The Jesus In Me--An Emergent Christology Tale
As part of my ordination process a few years ago, I was compelled to complete a course in a Clinical Pastoral Education program. This was not something that I was particularly thrilled about, to be honest with you. Seriously, I muddled through three years of seminary, a field study program, four ordination exams (one of which I had to take twice because I left off four very important questions) and countless steps in the Presbyterian process, only to discover that I would not be able to attach the prefix "Rev." to my name until I became a hospital chaplain for three months. For me it was like the equivalent of approaching what you believe to be the finish line in the New York City Marathon only to discover that some committee somewhere had changed the distance in all marathons to be 29 miles instead of 26. Funny. It ended up being both the best and worst thing that I have ever done. Almost all of the really important lessons I have learned in life have been ones that I was dragged into kicking and screaming.
I should say this first, before I truly begin this whole story, though. I don't know what it is about me, but I always seem to find myself in the strangest situations. Weirdness finds me, no matter where I happen to be. I've often wondered if I might be subconsciously sending out signals to all of the Weirdness in the world, inviting it, compelling it to enter into my life, stumble into my path... Or (and this is the most likely scenario) perhaps God is just messing with me, as God is wont to do from time to time.
At any rate, my tenure as a hospital chaplain was rife with strange moments. Let's see, there was the day I had to lead a worship service in the psychiatric ward, which was terrifying. The orderlies escorted all twenty or so of the disturbed patients in the ward into a room with a piano and not enough chairs... and then left me there with them. Then there was the old guy who thought he was still in the Navy, the hospital was a ship and I was the captain. I got tired of arguing with him at last, and gave him orders to get well while I went below decks. Oh, and then there was the day that a strange, perverted, semi-paralyzed man tried to get me to give him a sponge bath... I refused, by the way.
There was one day, though, that sort of stood out for me more than any other---it was the day that I seemed to find Jesus in everyone and everything. Now before you begin to dismiss me as one of "those" people---you know, the kind that lead worship services in psychiatric wards---let me say that I asked for it. I'm serious. It shouldn't have been that much of a shock when I started to encounter Jesus all over the hospital that day. After all, I'd begun my twelve hour shift praying in the hospital chapel that Jesus would "show up" throughout the course of my day. These were actually my exact words, "Jesus, I pray that you will show up in everything I do today." I prayed that prayer, but I have to confess that I didn't really believe Jesus would show up, at least not in the way that Jesus did. You see, most of the time when Christians pray for Jesus to "show up," what we are really saying is, "Jesus, please make this go as easy as possible for me" or "Jesus, keep me from scr ewing this up, would you?" Anyway...that's what I really meant, I guess. If I was a betting man, I would wager that approximately 1 out of every 100 gazillion Christians who pray hopeful prayers of divine manifestation actually expect divine manifestation.
The one out of a 100 gazillion who do expect a divine manifestation are pretty much people like Billy Graham or the guy I met in the hospital psychiatric ward who engaged in one sided(?) conversations with Jesus while I met with him.
I have to tell you this before we go any further. The Jesus of my childhood was bi-polar.
When I was a kid I remember going to Sunday school and hearing all of these wonderful stories about how Jesus healed people and loved all the children of the world who were red, yellow, black and white. Then I would go with my parents to "big" church and would hear that Jesus was coming back to earth, madder than Dirty Harry got after the bad guys shot his partner in...all of the Dirty Harry movies. It was confusing, to say the least. On the one hand Jesus seemed to be all sweetness and light, and then on the other he was a bad-ass who was going to unexpectedly descend from heaven one day to snatch all of the real Christians into the air. Meanwhile, everyone else was going to get branded with a number, and be condemned to roast for all eternity in a boiling lake of magma. And, according to the pastors of our churches, Jesus was pretty much okay with all of that.
My family attended some hard-shell, fundamentalist churches when I was growing up, which explains some of the conflicted imagery, and my obvious baggage. I do need to add that the whole "avenging angel" Jesus archetype is not necessarily the Christ vision that is held by every group of Christians, but even some of the alternatives are fairly disturbing.
We've all seen the paintings of a serene and fairly Caucasian-looking Christ, holding lambs, kneeling in prayer, or the close up portraits that look as though Jesus actually posed for them. There is one that I found recently where Jesus actually appears to have blonde highlights in his hair. Nice. But nothing holds a candle to the very serious painting that I saw once where two business men in sharp business suits are meeting each other in a corner office with the New York City skyline out the window. Jesus is standing behind one of the businessmen, who seems to be introducing him to the other. I am sure that to some folks, who are in the know, the painting portrays how Christians need to make Jesus a part of everything that they do---even their business deals. But to someone who knows next to nothing about the subtle Christian-ese being spoken within the painting, they could very well interpret it in a different and not so positive way ("Jesus, please show up today and help me land the merger!").
