What we talk about when we talk about Jesus
by Dan Mathewson
Culture is very different in Spokane, WA compared to Knoxville, TN. My wife Jenna and I have made a few good friends, one of whom is Jess. She’s a twenty-nine-year-old poet who identifies as queer (non-heteronormative, or “lesbian” for you laymen), and has experienced everything from playing college sports, to being disowned by her family, to being homeless for a short stint, to being a top student in our grad program. Jess is overtly, specifically, and blatantly critical of Christians and Christianity. Because Jess is brilliant, outspoken, and severely opinionated, neither Christians nor non-Christians ever really enter into dialogue with her on a challenging or engaging level. Even though she’s about 5′ 3″ and 110 lbs wet, she’s intimidating as hell. She’s the embodiment of “secular culture” and a voice for open-mindedness as long as that doesn’t mean subscribing to any type of organized religion, politico, or constraint. She even hates themed parties (nobody tells her when to wear a tacky Christmas sweater). What I mean is, she is constantly bringing up controversial issues regarding religion, gender, spirituality, and sex– be it in class discussing Dante’s Inferno or at a bar eating pizza– regardless of who’s around. And while she can get on her own soapbox (which I never do), the root of her voice and concern is a desire that people of all types are heard, respected, and ultimately, loved.
After learning some of her story, I discovered Jess’ pointed disgust with Christianity is one that is fueled by past encounters with “crazy Christians” and “churches” (and my air-quotes here are very intentional) who told her she would burn in hell because she’s attracted to women, despite the fact that she’s been gifted with an articulate, relevant, urgent, and beautiful voice that clearly illustrates a Christ-like compassion for her fellow human. These Christians of her past failed to see beyond the queer. They saw only differences, and they lacked Christ’s vision. Jess is, by design, a woman whose soul is reflective of Christ’s via her activism for equal gender/racial equality, her sympathy for the poor and homeless, and her willingness to treat daily conversation as an opportunity to make people aware of the things that really matter to her. I’ve always been told by wise old Christians not to “put God in a box.” But when my expectations of Him become routine, I do a great disservice to His might and the extent of His Grace. That is, when I expect to see Him in church, but not in the restaurant downtown—or even the classroom or workplace, for that matter– I’ve reduced God to a religion. When I expect to see His characteristics only in Christians and not in others, I’ve limited the omnipresence of His love to organizational affiliation. There is a seed of Christ deep within Jess’ soul, past all the masculine clothing, past all the political rhetoric, deeper than her intellect and reason and identification. And while she’s not actively acknowledging or watering this seed, as a follower of Christ, I see it in her. I think this is how Christ saw people. He was able to peer into the lonely places of people’s souls and offer a Love big enough to fill the abyss. And once we accept that we’re loved, our greatest desire, the thing for which we’re made, is TO LOVE OTHERS.
It’s been a strange thing experiencing Christ in people who aren’t Christians. It’s humbling seeing nonbelievers care more about their neighbor than I do, or speak encouraging words while I am cynical. When Jess speaks so passionately about human and gender rights, at the root of her fervor is a place that screams: WE’RE CREATED TO LOVE. And I couldn’t agree more with her. If we Christians even had a fraction of Jess’ passion for our neighbors and communities, wouldn’t our “Good News” actually be Good; something worth bringing up in normal conversation every day; something that disarms people with a transcendental love, the same that Christ had– the same that saved you and me?
After our last class of the quarter, Jess and I ended up somehow talking about the Bible, Christianity, politics, marriage, race, books, and movies (obviously a short conversation). I’ve wondered here in Spokane how to bring up or let people know I’m a Christian. I don’t want people to think I’m a Bible-thumping hell and brimstone guy, but I also don’t wanna deny my faith. “Progressive Christian” sounds so lame, but I think that’s what I am. Anyway, Jess directly asked if I was a Christian. I think this is largely due to (1) My lack of contribution to jokes about Christians when, literally, my entire class pokes fun at Christians and our Holy Book, but more importantly (2) As Jess and Jenna have hung out, Jenna is always trying to find that balance between “standing up” for what we believe in and being tolerant, accepting, and loving towards folks with different worldviews/ lifestyles. And while Jess and Jenna are so very different (Jenna is 5′ 9″ for example), they are each independent, intelligent, stubborn, committed females; and both of their hearts bleed for the poor, the destitute, the homeless, and the broken. I love that my wife has a contagious and sincere affection for people around her, so very similar to Christ’s. It’s one aspect about her that I fell deeply in love with right when I met her. But what are we to do when we see Jesus in people who overtly reject Him? There are traces of Christ in Jess and several other folks out here, even if they don’t recognize it.
