For as long as I can remember, I’ve found deep and abiding comfort in dogmatism, in fundamentalism, and God help me, Evangelicalism. Even as a child, there was something about being in a church, maybe it was the smell, that brought me comfort, made me feel safe, made me feel close to God.
In Sunday school, I learned about Buddy Jesus. He was cool, always hanging out with kids, always smiling. He had cool sandals, but he wore a dress, which was a little disturbing, and he had long hair, which my dad said was a sin. I figured Jesus had a loophole, you know, being the son of God and all.
I sang songs about Buddy Jesus. I even drew a picture once of Buddy Jesus, but got in trouble for that.
“We don’t draw pictures of (Buddy) Jesus because that’s a sin. We’re not supposed to make ANY graven image.”
It took me a little while to figure out what a graven image was, but when I did, it all made sense. God smote people in the Old Testament for making images. I’d hate to get smitten.
In my early teen years and in youth group, I learned about Policeman Jesus. Jesus was watching you. He knew what you did behind your parents’ backs. (I never did anything because my parents never let me be behind their backs long enough to do anything.) He knew what you did with your girlfriend. (I rarely had girlfriends, and if I did, I was too shy to ever try anything other than sneak a kiss on the backseat of the bus.) He knew about all the lies you told, all the gossip you spread, and all the other bad things you did. (I told a few lies, spread a little gossip, and about the worse thing I ever did back then was steal one of my sister’s romance novels to see why she needed to hide them under her bed.)
Policeman Jesus felt like a betrayal. I missed Buddy Jesus. Then I read, actually READ the Old Testament. I’ll never forget reading in Deuteronomy: “…and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”
It scared me so much that I just ignored it. I didn’t ask questions, I just moved on, but those words echoed in my mind: “Show them no mercy.”
I’m a curious kid, though, and soon enough, I found another “problem passage.”
1 Samuel 15: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
Whoa. Kill the babies? HOLD UP!!! My parents told me that God was pro-life and that killing babies was a sin. Where the holy hell was Buddy Jesus?
So I asked questions. I made people uncomfortable. I got ignored. The most disturbing thing was that I saw my own doubt in the eyes of others.
My dad was the only one who gave a satisfactory answer, and even it was annoyingly polarized:
“Son, if I’m a judge and I have three signed pardons to pick from and ten violent, evil criminals to give them to, which ones do I pick?”
I answered the one who’s crime was least serious.
“They’re all violent and evil criminals, equal in all their lawbreaking.”
I was stumped.
“I guess you could give it to whoever you wanted to.”
“Exactly, and if instead of the pardons, I was handing out executions, would I not be justified in killing whoever I wanted to? That’s what God was doing. These people stirred up his wrath against them, so he poured out his wrath on them.”
Enter Angry Jesus. Angry Jesus was pissed at the world…literally. The liberals and the queers were taking over and the illegal immigrants weren’t far behind them. They wanted our jobs and our families, and we weren’t safe! Angry Jesus was angry about this!
Obviously, Angry Jesus and I didn’t get along. He was a jerk, tossing out punishment in the form of hurricanes (Haiti and all those voodoo-worshipping Satanists), earthquakes (California, the Great Whore of Babylon), and all sorts of other natural disasters. No one was safe from Angry Jesus. He was like Santa Claus on steroids with his naughty list and his hammer of punishment ready to smite the wicked.
I finally got tired of hearing about Angry Jesus and stopped going to church for a while, and didn’t come back until the age of fifteen after a bout with severe depression. It was there that I got a brief glimpse of Loving Jesus. I liked Loving Jesus.
It was at church camp that I discovered modern worship music and a calling on my life to serve Loving Jesus by serving the church in ministry. I was so excited I could hardly see straight. Praise Loving Jesus! I’d found God, and he was a God that I could like! Never mind the genocide and the baby-killing and the homo-hating. Loving Jesus was pretty cool. It was like having a grown-up version of Buddy Jesus.
Loving Jesus didn’t last long. When I started ministry school, Loving Jesus was touted as a wimp, a weak and spineless shadow of the true Jesus, Drill Sergeant Jesus. Drill Sergeant Jesus was cool, I guess. Maybe a little intimidating, but he wanted what was best for me, and he was going to whip me into shape. Drill Sergeant Jesus had leadership lessons, obstacle courses, team building exercises, and a crooked cross that I was supposed to pin my sins to. Drill Sergeant Jesus had me haul around twenty pounds of sugar in my backpack while running a few miles so that I could get a feel for the weight of ministry.
Drill Sergeant Jesus was gonna make a man out of me if it was the last thing he did. Of course, I knew that Drill Sergeant Jesus loved me. He would say so from time to time in rare moments of intimacy. He just didn’t want to coddle me. Truth was, he said, there was a war going on out there, a war for the very future of America, and he needed me to be a good soldier and fight for the cross. The kingdom suffered violence, he said, and the violent take it by force.
I was so desperate to please Drill Sergeant Jesus. I read leadership books, did in-depth bible studies. I practiced my music for hours and hours and hours. Drill Sergeant Jesus was only ever mildly impressed. He didn’t like to give compliments. They made us weak. That didn’t matter, though. I was going to be a monster of ministry. I was going to be Billy Graham, Rob Bell, and Israel Houghton all rolled into one. That was before the nervous breakdown.
