after all. We repeat our individual idioms until they become as important to us as biblical law.
We vote to criminalize behaviors we deem immoral, so that even if our fellow Americans do not share in our affection for Christ, they can be legally forced to act as if they did.
We pick “pet sins” to rail against in the public spheres, while conveniently avoiding our own, petrified of our shortcomings and clueless about how to walk in humility.
We stir up culture wars around these sins, repeating the mantra “hate the sin, love the sinner.” We do an excellent job of communicating the hate, but allow the part about love to remain mostly theoretical.
I cannot help but wonder what part of these culture wars we wage in Jesus’ name represent him. I cannot help but groan when they become our focus. Are these battles over politics, theology, and rhetoric really worth the casualties they cause? Because for every so-called victory won, we can rest assured that the people outside our church walls have heard the message loud and clear that they are not welcome within.
I recently listened to an episode of This American Life which was recorded in 2008. It includes a story from writer Dan Savage who recounts his Catholic childhood, the death of his religious mother, and how he felt drawn to the church during his time of grief.
“I fantasized about returning to the sacrament of confession. ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It’s been 29 years since my last confession. Hope you packed a lunch.’ I want for there to be heaven. And I want her to be looking down on me…. Catholicism now tempts me. I wouldn’t be wasting so much time in Saint James if it didn’t. My boyfriend would not have found a “WELCOME BACK” card in the back pocket of my jeans if it didn’t.
But when I am tempted, when I feel like, maybe, I could go through the motions, Return to the sacraments, take what comfort I can, the Pope goes to Africa and says that condoms spread AIDS, or an archbishop in Brazil excommunicates a Catholic woman for getting her nine year old daughter an abortion, but not the Catholic man that raped the nine year old girl. Or I contemplate how the church views me and the two people I love most in the world, my boyfriend of 14 years and our 11-year-old son, and I think, I can’t even fake this.”
This is what happens when the evangelical church chooses to define itself by what it is against and which types of people it wants to exclude instead of defining itself by Jesus: a man whose radical inclusion of even the most deplorable sinners was so offensive to religious people it ended up getting him murdered.
So what are we to do?
For many young people, the answer has been to give up on church and Christianity entirely. They’re tired of trying to fit in somewhere their friends are not welcome. They don’t feel the freedom to doubt or ask questions without their whole biblical worldview unraveling . They don’t feel they are able to maintain both their faith and their intellectual integrity.
“Oh well,” we say to ourselves with a sigh, “Following Jesus may be a nice idea in theory, but it just doesn’t work out in reality. The church is too flawed, Christians are too crazy, and I am not the kind of person who can go along with this nonsense.”
There is a problem though: If there is even a chance that Jesus is who he said he was, we can’t just throw him away along with the broken church. Too much is at stake. As C.S. Lewis points out, we cannot be contented to merely think of him as merely a good moral teacher. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
We have to deal with Jesus. We can’t just leave this question half answered in our hearts: we have to make up our minds about him. We owe it to ourselves to cut away from the noise and the antics associated with him, and seek to know the truth. Who is Jesus is the single most important question we will ever ask, because the answer has massive implications on all our lives.
My life-long pursuit of an authentic vision of Christ has led me, time and again, to trust in him.
Some days it is hard to hear his voice. Others I am so frustrated and disheartened by by his “people” that I wane on the edge of despair. But I press on. I know that to seek him is a worthy struggle. I am convinced that to even see a glimmer of Christ shown back to us through that dark mirror is our only hope of bringing life out of this death and beauty out of this chaos. I remember the grace he has shown me the countless times I too have failed to represent him, and the merciful love which first drew me to believe.
The amazing thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t leave us helpless in the dark. Instead of expecting us to become good enough or clever enough to rise and obtain the faraway secrets of God, he stoops down and encounters us where we are. He can handle our doubts, our anger, our most controversial questions. They do not scare him. He does not turn us away for having them.
Through the fog and the confusion, he walks towards us. I hold on to hope for the the church, because I still believe in the one on whom it stands: a God who redeems human failures and restores what is broken to new life. A God who invites us to pursue him with our whole heart and our whole mind, drawing us into greater depths of both wisdom and joy.
I can feel it in air, I hear it like rustling leaves. People are having much needed conversations in which they are getting permission to be their full authentic selves. They are sharing their stories and doubts, working through their wounds, and beginning to heal. People are learning to address the problems within their religious structures without dismissing their faith, because it is a faith that is predicated on redemption and grace.
There are many Christians who, when faced with frustrations and disappointments of Christian culture, do not throw up their hands up in despair, but rather, reach them out to touch; to serve; to build, to feed the hungry, to fold in prayer.
I want to be among them.