You Are Who You Hang Out With

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ICON SET-15I wasn’t going to write specifically about Jesus. My thought process was that JC is the through-line in all of the stories so I’d covered that already. But that was a cop out. The real reason I wasn’t going to include a specific take on Jesus was because as a kid in Sunday school, Jesus scared me. Okay, even that’s a bit of a cop out. Jesus scared me a lot. Oh I believed he loved me, I believed he was there for me and that he could do anything, but I also believed he was waiting with a gavel at the pearly gates, ready to send me to hell for any and every wrong move. And I made a lot of wrong moves.

The fear manifest when I was really young. There was a cartoon we Super-Christian children watched in the early ’80s called Superbook and in it, two children and a robot who looked like a cross between Alpha 5 from Power Rangers and Rosie from The Jetsons went back in time to witness the stories from the Bible first-hand. The animé style of cartooning would fit in well with the crap on Cartoon Network today and during each episode, the children ran unsupervised through biblical Judea learning about the heroes and villains in would-be biblical lore. The kids and their droid were transported by magic—something Super-Christians were super against so I’m not sure why that was okay—and in the Christmas episode, they landed in the field near the shepherds. The sky was calm and cloudless but only for a moment because out of the night, a chorus of male angels began to shout “Glory! Glory to God in the highest!” The crudely animated stars above the shepherds and unsupervised children pulsated with the sound of men’s voices and it totally terrified me. I had no interest in stars making proclamations. They may have been shouting about the King of Kings, but they scared the bejeesus out of me.

Other adaptations of Jesus’ story scared me as well and it wasn’t until The Passion of the Christ that I forced myself to look at an onscreen image of Jesus and suffer alongside him. To some, that film was just another movie, to others it was torture porn, but to me it was the embodiment of the story that had shaped my faith since childhood. By the sounds of the weeping in my theater, I wasn’t alone. I’d seen Jesus die dozens of times in the Easter productions at church—I’d even played a demon who rejoiced at his demise in one such production—but seeing fake Jesus fake die on stage was different than seeing him be gruesomely put to death on the big screen. I had to give up Jesus movies again after that.

My fear of Jesus is one of the first defining fears of my life. It was so present that ensuring my closet doors were shut completely was a standard part of my childhood evening routine. I wasn’t scared of the boogie man or of monsters under my bed—I knew what was under my bed and that was a Gotham City my brother and I built out of Legos—but the thought of white Jesus waltzing into my room through a Narnia-esque passageway in my closet was more than I could handle. Yes it was irrational and yes I probably needed a therapist but I made sure those closet doors were closed every night before I climbed into bed.

I’m aware all of this sounds crazy but in my life at that time, Jesus appearing in the night wasn’t as irrational a thought as it may seem. Televangelists and preachers told me all the time about the dreams God had given them and since I believed in the same God, I figured I was in the running for the same dreams. The Bible even says, “Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” [Acts 2:17] Well I was a young man so I felt I’d been drafted against my will like Claude in Hair and now visions of Jesus were biblically assured to happen to me. I knew this because it had already happened.

While I consider myself a dreamer in the metaphorical sense, I remember very few dreams I’ve had while asleep. Oh sure, there was the dream where I was falling off a cliff—it ended abruptly as my body hit the floor after having fallen off the bed. There was also the dream where I was hiding inside a burned out car so the aliens occupying the city wouldn’t get me. But the only dream that mattered as a kid was the dream where Jesus passed me by.

In it, I stood alone next to some water fountains in the hallway of my church. There was a tall fountain for adults and a pint-sized fountain next to it for people my height. The halls were dark, save for the emergency lights, and I waited in the shadowed stillness for my father to finish up in the restroom. This setup wasn’t outside of the ordinary since my father was involved in most of the productions at church and I was used to leaving late with him after rehearsal. In the middle of that silence, the silhouette of Jesus, flanked by half a dozen Roman guards, began to take shape at the end of the long hallway that ran alongside the sanctuary. Silently, they emerged from the dark and slowly marched into the sepia-hued lights near me. But, rather than approaching me, they veered left and walked down an adjacent hallway, leaving me alone in the darkness. Dream Jesus never looked back and he and the guards faded away down the dark hallway.

When I woke up, my sense of abandonment was palpable. It’s fair to assume that since I’d spent the evening watching a rehearsal for the Easter production, Dream Jesus was something my brain could easily conjure, yet it’s stayed with me for the better part of three decades, reappearing in the back of my mind every time I’ve felt like I’m not enough or that I’ve failed.

