The Cafeteria Prophet

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The pink heart stared at me across my greasy potatoes and hard scrambled eggs. I had just said the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a specific thanks hastily murmured for the food in front of me. After the “amen,” my eyes opened, looked for my fork, picked it up, and then drifted up to meet the bold pink heart glaring back at me.

This ferocious organ was clinging to the back of a sweater of a young woman seating facing away from me, engrossed in a novel at the table ahead of me. Her breakfast lay finished and pushed away. Across her hoodie, emblazoned in vibrant, billboard letters, read: JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, NOT MY RELIGION—the pink heart made up the “U” in “Jesus.”

I sat staring at this message, so boldly proclaimed and confident. It unsettled me, although it may have been mere intimidation in the presence of the confidence and assertion of the sweater—or it may have merely been the food I was eating. Either way, I pondered on the bold theology of this cafeteria prophet’s clothing, and was uncomfortable with the statement.

“Jesus is my savior, not my religion” is a fairly common, fairly abstract statement, offered mainly by young-ish Protestants in reaction to the ills perpetrated on the church and individuals by excessively strict religious institutions. The message itself manifests in other forms, such as “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” and “I don’t like the word ‘Christian,’ I’m a follower of Christ.” It’s a decent message, keeping in line with an American distrust of authority and establishment, as well as a desire for individuality in the midst of imposed leadership and values.

Despite the validity of such a statement, it truly neglects a necessary aspect of the Christian faith—the very faith that Jesus Christ established—and turns it into a loosely defined relationship with a person that most Christians (or “followers of Christ”) don’t have a normal, face-to-face relationship with. Jesus is risen, but, he doesn’t personally interact with most of us—at least not in the way that we interact with our neighbors, roommates, pastors and priests. Yes, we are given Scripture and the Holy Spirit, but if there is anything that can be known about Scripture, it’s that people can interpret it differently; just ask a room full of Christians if they’re Calvinist or Arminiast—be sure to specify you want verses to back up their claim. As for the Holy Spirit, it is by definition the Person of the Trinity that “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

There is a danger here in denouncing religion for the sake of Jesus; he never made this distinction, nor has Church history. Christ came as the fulfillment of thousands of years of tradition and religion; right before the Ascension, he affirmed Peter as the “rock on which I will build My Church.” Even Christ saw the need for a Church—and Church leadership—in order to shepherd his flock. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ our Savior, but that is facilitated, strengthened, and protected through the Christian faith—through healthy religion.

Jesus is my savior; Christianity is my religion. My relationship with Jesus is built on the faith of the Jews; my walk with him is aided by 2,000 years of Church tradition—2,000 years of religion. I was uncomfortable with the cafeteria prophet’s message, not because Jesus isn’t my Savior, but because he is also the cornerstone of my religion. The statement “Jesus is my Savior, not my religion” seems to neglect that for every individual for whom Jesus Christ is their Savior, he is also their pastor. This neglect is troubling in that it acknowledges Christ, the Head of the church, while marginalizing the Body—leaving one alone with a disembodied head.

Jesus is my friend, Jesus is my Savior; Jesus is also my high priest. You don’t need a high priest if you don’t have a religion—nor do you need church authority, theologians, Christian education, or most of Holy Scripture. The desire to emphasize the fact that Christians have a personal relationship with Christ is admirable; to do so at the expense of the Church is fatal.

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The Pastor

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They all waited in quiet patience: the pastor was coming forward. His old age prevented his moving with any sort of urgency—indeed, he seemed to shuffle everywhere he went, with eyes glassed over with the grey sea of time. His hair was more or less gone—partly from necessity and partly from age. He had cut it short when he had been roaming about, planting churches throughout the Roman empire. The hair that had not fallen to shears eventually fell from time and toil.

Now, there was but few earthly toils that remained to him. Joints riddled with arthritis, skin stretched tight from scar tissue, back bent as if he was carrying a large burden, the ancient priest had only one final road awaiting him, and it would be a brief one. His body was wasting away more and more every day—some in the congregation marveled that he could make it to the service at all. It seemed that if death was much longer in coming, he wouldn’t have a chance to die—he would just cease to be. All one had to do was blink, and he would wink out of existence.

The old pastor took tiny, scraping steps to the front of the congregation, the tapping of his sandals mixed with the shaking of his hands. A young deacon stood at his side, hand hovering above the bowed back as if he was afraid this frail, ancient man would step into some crack in the church floor and be swallowed up. The pastors fingers were knotted twigs—the result of years working in the mines on some god-forsaken island. Everything about the man exuded age; some of the elders in the congregation could remember a man filled with passion and pious recklessness, but now that sun was setting. Night had all but swallowed up the once flaming spark in the pastor’s eyes.