I saw a bumper sticker once that read, "Jesus is not a Republican." I doubt very seriously that even the most fundamental of fundamentalist Christians would disagree with that statement. But the lines have been blurred in recent years concerning faith and politics. For many Christians they may not believe that Jesus is a Republican, but are convinced that he sure as heck would vote for them. On the other hand, there are plenty of socially progressive Christians who want to portray Jesus as the ultimate social worker or a sort of flower child, who lived in a commune, did good deeds and who almost certainly would tax Big Business, socialize health care and any number of socially progressive things if he were running for elected office.
I get the sense that there are more than a few of us who are weary unto death over the way the Existing Church tries so desperately to co-opt Jesus into endorsing whatever message it happens to be peddling at the moment. Woody Allen wrote a great line for his movie Hannah and Her Sisters, "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name," the line reads, "he would never stop throwing up." But here we stand, our heads filled with all of these conflicting images of Christ that are born out of conflicting Existing Church doctrines.
It has become increasingly more difficult for those of us who desire a new understanding of Christ and Christ's work with all of hearts to both see and experience the presence of Jesus all around us. I love what Ray S. Anderson wrote about this very thing in his book An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches. "The Christ of the gospel," Anderson posits, "is not first of all a doctrinal confession but a reality that we experience." The truth of the matter is this... we can experience this reality, a new, emerging Christology, if we are willing to let go of the conflicts of the Existing Church and allow the Spirit of Christ to lead us toward the kingdom of God. Frederick Buechner once wrote, "We cannot make the Kingdom of God happen, but we can put out leaves as it draws near."
The trouble is, how do we know when the Spirit of Christ is manifest? How can we tell when our prayers for Jesus to "show up" (the Christians in the the first church would cry "Maranatha!" by the way--Come quickly!) are being answered? I don't have any kind of formula for it, to be honest. I only know what I have felt, what I have seen with my eyes, what I have heard, what I have touched with my hands, what gives me life... I could go on, but my story should be allowed to speak.
The day that I seemed to find Jesus in everyone and everything began early in the morning when I visited a tiny, African-American woman who was about to have heart surgery. When I walked into the dimly lit room where she was lying, awaiting to be wheeled away, she immediately brightened. I looked on the table next to her bed and saw an enormous Bible that was stuffed with papers, almost to bursting. It looked well-read and worn. I introduced myself as the "chaplain on duty." It was my customary way of breaking the ice. I didn't realize until just this moment how awfully cold and distant it was. I didn't need to add the "on duty" part, but I did for some reason. What was that about? Was I trying to keep my distance or was it my emotionally crippled way of establishing my authority to do whatever it was that I was about to do? At any rate, that's how I introduced myself.
"I sure am glad to see you," she told me as she grasped my hand with both of hers. Her eyes filled with tears as she said this. I was actually taken aback a bit. I asked her if she had any family, who would be joining her. She shook her head.
"My kids are all living somewhere else," she told me. "It's all right, though. Jesus sent you to me." She paused for a moment and then continued. "I just know that Jesus sent you here to encourage me. I was sittin' here prayin' right before you walked in the door. I was sayin' to Jesus, 'Jesus, I am feelin' scared and lonely, and I know I have no right to be either. But if you could just let me know you are here, that would all right with me. And in you walked." I pointed at her overstuffed Bible and asked her if she'd been reading it. She told me that it was the only thing she'd been reading since she came into the hospital. I told her I needed to go to see other patients, but asked if I could pray for her.
"I would like that," she said softly. I took her hands and prayed with her. I don't remember what I said, to be honest. When I was done she hugged me suddenly and quite hard. She whispered in my ear.
"Honey, now you go and be Jesus to people today."
The next patient was on the sixth floor of the hospital, and was being tended by two very tired nurses who were nearing the end of their shift. They had contacted the chaplaincy office because they were hoping that someone, anyone would be able to calm him down. They informed me that he had been "Baker Acted," which meant that he had been forced there against his will because he had become a danger to himself or others. One of them whispered to me that he'd overdosed on pain killers. He was 28 years old. I walked in to the room, and he asked me immediately if I was the doctor. I told him that I was the chaplain.
"What? I don't need a chaplain. I need a doctor. Get me a damn doctor, right now! These nurses don't know what they are doing. I need more pain killers, man. My tolerance for pain killers is so high that the little bit they are giving me is not working!" I've cleaned his language up a bit, to be honest. Almost everything the young man said was preceded or followed by f-bombs. It was a regular f-bomb fest. He was strapped into the bed where he could hardly move except to scratch his arms and legs, which he did incessantly.
