I whispered to the tiny Jesus when I wanted to be sure my asthmatic lungs would keep working through the night. I told him how great I thought potato bugs were. Before I fell asleep each night, I told him about all the bad things I’d done or wanted to do during the day and asked him to help me to be good.
As I grew older, I met new Jesuses. They were all larger than my imagined Christ, of course, but they were different in other ways, too. These Jesuses were Aryan, or African, or they transcended ethnicity altogether. Where I grew up in California, our Mennonite Jesus seemed Gandhi-like—wise and agricultural. In college, he was the progenitor of cultural oppression and unthinking anti-science. Certain ministries claimed he was almost exclusively interested in whether or not his followers told other people about him. He was also an unfathomably kind mystery to my pagan friends in Manitou Springs; a hipster among the urbanites; and a Republican on bumper stickers throughout the Midwest.
These Jesuses didn’t even seem to know each other. But they were all inside me, reciting their niche-y, one-issue mantras. My ventricles and atria became crowded, confused.
My Bible was thin and limp because of my Jeffersonian approach to it: I ignored whole books, stories and ideas that didn’t match up with my evolving understanding of who Jesus was. I read and reread specific, small snippets of the New Testament that didn’t upset or embarrass me. Because I read so little of it, I felt like the Bible wasn’t much help for navigating the many Jesuses or figuring out who he really was.
After college, I began attending a Bible study where people read whole books of the Bible. The Gospels. Letters. Genealogies. We worked our way through prophets and kings, poetry and apocalypse. I didn't see a Jesus I recognized.
In the gospels, Jesus describes himself as a vine, a door, a way. Which is problematic, of course; metaphors are tricky when salvation or even the “life that is truly life” is on the line. What if you fail to apprehend a nuance? What if you extend it too far? What if the cultural significance of an object has morphed so completely that our understanding fails?
In the Bible, I also saw Jesus in action with no label: Jesus feeding, Jesus praying, Jesus enraged by commerce in holy places, Jesus weeping.
Talking to a frustrated boyfriend about something else entirely shed some light on my confusion:
Frustrated boyfriend: You do know you don’t get to invent a man, right? You don’t get to combine Eddie’s humor and wit with Peter’s sense of style, Landon’s career and Nate’s amazing family. People are real and they’ve got real problems. But they’re real wonderful, too. That makes them better than what you can invent.
Frustrated boyfriend: I’ve got to go.
And he did go. And I wished I’d never loaned him "The Velveteen Rabbit" because all Margery Williams’ big words about being shabby but loved and real were coming back to bite me in the ass.
He was The Jesus I Wanted To Exist. Or, The Jesus I Wished Was. A Gandhi-Buddha-Kerouac cocktail Christ. I conversed with him about the minutiae of my life, but, if I was honest with myself, he wasn’t so compelling. He was dependent on changing social preferences, on my whims and geographical locale. Even worse: outside of my admittedly small sphere he didn’t matter. He couldn’t save or regenerate. He wasn’t real.
Which is strange given that the whole idea of God coming as a man is that Jesus was real, perceivably real, in a way that God the Father just wasn’t. He was flesh and bone and mucus. Whatever Jesus reveals of himself, I don’t get to make him up, endowing him with all the traits and sophistications and mercies I want him to have.
When the apostle Paul describes himself to the Corinthians he says, “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. . . . To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
We don’t get a similar proclamation from Jesus. He became one thing—one man of one race at one point in history. This sort of specificity risks everything. It allows for disregard because he isn’t a woman or an Ethiopian or an investment banker. It doesn’t care enough about being hip. It allows bad things to be done in his name.
If Jesus had had a PR rep, she wouldn’t have proposed that Jesus be irreversably particular. She might’ve suggested wowing people with a little earth shaking, a huge Aurora Borealis-type spectacle. Instead, Jesus becomes human. The Word, the one who was with God, who was God, becomes indistinguishable from his creation. He takes on vulnerable skin and vital organs and makes a go of it on earth. He becomes something we’re more able to connect with, but in so doing he risks a big ho-hum from the very people he comes to free, inspire and love.
Many believe that the prophet Isaiah was anticipating Jesus when he wrote: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (53:2). In other words, the prophet says, he was shabby.
But Jesus’ intimate self-disclosure, his weakness and vulnerability, makes sense for a God whose purpose in creating a world was "that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:27–28).
I’m starting to think that Jesus’ shabbiness is for people like me. So that maybe I don’t ban him to the realm of ideas. So I can see what love looks like when it shoos flies and shares meals and celebrates the weddings of friends. So, in fact, I can also be real.
A Jesus bold and foolish enough to become shabby doesn’t meet all my hopes. He doesn’t consistently spout pithy aphorisms, or magically turn his followers into the merciful and life-giving people you’d want to invite over for a dinner party. Like the frustrated boyfriend, he says some things I wish he hadn’t.
But I get the real wonderful, too. God walking around: a Jewish man born into a culture that had a huge expectation of being saved. He steps up to do the saving in spite of all the ways his effort could go wrong. Even though, in many ways, the endeavor does turn out terribly wrong.
By walking around on earth, the biblical Jesus shows people the connective tissue between hospitality and freedom from possessions. Between anger and murder, lust and adultery. And though it was a limitation of his power and from-the-beginning-of-everything wonder, he chose to have an aorta to punctuate his daily hopes and disappointments and desires. Just like Gandhi and the Republicans and Kerouac too. Just like me.