Drill Sergeant Jesus didn’t really know how to deal with that one. I met Compassionate Jesus then. For a while, I only talked to a few trusted friends, and my only real comfort was Him. I prayed some real and honest prayers with Compassionate Jesus. Compassionate Jesus taught me that the only way to be free of sin in my life was to confess it. What Compassionate Jesus didn’t teach me was that some people aren’t safe to confess to.
That was when I met Cynical Jesus. Cynical Jesus and I came to the hard realization that I would never be great. I probably wouldn’t even be good, but that I’d have to settle for just okay. I was just okay as a musician. I was just okay as a teacher. I was just okay-looking and had okay friends. Cynical Jesus taught me the biting edge of irony.
It was as a disciple of Cynical Jesus that I learned the art of sarcasm. I learned to enclose a biting insult so completely in obscure language that the people I insulted had no clue I’d even insulted them. Cynical Jesus taught me that most people were sheep and would believe whatever they were told. Some of my greatest meditative prayer with Cynical Jesus was spent imagining whole worlds where my life was different, where I looked different, where I lived in a different place. Not really special, just different.
I took Cynical Jesus with me when I started my first ministry position. Cynical Jesus was my guide and confidant through a new place where I knew very few people and trusted even fewer. It wasn’t until I met Psychoanalyst Jesus that I realized that something was very, very wrong with my concept of Jesus.
The eternal, unchanging Lord that I’d learned about since childhood was anything but unchanging, and the intense irony (which Cynical Jesus would have loved) was that the only thing that remained the same about Jesus was that people kept saying he didn’t change. I was convinced that either I was crazy or Jesus was crazy, and I had no reason to doubt my own sanity. That settled it.
Jesus was schizophrenic.
Great. My God, the schizophrenic. How the heck was I supposed to convert anyone to crazy-anity? I’m joking, of course. There’s no way Jesus was schizophrenic. He either WAS or he WAS NOT. He was either alive and well and real, or he was a figment of my imagination. It was actually through one of my first loves, the modern worship movement, that I decided that he was real and everything else was, excuse my frankness, bullshit. That, however, is a different story for a different time.
During that time, though, that’s when it hit me: all these years that I thought I had a problem with Jesus, I’d had a problem with the Church. Buddy Jesus was a tool designed to make me into a good little boy, a well-behaved child with penny loafers, knee scocks, and perfectly-parted hair. Policeman Jesus was a tool designed to intimidate me into making the right choices. Angry Jesus was a tool designed to terrify me into complying with the mindset of my conservative, white, male church leaders. Drill Sergeant Jesus was a tool designed to brainwash me into being a soldier, a revolutionary for a cause I barely understood, and to make me passionate about something I cared little for. I can’t even begin to discuss what Psychoanalyst Jesus was, but he might’ve been the most disturbing of them all.
It was interesting along the way that I discovered bits and pieces of the real Jesus, mostly in my moments of greatest pain. Isn’t it funny how that happens? There’s something about pain that makes us feel alive. There’s something about pain that brings clarity. The actual pain process sucks, don’t get me wrong, but the perspective it provides is oftentimes completely worth it.
I know, for me, breaking the illusion of Schizophrenic Jesus was worth everything I’ve been through. There’s a different Jesus I see now. He doesn’t have a pithy name, and he doesn’t have one specific characteristic, but he is Good, and he is Just, and he is Merciful. He’s Compassionate. He’s Kind. He’s Loving. My Jesus laughs a lot, not at our misfortunes, or our foolishness, but at the brightness of the world.
My Jesus isn’t skinny and naked and hanging on a cross, either. He’s alive and bright, and full of light. He doesn’t obsess over the pain he had to bear or the price he had to pay because it was worth it. He doesn’t shame or belittle. He doesn’t withhold affection or affirmation. He loves liberally and he speaks passionately. He turns my heart to the poor and needy. He points my affection to the disenfranchised and socially awkward.
He doesn’t just show me who he is, he shows me who I am. He doesn’t just stir me to serve him, he stirs me to serve my fellow man. Some people tell me that my Jesus doesn’t exist. They tell me he’s not the Jesus of the bible. Maybe he’s not. Maybe Angry Jesus is the Jesus of the bible. Maybe Buddy Jesus is. Maybe some Jesus I’m not aware of is the Jesus of the bible. Maybe.
All I know is that I’m accountable for my own revelation of God. No one else. Just me. That’s sort of a scary thought, because it begs the question: What happens if you just buy into the idea of God that you’ve been taught your whole life?
I’m reminded of a time at the end of time when Jesus will tell the most religious of people (those who healed the sick, cast out demons, etc.) that he never knew them. I wonder if that has anything to do with my aforemetioned question. What if you can completely know, love, and worship the Jesus of your father, and never know, love, or worship the Jesus of You?
“But Jesus doesn’t change! He’s the same yesterday, today and forever.”
True, Jesus doesn’t change. But we do. Our perspectives, our prejudices, our loves, our hates. We’re human. We change. What if Jesus is big enough to handle all of our perspectives. What if we were big enough to handle his complexity?
Maybe the truth is that there’s room for Buddy Jesus and Drill Sergeant Jesus and even Angry Jesus. Not the tools, but the Man. Perhaps the problem isn’t perspective, perhaps the problem is flexibility. Maybe Jesus isn’t schizophrenic. Maybe he’s just really, really big, and we can only see a little of him at a time.