As the years have gone by, that fear of being passed by has reared its tacky head from time to time, usually accompanied with some mental reference to the rapture or screenshots of the film, The Thief in The Night. That film painted a bleak picture of the impending dystopian world that awaits mankind once Jesus comes back and raptures all the Christians, and that scared the hell out of me as a sixth grader.

Beware the rapture! Beware being left behind! I wish we’d all been ready! Dystopian damnation! Beware you’re not good enough to warrant a relationship with Real Jesus! Even Dream Jesus passes you by!

I’d lay awake at night and wonder how a God who was so good could also be so spiteful and destructive. The truth was I didn’t actually have a clue who Jesus was. The fear-mongering, hand-on-the-trigger of eternity version of God I’d allowed to take up so much space in my head wasn’t an accurate representation at all. So how’d I learn who Jesus actually was? Through his friends.

Most of us are familiar with the adage, “you are who you hang out with.” Well, it’s not just a cute phrase used in D.A.R.E campaigns to keep kids away from drugs. It’s a fact of life. There are things we can point to and say, without question or commentary, that’s a fact. “You are who you hang out with” is one such fact. It’s a fact for you and me, and it was a fact for Jesus.

ICON SET-15There are plenty of Jesus stories that illustrate this, his interaction with Zacchaeus among them, but the one in which I learned who Jesus really was centered around the time a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus over for dinner. There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence but rather than spending the next fourteen pages parceling out each nuance of who the Pharisees were and the ins and outs of their often contentious relationship with Jesus, I’ll simply quote Matthew 23:25 when Jesus is addressing a crowd and talking about them:

“You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You wash the outside of your cups and dishes, while inside there is nothing but greed and selfishness. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of a cup, and then the outside will also be clean.”

So Jesus clearly had issues with the Pharisees and since he spoke and acted differently than they felt a rabbi should—the Pharisees being sticklers for their ironclad laws and customs—they had issues with him as well. It’s interesting then that he’d be invited over to dinner in the first place, much less that he’d RSVP yes to the invite, but like I said, Jesus had a habit of acting differently than people expected him to and as such, he showed up for dinner on time. (Jesus for sure showed up on time. Being late isn’t of the Lord.)

The Bible says a “sinful woman” had learned Jesus was in town and showed up at Simon’s house during dinner. [Luke 7:27] She brought with her an alabaster jar of perfume and she was crying. I imagine this was an awkward entrance for everyone at the dinner party (especially the whole “being in the presence of a sinner” part because ew who wants to be around one of those) but it didn’t faze her. Kneeling as she wept, she began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. She then dried his feet with her hair and rubbed them with the perfume from her jar.

When Simon the Pharisee saw this, he was aghast. “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know that the woman touching him is a sinner!”

Jesus responded to his accusation by telling him a story; Jesus’ preferred method of teaching. He said, “Two people owed money to the same banker. One owed five hundred coins and the other owed fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay what they owed, but the banker told both of them their debts were forgiven. Of the two, which do you think will love the banker more?” [Luke 7:41]

Simon answered, “Probably the one who owed him the most money,” and Jesus affirmed that was true. He then said, “When I got to your house, you didn’t give me any water for my feet but this woman has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t put oil on my head but she poured perfume on my feet.” Jesus meant that though this Pharisee had much, he gave little. By contrast, this woman had little, but she gave much. Jesus then told the woman her sins were forgiven.

Often, we forget that without Doc Martens or Converse to keep them clean, it’s fair to assume people’s feet looked like the aftermath of a Tough Mudder race. And still, this woman who had nothing to offer except her tears, gave it to her God in the form of tending to Jesus’ basic need: washing his dirty feet. It wasn’t a flashy way to bestow love but it was all she had. As it turns out, that happens to be just the right amount.

An anthem made popular by gospel singer CeCe Winans retold this woman’s story. She sang, “You don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.” Another gospel singer, Natalie Grant, also sang about that same woman. “She brought you oil, the purest gift she had. You washed her soul with her tears.”

This woman’s story is one that’s come up time and time again in my life. As a teenager, my drama team at church told her story through these two songs. For almost a year of my life, I lived and breathed this story with the nine other members of my team, telling it in church services both at home and in other states. A few years later, I found out a video of our performance in Florida made the rounds so widely that other churches around the country were also using it with their drama teams. That was pretty cool.