But for now, the setting sun took small, deliberate steps, until he stood in front of his congregation. Those who knew no better waited with hushed expectation for what was to be said: would he speak of the emperor Trajan; or perhaps of his journeys? Maybe they would even hear a story about Jesus—after all it was only a couple decades prior that the two had walked along together. The tension was evident; the pastor was oblivious to all of it. He stood at the head of the congregation and looked out at the church he had founded. From cracked lips came a single sentence:

“Little children, love one another!”

The words were spoken with much more conviction than it seemed the man should have been able to muster. Those who had never been to the church before looked at each other anxiously, eagerly—now the preaching of the Apostle was to come: visions of Judgment, stories of Jesus, convicting words and bold ideas—the excitement was palpable.

But no more was said.

Not another syllable.

The pastor began his long shuffle to his seat in the back; the young deacon returned to his side, hands at the ready—he would not be the one who would let the Apostle that Jesus Loved fall and break a brittle bone—no matter how irritating and confusing it was to hear the same line, week after monotoned week.

For years, since he had gathered two or three people together on the location the church now stood, the pastor had repeated the same phrase and nothing else. He had no sermons, he had no fresh insights, he had no variation. Just the same, single-line message: Little children, love one another. Some suspected that the time he had spent in persecution had broken a once-thriving mind; others said that he was merely waiting to die and felt no need to prepare new sermons. Still others debated on the significance of his delivery: perhaps he was using his succinct rhetoric to make a bigger point or highlight a culturally issue.

As for the pastor, he merely allowed himself to be helped to his seat in the back of the church and closed his eyes as the church began their worship. The songs were deep, slow songs that reverberated around the stone building and leaked out windows hewn from rock. No music was played, and none was needed. Some people exchanged curious glances; others looked slightly exasperated, but all sang nonetheless. As their praise hummed in dull, flowing streams, the young deacon leaned over to the old pastor and remarked quietly,

“Father, why do you say the same thing over and over again? It begins to become monotonous to some of the brethren.”

The pastor’s eyes remained shut, but a tightening around his mouth seemed to indicate a smile or sadness. He thought about how so many people had missed the brutally simple message; how they were so willing to argue doctrine and so unwilling to love. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet whisper that could barely be heard—even by the young deacon, whose head was almost resting on the pastor’s chest as he waited for a reply.

“My dear Polycarp, it was our Lord’s command.”

“But father,” the deacon responded, “Did he not command other things also?”

Now a faint smile could clearly be seen playing on the corners of the pastor’s mouth, as if he was recalling every incident where Jesus had loved—that woman dragged into the temple, that short little tax collector up in the tree, Mary Magdalene and all the others. He remembered his Lord dying for love.

“My son,” the Apostle John replied, “If this alone be done, it is enough.”

Around them, the music surged; in spite of the monotony, in spite of the confusion, in spite of the irritation, the praise continued unabated. The young deacon settled back into his seat and thought about what had been said. The old pastor remained seated with his eyes closed, dwelling in the love of Christ and passing the time until he was united with his old Friend.

The Stigmata of Adoption

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Recently, a friend approached me and proposed I write about adoption. We talked for a minute about how the act of taking an unwanted child and trying to love them well is a physical reality that’s reflected in the Christian life. It seemed like a great idea. Then I sat down to write and realized something: I wasn’t adopted. I’d heard all the sermons about adoption, and I knew what the Bible said about it, but that doesn’t count. How do you write about something you aren’t sure how to fundamentally approach?

I understand adoption psychology in the spiritual world; or rather, I have a tiny grasp on it that I can put into words. But I have no first-hand experience with adoption in my life. The closest knowledge I can claim is that I have friends and family members who have undergone the process. So what follows is a mix of speculation and research, with just a dash of comprehension of the love that Christ has shown to a world of sinners.

We all struggle with adoption in different forms. We want to be adopted into a friend group; a bride is adopted into the groom’s family–and vice versa; we work at a job long enough and we begin to feel like we’re “part of the family.”

Regardless of how serious and real things such as these are, they are mostly superfluous. Someone who claims to understand adoption on such grounds is like someone who makes the rather audacious claim that they know the feeling of flight because they once enjoyed a quick jump on a trampoline.  They know only the shadow of the issue–an issue that is a fundamentally defining aspect of the human experience.