"Come on, man! You've got to help me. Get one of those nurses in here to get me something stronger." I told him that I couldn't do what he wanted me to do. He asked me again if I was a doctor, and I told him again that I wasn't. He told me that it had all been a mistake. He'd been at a party, and thought that he'd already taken his pills when he took some more. The next thing he knew, he told me, people were calling the police and trying to get him to leave.
"Then the cops brought me here," he finished. I looked down and saw that he had a tatto on his arm. It looked like this:
I asked him to tell me about his tattoo. He rolled his eyes and scratched violently at his arm, but he began to speak, and more coherently.
"It's the Golden Ratio, you know?" He looked at me and saw that I was drawing a blank. "It's the ratio that is in everything, man. All things contain it in some way. It's the fingerprint of God. There is no way that it could possibly be random." I asked him if he thought he had the fingerprint of God in him, and he paused for a moment and his eyes almost cleared.
"Are you the doctor?" he asked at last. I assured him that I was the chaplain and asked if I could pray with him. He nodded and I took his twitching hand in mine while I prayed. When I finished I saw that my hands were shaking, too.
"Thanks," he said in a choking voice. I nodded and looked at him in his twisted, writhing prison of a body. He was behind bars, as sure as any convicted felon. As I left I heard him raging behind me that the painkillers he was given were not working. I walked down the corridor with the young man's voice chasing me all the way and I thought of Jesus words as I went: "I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was alone and away from home and you invited me into your house. I was without clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you cared for me... I was in prison, and you visited me."
My next patient was a 48-year old man, who had suffered from cerebral palsy his whole life. He could not walk and lived in an assisted living facility. The nurses told me that he was a "frequent flyer," to the hospital. Apparently, he would often become very ill and would be unable to breathe without help, which would land him in the hospital. Each time he would arrive, they would be forced to give him a tracheotomy--cut a hole in his throat where they would insert a tube which would help him breathe. I stood in the door while he fixed the tube so that he could talk to me. I didn't want to go inside. He was a large man, and his legs where small and shriveled. He had grotesque sores on his body and his face was large, and covered in flakes of dead skin. I have never seen a leper, but I no longer need to imagine what one looks like after that day. I asked him how he was doing.
"I am so blessed," he wheezed. "God has blessed me so much in my life. You don't even know how many people I get a chance to minister to every day. I am blessed." He grinned at me and wheezed through the hole in his throat.
"One day I almost died, you know," he said. I asked him what happened. "I stopped breathing and I went to heaven. I found myself walking the streets of heaven...walking. I felt a presence all around me, but for some reason I asked to be sent back. I just knew that there was something that I needed to do here on earth. I just knew that God could still use me." He paused a bit and gathered his breath. "You know, so many people are just walking around looking for Jesus, but Jesus is all around them." He reached across and took my hand in one of his. It was cold, clammy and I had to bite my lip a bit to keep from pulling it away.
"I love that part in the Bible where Jesus says 'whatever you did for the least of these of my brothers, you did also to me.'" He paused again, and wheezed harder. I told him that I had other visits to make, but asked if he would mind if I shared a prayer with him. The man looked at me through blood shot eyes and his marred and flaking face softened, believe it or not.
"How about I pray for you.?" He asked me softly. "Everybody that takes a good look at me always wants to pray for me. I'm pray-ed up, brother. Why don't I pray for you instead?" I felt the tears come to my eyes, and I told him that I would be honored if he did, and that I needed it---needed it so badly. Then he prayed for me in wheezing, labored breaths. He prayed that Christ would fill me up and prepare me for ministry. He prayed that I would let myself be used, let myself be poured out in the service of Jesus. When he was done we sat there for a moment together. I wanted to take off my shoes. It felt like holy ground there in that room with the wires and the tubes, and the man who had been set free one day in heaven, but who returned to bless me...and bless the world.
I was called to the adolescent psychiatric unit that day to meet with a 13-year old boy who had been brought to the hospital by the police for the second time in his young life. I was told by one of the orderlies that he suffered from severe anger and had a host of other emotional issues. I waited in a large room that seemed to be used for arts and crafts. I took a seat at one of the low tables that were in there. A moment later, the orderly brought the boy in, and he sat down across from me. He had long, stringy blonde hair, and a pinched-looking face. His eyes were heavy and sad. After a few minutes he started telling me how he got into the hospital. His mom's new boyfriend beat her up frequently, he said. One day he picked up a baseball bat when the boyfriend was slapping his mom around and hit the boyfriend with it several times. His mom called the police and had him taken away. There was something in the way he told me all of this that made me believe him. We talked about baseball, fishing, tornados and drawing. He picked up a piece of paper and some markers and began doodling. I asked him if he knew anything about God, or about Jesus.