I met Natalie Grant back in 1999 when she was supporting her first album at a youth convention in Orlando. We were performing this sinner woman’s story of washing Jesus’ feet and she actually came to see us do so. To a 16-year-old, having the artist of the song come see you perform seemed like an other-worldly experience. She took time to encourage us and in turn, I became a lifelong fan.

Natalie has since become one of the biggest voices in the CCM genre. If you’re unfamiliar, “CCM” stands for “contemporary Christian music” and it, more than any other style, is the first music I loved. Songs by Sandi Patty, Amy Grant, and First Call filled our car with music about loving Jesus and loving each other. When I was a teenager and the teen pop wave of Britney and the Backstreet Boys controlled radio and MTV, CCM fostered its own teen wave with the big-voiced belter Rachael Lampa (her vocals on “Blessed” rival anything Christina Aguilera has ever done), the bubblegum pop sounds of Stacie Orrico (her videos were actually on TRL!), and Plus One, the singing, dancing, feel-good boyband of five attractive young men who girls (and boys) cheered for. Oh how I loved Plus One. So very much.

My father preferred storytellers and southern gospel music but one of the songs that frequently echoed out in our blue Aerostar was a song about Lazarus sung by another CCM artist named Carman. Told from the perspective of Lazarus, at the end of the song, he hears Jesus’ voice calling for him to come out of the grave. In the song, Jesus’ voice was a deep, bass voice that freaked me out like the shouting cartoon star-angels but my dad loved it and since he made the car payments, we listened to his music.

ICON SET-15Lazarus was a popular figure in Sunday School but when we first hear about him in the Bible, he’s already gravely ill. His sister Mary went to Jesus and told him Lazarus, his friend, was sick. I feel like there are 40,000 Marys in the New Testament but John 11:2 tells us Lazarus’ sister Mary is the same woman who poured her perfume on Jesus’ feet. That means that from the time she came to Jesus to wash his feet to the time her brother Lazarus died, she, the sinner no one wanted to touch, became a friend of Jesus.

Not once, in all the Sunday School classes I attended during my formative years at church, was I ever told that Jesus had female friends. It was always about Jesus and Peter, or Jesus and John, or Jesus and Judas. It was all “Jesus and his male disciples,” all the time; a Biblical Boy’s Club. The only women who were ever mentioned in the stories at church were either sick and in need of healing, whores in need of redemption, or Jesus’ mother, Mary. But the Bible says that Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others were not only close to Jesus but also traveled with him and used their own money to fund his ministry. [Luke 8:2] Women have, from the very beginning, been integral in spreading the hope Jesus sought to bring to the world and I wish I’d known that. Being taught how close he was to them both as a teacher and as a person whose life was rooted in relationship like the rest of us would’ve painted such a different image of Jesus to me as a kid. An inclusive, colorful, diverse, image.

So when Mary, his friend, told Jesus that his other friend Lazarus was ill, he responded by saying Laz’s illness wouldn’t kill him and God had a bigger purpose behind it. In talking about this story with a friend, they made a comment about how Jesus saying this could imply God sends terrible things our way on purpose. I told my friend I preferred the word “allowed” terrible things to come our way since we’re on Earth and shit happens. They didn’t like the semantics of that either. You win some, you lose some I guess.

A couple days after hearing the news that Lazarus was ill, Jesus told his disciples it was time to head back to Judea. They pushed back at that idea, reminding him that it wasn’t that long ago that a group of Jews tried to stone him in Judea.

This is important. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I’m going there to wake him up. His disciples thought he meant “asleep” as in a restful healing nap and Jesus had to correct them. No, he’s super dead. Let’s go, I want you to see what happens next. This also underscores the importance of showing up for your friends despite the stones thrown at you, metaphoric or otherwise.

When Jesus arrived, Laz had been in the tomb for four days and Mary and Martha’s entire Jewish network of friends and family had shown up to comfort them. Martha met Jesus on the road and out of her sadness and frustration, said, “If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. I have faith in you, but this could’ve been avoided.”

Jesus told her Laz would indeed rise again. She thought he meant at the end of time when it’s said all the dead will rise to meet Jesus in the sky, [1 Thessalonians 4:17] but as he did with his disciples, Jesus corrected her. No girl, I’m the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even though they die.

She agreed and affirmed to him she believed he was, in fact, God on earth. Upon getting Mary’s attention at the house, she too came out to meet Jesus and had the exact same reaction as Martha. “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead.”

