Like most people, the older I got, the more I was concerned with finding myself. And growing up Christian -literally “little Christ”-my identity was understandably tangled up in the person of Jesus. It was hard enough navigating my teens, trying to figure out who I really was and yet, on top of that, I was charged with imitating the actual God incarnate.
No pressure, really.
How could I not be completely overwhelmed? The merest of miscalculations regarding His identity and I’d mess myself up in the process. I spent most of my young adulthood concave, curving into a question mark, Who should I be? Who is He? Am I getting it right? But who is He really?
I thought I had a decent grasp on Him. I grew up with this Jesus-person tossed around in all of my conversations, like a ubiquitous imaginary friend. Like my Grandfather, who died before I was born, I was told about Him from people who really loved him. I knew the book report facts and the heartwarming stories. I could picture him and imagine him but I didn’t know Him. I knew versions of Him and the longer I lived and curved into questions, the less I trusted that these versions resembled Him at all.
I met Werewolf Jesus my senior year of high school. In order to graduate, I had to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours, and I elected to work at a thrift store run by a local church. It wasn’t a passion for elderly-scented hats or sequined sweaters that made me choose the Blessing Barn. It was simply that my two best friends worked there and the supervisor was quite literally blind. We spent our work days making fun of the clothes, speaking to each other through creepy antique dolls, and loudly singing along to (blind) Charlene’s gospel music. Overseeing all of our mischief was Werewolf Jesus. I named him that, much to the giggling shock of my good Christian friends. It was a portrait of Jesus that hung on the wall, in which he looked as though he was painfully morphing into some sort of shaggy beast. He had a unibrow, yellow eyes, heavy sideburns and a slightly voracious look. Without the divine glow about him, you’d assume he was part of a Neanderthal exhibit or Planet of the Apes.
We made a lot of jokes about Werewolf Jesus, always glancing sideways, not sure how close we were flirting with blasphemy. At the time it was funny because everyone at our little Christian school knew that Jesus was blonde, with blue eyes and impeccable dental work. We had all watched the cartoons in Sunday school where a feminine Jesus blinked his big, blue eyes and healed people with his pale hands. Sure, the disciples were swarthy and ordinary, but it was absurd to suggest that Jesus himself would have sported a unibrow.
Werewolf Jesus was laughable.
In those striving, exhausting high school days, I believed that Jesus was the tall, well-dressed motivational speaker that we middle-class evangelicals sometimes made Him out to be. And if I could just get hyped up enough off of Him, I wouldn’t want to smoke or have sex anymore and I would love my body, even the not-so-perfect parts. I used to think that He had it all together, that He smelled pretty and all the cool kids liked Him. Well dressed and adorably witty- kind of like a primitive Hugh Grant. I thought it meant I had to be that way too, and if I couldn’t, then I just wasn’t praying hard enough or listening in church.
I wish I had realized back then that Werewolf Jesus was, in fact, more on the accurate side of Biblical history than my White Anglo Saxon Protestant Jesus. For goodness sake, He was from the Middle East and slept in fields- He probably went days without washing his armpits. He was wild and fierce and poor. He broke the rules and shouted and worked with his hands. He was dirty. He was shaggy. He was hungry. He may or may not have had a unibrow. Dr. H made the point that in modern times He would be “randomly searched” every time He tried to fly somewhere.
How had I become so convinced that He was the kind of man who would fly first class and sip a mimosa?
I had so many Sunday school notions drilled into my head that at times it felt like it was a detriment to an actual relationship with God. Like all the VBS and Christian books and Christian school and Christian college had created a lot of white noise with Jesus buried somewhere in the center.
I read an account of some girl who noticed her Christian friend really, truly loved people. One drunken night she started crying and got on her knees and told God she wanted to genuinely love and help people, like her friend, but she couldn’t because she was selfish and needed something bigger. That lucky drunk. I wished I could boil my faith down to something so singular. It seemed that maybe sometimes it was better to develop a worldview and then realize how Jesus was the missing significance than to start with WASP Jesus and this complicated stigmatized view of how to live like Him that was so big and noisy that it filled my vision.
I wished that someone would trust me with a Sunday school class – a group of middle schoolers or high schoolers. I would have sent them home to read the book of Luke or John with this assignment in mind:
Describe Jesus to me. Pretend you’re not a modern-day Christian; pretend you’re a dirty little pickpocket observing Him in a crowd, or an old man sitting on the porch, watching him preach. Imagine you ran into him at the market and did that awkward dance, trying to get out of each others’ way, or gave him a flat tire by stepping on his sandal. How would he react? How would he treat people, talk to them? Would he haggle for a lower price? Would he make jokes? Was he sarcastic?
And I imagined we would sit around and discuss, based on what they had read about Him and His character. I would lean in to drink up everything those little detectives had to tell me about Him, all the things I missed because I couldn’t see the forest through the trivia.
I wondered how my story would be different if I had an assignment like that before I went to college and fell on my face and became an adult. Aristotle taught that the mind resides in the heart. And that’s what I felt like, folding clothes in the Blessing Barn, avoiding the gaze of that mangy old Jesus. My mind and my heart were all mashed together, tangling more with every beat. And if I could just fish my mind out and dangle it back up into my brain, I could grasp the differences between what they were telling me. My mind had taught me to reach for God through perfection. To smile brightly even when I felt lost. That if I could somehow master this new culture, follow all of the rules, I would be acceptable to God.
But my heart, beating ever so surely against all of the confusion, knew better. Somewhere in me sat the Truth, the kind that supersedes cultural or religious values. And this truth was bigger than all of these silly games we were learning to play. It was bigger than a blue-eyed Jesus and bigger than a werewolf Jesus. It was bigger than the sex talk and bigger than “oh my God”. It was bigger than the list of do’s and don’ts I was so desperately trying to memorize.
And this Truth was coming for me, stalking me like a jungle cat.