Regardless of when it happened, regardless of how loving the new parents are, the adopted child is a scarred child. Even the most well-adjusted, understanding adopted child will have to learn to bear these marks–a stigmata all their own. Jodi Picoult, in her book Handle With Care, explains that “Since I was five, I’ve known that I was adopted, which is a politically correct term for being clueless about one’s own origins.” At the very least, an adopted child is left without a relationship befitting a parent and their offspring. Is it any wonder they can be prone to act out?

Our origins define us. As Americans, we tend to feel otherwise—“It’s where you are, not where you’re from.” While this is a nice thought, it is an inaccurate one. Whether you have stayed home your whole life, or were left in an orphanage, or ran away to join the circus, your roots have shaped you, even if it was just by leaving you in the care of someone else. A tree may still grow despite having been planted in dry sand, but you can’t get around the fact it’s playing against a stacked deck. A number of studies point to the unfortunate reality that adopted children are statistically more likely to end up in correctional facilities or find themselves succumbing to drug or alcohol abuse and suicide.

And while the thought of being given up in infancy is harsh, perhaps even more traumatizing is the child who had the misfortune of knowing a parent that did not want them. Tragic is the image of a baby left on the steps of a home by a weeping mother; soul-rending is the reality of children being turned away on their front steps and forcibly orphaned. This deliberate separation is terrible when it is so brutal and stark–it is perhaps even more insidious when it comes about in subtle words and actions that remind the child they are not wanted. When this child is finally placed in the arms of parents who love them, if these memories didn’t occasionally spring up it would indicate a problem–the fact that they do (consciously or not) is inevitable.

And now the spiritual crux: we are all orphans. It’s a cliché, but it’s true in ways that we generally don’t acknowledge. We are an unwanted people, cast into the world by Nature. Whether we understand it or not, we are left on the doorstep of this life desolate and alone. If we have loving, caring parents who cradle us in our infancy, we may not recognize this hard fact till we are much older. On the other hand, those who have been physically adopted are confronted with the reality of their situation and understand it in a way that those who weren’t must struggle to understand.

So what do we do? We tend to flail a bit, to lash out in a misguided and understandable attempt to protect ourselves or deal with our confusion. Is it any wonder the world can be so hard, so illogical, so broken? It’s a world of orphaned children. Some of them have parents, some of them don’t, but we all have been thrown out of the womb of Eden and left crying in the cold. Orphans raise orphans and the problem continues.

We grow up ignoring our Father; when he shows up, instead of running and throwing ourselves sobbing into his arms, we wonder where he was all this time. Christ was looking for us before we were born; just because we’ve gotten good at covering our ears and hiding doesn’t dismiss the fact he was searching.

Even when he does find us, there’s work to be done. Just because he has given us a home does not mean that we will appreciate it. We’re left with physical scars and emotional trauma that takes time to heal. We act out. We rage against the arms holding us and take our inheritance and throw it away for a weekend in Vegas and a night in a brothel.

A professor I had a class with once said that when it comes to adopted children, the fundamental response to their inevitable anger and rebellion shouldn’t be punishment and discipline. He relates that whenever he counseled a person he knew to be adopted, when they began to get heated or confrontational, he would–with a heart of compassion–ask, “Why are you so angry? Who hurt you?”

Mother Nature hurt us, and how can we blame her? She can barely keep her own act together, and she’s not fit to raise kids. She does what she can, but Nature is broken and has abandoned us.  When the Father comes to take us home, we run away, and we bite and claw and scratch. There is no example of this response more vivid than the Cross: we murdered our Father because our Mother abandoned us.

And all the while, God keeps whispering: “Who hurt you? Let me love you. You don’t need to do anything, I forgive you. Just come to me, just relax. Let me take care of you; let me show you I won’t hurt you.”

As for myself, I still often find myself rejecting this love. I will lose my temper, lose my control, get run down, then run away. But the outbursts are getting shorter; I’m starting to get a little more disciplined. My Father’s love is starting to heal old scars and old habits. Every time I head down the road with my pack slung over my shoulder, I’m more acutely aware of my Father watching me go, and I come home a little sooner. But while I’m out in the cold, I meet all the other wayward children, all us adopted sinners, and we know–know that it’s just a matter of time before we get to go home. Maybe it’s something behind our eyes, or the fact our heads are held a little above the fray. Maybe it’s because we’re just all so screwed up, and no amount of love can fix that in a single instant. It takes more than a lifetime–it takes a childhood.

Maybe that’s why Jesus says we must become like little children–it’s easier to accept love when we start from scratch and all we know is trust. Heaven will be like that–a bunch of adopted kids who know where they came from, but know they are loved. Until then, we are all still trying to work it out. But it will only take a lifetime; and then we can dance in an eternal, conscious surrender–a beautiful, adopted childhood.