"I know about God and Jesus," he told me. "My mom used to take me and my sister to church. I liked the stories about Jesus. He seemed pretty cool, didn't he?" I admitted that Jesus did seem pretty cool. I told him that Jesus loved him more than anyone else loved him in the whole world, and that the plans that Jesus had for him included baseball, fishing, studying tornados and drawing. I told him that the plans Jesus had for him did not include him being hurt by his mother and being put in the hospital. I asked him if he understood me at all, and he nodded. Just then my pager went off and I went to a phone to call the number. A nurse from the Emergency Room told me that a man had just been admitted who had suffered a massive stroke, and his wife and daughter were in complete shock. I hung up the phone, and turned back to the boy.
"Do you have to go?" he asked me. I said that I did, and that there were some really sick people who needed to see me. He doodled some more on his paper. I asked if we could pray and I he nodded again. I held his hand in mine and I could feel his grip tightening the whole time I prayed. When I finished I stood and started to leave.
"Hey!" he called out to me. "Are you ever coming back?"
I sat in a small, curtained corner of the emergency room with a woman in her 70's and her middle-aged daughter. They held hands and cried together while we all stared at the old man on the bed in front of us. His eyes were closed and his breathing was labored. He could not speak, and it was apparent that one whole side of his face was slack and unmoving. The nurse came in briefly and said that they would be taking him in for surgery right away. The stroke that had struck him appeared to have nearly killed him. I asked questions about him because I didn't know what else to do. They took turns telling me about him. He was over 70 years old, but still worked as a security guard at Kennedy Space Center, a position he'd had for over 40 years.
"He was there through everything," the daughter said through her tears. "He was there at the beginning of the space race in the 60's, and he never left."
"Everything is going to be different now, isn't it?" the man's wife asked me. I told her I wasn't a doctor, but that I imagined that it would be different. She smiled a sad smile. "He was going to retire next year--finally retire." She paused and then added, "It just doesn't seem right does it? It doesn't seem fair?" I nodded, and said nothing. What else could I do? It wasn't fair. None of it was. It wasn't fair that the man I was looking at would be struck by such tragedy for no apparent reason. It wasn't fair that two beds over there was a young woman who had been found wandering the streets strung out on crack, heroin or some other drug. It wasn't fair that earlier that day a young woman was brought in to the emergency room with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, accompanied by her hysterical husband and small children. None of it was fair, or right, or good. When they came to take the man away I said a quick prayer with the family, asking God to be with him and to guide the hands of the surgeons, but I was sick at heart while I prayed.
It was the end of the day, and my shift was almost over. I stared at the wall in the chaplain's office with a cup of coffee in front of me. The phone rang, and I almost didn't answer it. When I did a nurse informed me that there was a man in room 8222 who wanted a Spanish Bible brought to him. I hung up, and dug around the office until I found a Santa Biblia. When I got to his room I found a slight, Latino man sitting up in his bed with a big grin on his face. I told him that I had brought his Bible.
"Gracias! I appreciate that my friend. You don't know how much I need to read that tonight." I asked him if he needed anything else. "I am fine, my friend. You have a good night." I looked at the chart on his bed and saw that his name was Jesus. He looked at me strangely with a twinkle in his eye.
"It's okay, you go home" he said. "I've got it from here." He thumbed through the Bible for a moment and then looked up again. "Listen, if anyone around here is looking for Jesus, you tell them he is in room 8222."
As I walked away I had to choke back the tears and put my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out loud.
Sometimes heaven seems so close to me that I almost see it in all its glory. Sometimes there are moments when I feel that the world has shifted just a little toward that heaven, the place where the reign of Jesus is already celebrated. Sometimes the Spirit of Christ fills me so completely that I know nothing else.
Jesus everywhere---close, near, imminent, pushing, pulling, above, below, inside, all around. This to me is what an emergent Christology must be. An understanding of what it means to follow a risen Christ, who is at work among us in Spirit and in Truth. It feels sometimes as though the Existing Church has ceased to cry "Maranatha! Jesus come quicikly!" with conviction and hope. We must remind her that he has come and his reign is all around us. Frederick Buechner, in his sermon Longing for Home writes, "I believe that home is Christ's kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it." I love that, "wend our prodigal ways..."
In so many ways an emergent Christology finds it source, it's foundational text within the story of the Road to Emmaeus from Luke's gospel. It is after Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. Two of his disciples, wandering aimlessly away from the bedlam of Jerusalem and toward the unknown are met by a stranger. There eyes are so focused on their own grief, their own plight that they are unable or unwilling to see that their companion is Jesus. But as he speaks to them, their hearts begin to stir and to burn, and when he breaks bread and blesses it they see him at last. And they themselves are transformed forever.