Portland, Oregon – 2010
“What do you love about Jesus?” the young woman asks as I sit across the café table sipping my chai tea, and wondering why my mind has suddenly gone blank. Certainly, in the fifty years I’ve had encounters with Jesus and the thirty-nine years that I’ve followed him, the answer should roll right off my tongue, but it doesn’t. Instead, I stammer.
“Wh, wh, what do I love about him?”
For the rest of our visit, I draw on all my years of theological study and instruction. I stumble horribly through a pitiful explanation of the things I know about Jesus, but don’t even come close to addressing her sincere desire to know what I love about him. Due to my anxiety-ridden finesse, she might not even be aware that I’ve deliberately sidestepped the profound simplicity of her question. What I fear in the moment and what becomes painfully evident later that night is that she has inadvertently opened a chasm of doubt in my heart.
Unable to sleep after her question has left me wobbly inside, I get up and do what I always do when I’m struggling with something I can’t answer: I pace. Back and forth, step-by-step, hour-by-hour, I walk the six steps across my apartment’s living room floor, turn and repeat it again. In no time I grow dizzy from the short distance and have to add the hall and the bathroom to my worry route.
Her question haunts me, “What do you love about Jesus?” she asked.
Why is this so hard to answer?
My pace picks up. I went to Bible college so I can tick off all the great things I know about Jesus, recount the miracles he’s done, and quote many of the profound things he has said, but are those the reasons why I love him?
I walk faster. Something bubbles below the surface. What is it? The pounding of my feet finds the cadence of my racing heart. Why is this bothering me so much? I am afraid that after all these years of following Jesus and telling people how much I love him, I can’t actually articulate “why” I love him in a way that doesn’t make him sound any different from Santa Claus.
My pacing stops. The murky concerns that have interrupted my sleep and eluded my explanation suddenly find clarity and begin running through my head like a reader board.
What if I’ve constructed a religious system based on rules and regulations? What if that system includes references to Jesus because I know he should be in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where? What if my faith has nothing at all to do with the person of Jesus? A frightening thought follows: What if I’m really just using him like a “Get out of Jail Free” card so that I don’t go to Hell?
Then comes the most horrid thought of them all: What if I don’t really love Jesus at all?
There has not been a moment in my life when Jesus was not present. Other than one memory of the amazing smell of Prell shampoo when I was three, most of my earliest memories include Jesus or are about Jesus. I have never not known about him. That’s because Mom was a Sunday school teacher at church, and a Monday through Saturday teacher at home. She loved the Bible and wanted us to love it too.
Every week Sandi, Randy and I helped Mom get her next Bible lesson ready. We cut out artwork for her students, previewed filmstrips, and glued music sheets onto construction paper with rubber cement. Instant headache. Our favorite pastime, however, was painting the scenery backdrops for her flannel graph stories. Then, Mom let us re-tell the stories of Jesus with the fuzzy flannel graph figures. The fuzz always made me sneeze.
A children’s choir sings in my head: “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear, things I would ask him to tell me if he were here.” The image of walking along the roadway of my life hand in hand with this “Flannel Graph Jesus” runs through my mind often. It is familiar to me. It is also strangely comforting and intimate. I never want to lose the precious innocence of the Jesus I knew as a child, but an unspoken question roils just beneath the veneer of the young woman’s query of what I love about him.
If Jesus has always been with me, then why are there so many broken and disconnected pieces in my life?
Jesus stood by and hovered when I needed him most, but rarely intervened when I was in crisis. Why did he do that? Why wouldn’t he have prevented the shattering events from happening in the first place? There was no hovering in flannel graph stories. Only rescue. We might have had to wait until the very last second, but there was always rescue – safe, predictable, off into the sunset rescue. That’s the way flannel graph stories always ended; happily ever after, secure in the arms of Jesus.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way real life happens. Sometimes there is no rescue. Sometimes there are no answers and sometimes there is only silence – God ordained, eternal silence.
I wanted a hero so I desperately reached out to Jesus, but he didn’t always behave the way I wanted him to. Jesus allowed my heart to convulse in pain when it was wounded, and my spirit to break when it was challenged. He allowed it. He stood by and let it happen. He said he would help me in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1) and that he would never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5), and I believed him. In desperation, I called out to him hoping he would keep my life from shattering into millions of tiny fragmented bits.
This morning as I tried to articulate what I love about Jesus to my young friend, who already has more broken pieces in her life than I do, I was at a loss to portray him accurately. I know he’s more than a two-dimensional paper doll and more than a storybook character. Jesus is more than a “Superman” who comes to save the day and put all the brokenness back together, but I couldn’t get him into words that reflected his true nature. I didn’t simply want to swap a Flannel Graph Jesus for a Cyber Jesus, or a Santa Claus Jesus for an Aesop one.
“I will never leave you or forsake you,” he had said.
So where was he when I needed him?
Here I thought I was wrestling with what I love about him, and now I’m wondering if what I’m really worried about is that he did not love me as I thought.
That’s why I couldn’t answer her question. I needed to know that he loved me at every bend in the road, during every setback and failure, through every dark valley, and on top of every conquered mountain. I had to find the trail of Jesus’ love for me in my own broken history.
Can you find the evidence of Jesus’ presence with you on your life’s journey? Can you see his footprints beside you? Do you see him now?
He’s been there all along.
I found him, but it took me awhile…
…and yes, he’s loved me all along – even before my memory of him begins…
(to be continued)
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.