After talking with Jenna, I wonder what it is that gets us Christians so fired up around people like Jess, or just people who are different for that matter– people who savagely defend ideas that I don’t really agree with. There’s this disconnect I’ve experienced when faced with how to react: I either want to be defensive of my God and my religion, or play it cool and act indifferent and unoffended when people around me bash Christianity. As Christians, when we meet people like Jess, we stereotypically either (1) avoid her (2) try to convert her (3) tell her we love Orange is the New Black and Sara Schulman is totally underrated (4) let her talk without offering up anything of our own– also known as passivity, i.e. spinelessness. Each of these responses has two things in common. The first is that in all of these reactions, we Christians become embarrassingly uncomfortable with being vulnerable. And especially for us men, we’ve learned that we should be everything opposite of vulnerable: hard, unrelenting, immoveable, sturdy, steadfast, impenetrable, self-reliant, enclosed, hidden, and the list goes on. I think vulnerability, just by definition, implies an unnatural sort of discomfort by being exposed, naked, honest, real– whatever you wanna call it. When Jess starts speaking statistics, quoting passages from Scripture I haven’t even heard of (even if they are from the Apocrypha), and explaining the differences between Hebrew pronouns and their original gender associations (who knew that “Holy Spirit” is feminine in its original Arabic text?), I instinctually want to get defensive or be passive rather than engage in true conversation. Real conversation would mean exposure and discomfort. Simply put, it’d be too hard. But when I do engage in conversation and give time to people like Jess (or really just people unlike myself), I see glimpses of Christ in them– those seeds I mentioned. Vulnerability in this way—offering self in a way that’s absent of pretext or defensiveness—allows Christ to beam through us, even if our words or actions fail. I believe my willingness to be vulnerable with Jess causes her to see Something inherently and radically different in me compared to folks around us. This isn’t because I’m a Super-Christian. It’s because as a Christian– a broken, earthly, sinful man who believes in the Redemption Christ offers—I have the honor of being used as a vessel, of portraying an unearthly love and speaking a language of the heart rather than the mind. This is wholly Christ through me.
The second thing these reactions have in common is that none of them are things Christ did.
Jesus was neither defensive, nor was He an aggressive politician or lobbyist. Peter was defensive, and thus, lopped off Malchus’ ear when they tried to arrest Jesus. But Christ reprimanded Peter and found the guard’s ear, placed it back on his head miraculously before getting carted off to be crucified. My initial, gut-reaction instinct to be aggressively defensive of my God and my religion is echoed here in Peter’s sword, as MY INITIAL REACTION TO ALL THESE SCENARIOS IS TO PULL OUT MY BLADE AND CUT OFF EVERYONE’S EARS (metaphorically, of course). To cut down my oppressor, naysayer or anyone else who would challenge my religiosity or faith or God must be spiritual weakness on my part, and, perhaps, even immaturity. But when I allow myself to be exposed; when I claim Christ not as a self-stamped martyr, but as a child of the King; when I can function out of vulnerability and honesty rather than defensiveness, then there is room for Christ to operate through me. There is a Graciousness that takes over all my human instincts. That’s when His love becomes transcendental. It doesn’t matter if I have all the right words or do all the right things in those moments of vulnerability that I so desperately try to avoid. A willingness to love others like Christ did is ample material for Him to transform lives, including my own. So then, the Love I’ve received and hope to reflect from Christ is not one of defensiveness, but rather, it is a Love that is so disarming, so dismantling, so unquestioning, so agape, so a priori that it is offensive.
Jess and I are still good friends, and we still often disagree. But it’s a beautiful disagreement, and it’s the way conversations are supposed to happen. It is not my job as a Christian to save anyone. Christ alone does that. I believe it is my job to love those around me, especially the ones who make me uncomfortable or challenge me, those who are different than I am. And, of course, I fail regularly at this. But again, Christ’s Grace extends in multiple ways to a variety of people, and I thank Him I’m not in charge, but that He is. Jess and I speak without vindication, without spite, without judgment while fully and honestly expressing our opinions. And while on the surface very different, most all of our thoughts are rooted in a similar love. It’s an ancient Love seeded in both of our souls. The difference is, when we talk about love, I know we’re really talking about Jesus.
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