That’s faith and frustration tangled together in the same moment and can’t you totally relate? So much of our lives is spent in that tangle of faith and frustration; trying to trust God’s doing something when all that’s in front of us is discord and destruction. Mary and Martha are us.

Seeing how upset and grief-stricken Mary and the mourners were (great band name: Mary & The Mourners), Jesus asked to go to the tomb. Then, we get to one of the most famous verses in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” [John 11:35] It’s famous because it’s the shortest verse in the Bible but I think it’s also important because it shows the emotional response of this man whose heart was broken. Even though he was about to defy time and space and bring this dude back from the grips of eternity, one of his friends had died and his other friends were grief stricken. So he wept.

To some who witnessed this tearful Jesus, they saw how much he loved his friend, but others took a far more cynical approach to their teacher weeping. He’s made blind men see. Couldn’t he have just kept this man from dying? What’s the deal? [John 11:37] Lesson: there will always be critics. Leave them in the comment section where they belong and go about your business. And that’s what Jesus did.

At the tomb, he had the stone moved from the doorway, something Martha with her Type A Monica Geller tendencies wasn’t keen on. Uh, thrilled you’re here. Truly. However, he’s been dead for four days and he’s gonna stink like hell if we open that door.

But Jesus replied calmly that he knew what he was doing and the tomb was opened. He then intentionally prayed aloud, something he did to make sure everyone present could hear. I’ve been around a lot of Christians who like to pray aloud so they look uber-spiritual—there were moments as a teenager when I was that person—but since it’s Jesus, he gets a pass.

This is when we get to the part of the Carman song that my dad loved so much; the part when Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” In the song, it builds. Jesus calls Lazarus’ name a few times, each time a little louder and more forcible; a crescendo of low octave intensity. The Bible doesn’t describe it in that way but that’s fine. What it does say is that upon Jesus’ command, Four-Day-Dead Lazarus (another good band name) hopped out of the cave, his hands and feet wrapped in traditional burial linens and a cloth around his face. Eat your heart out Boris Karloff! Lazarus was the actual mummy y’all!

The mourners took off his grave clothes and despite his need for a cocoa butter bath bomb and soak, he was alive again and a crowd of people saw it happen. Death can suck it! Jesus rules!

This is a story about Jesus being there for his friend. Yes, it involves the miracle of bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but it’s equally about Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha. The image I had trapped in my mind of Jesus being someone ready and waiting to pull the lever (solid Emperor’s New Groove reference there) suddenly changed. Jesus as a friend and confidant blew open the shutters and I saw something I’d never really seen before: relationship. I’d heard about “having a personal relationship with Jesus” from the time I was a boy but this was the sort of relationship I could actually relate to. I imagine Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus sitting at a picnic table near the tomb laughing as Lazarus told the story about that one time Martha was so busy at the house and she got huffy about Mary not helping her. [Luke 10:40]

That was classic, Jesus may have chortled.

Okay but in my defense, Peter and Luke needed somewhere to sit and I had a million things going on but Mary was just sitting there doing nothing, Martha may have recounted.

Good times, Jesus might have said as the sun began to set.

Hey, remember that one time you died but Jesus was like, naw? Mary may have joked.

Yeah. Not today, Satan, Jesus probably said.

The point is, they were friends. Real friends. And that meant maybe I could be too.

So, who was Jesus? He turned water to wine. He was a pacifist. He was gentle. He was indignant when the temple turned into a marketplace. He fed the masses with a miracle brunch of bread and fish simply because folks were hungry. They weren’t potential voters for his campaign and they hadn’t participated in all the right programs to ensure they got fed. They just needed food so he made it happen. He routinely spoke to the wealthy about the need to take care of the poor and the ill. The focus was about taking care of them, not praying for them or sending them good thoughts but actually helping them by taking them into their homes and caring for them. He even held all day, standing-room-only “clinics” to help sick people. Call it universal healthcare for the late B.C. crowd. But more than anything, he was a friend. He shared his heart with people and they shared their hearts with him.

Jesus. Table-flipper. Peace speaker. Faith healer. Brunch feeder. Grace giver. Wine provider. Friend of women. Friend of Ryan. Love personified.

The story of Mary and Jesus can be found in the book of Luke, chapter 7. Lazarus can be found in the book of John, chapter 11.

Sunday School for Sinners & Saints is now available in paperback and on Kindle and it includes stories not posted online. Order your copy today!

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