Hoping for Jesus
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I’m a talker.
If you know me, you already know this. I’d like to hope that my talking is not for its own sake, and that even when I go on too long and talk too much there’s some kind of reason for it. But I can’t guarantee that. I can guarantee that when I talk, I’m trying, however imperfectly, to connect with you. I love to talk about the things that matter to me, in hopes that maybe they matter to you too. That’s why I preach, even, or write these essays, in the hopes that in some way the words can become a bridge that allows us to cross that divide of self and move closer to each other.
For all my talking there are some things I try not to do with my words. I try not to hurt people if I can help it. But I also have given up trying to convince people of anything. Maybe this sounds odd: Isn’t a preacher someone who gets up and tries to convince people to believe something? I used to think that. I don’t anymore. I used to try so hard to get people to see things the way I saw them: about politics, music, food, religion – pretty much whatever it was I believed, I wanted other people to believe it too, and I thought my words could get them there.
It took a lot of pain to realize that this doesn’t work. But it doesn’t work.
I can’t convince you to believe in Jesus any more than I can convince you to love Bob Dylan’s voice or to appreciate Cincinnati weather. I can say pretty words and make impassioned arguments, but your heart is your own, and I am learning to respect that.
It’s not just that I can’t convince you – it’s that I don’t like what I become when I try. I don’t like looking at you as someone who needs to change or become more of something or less of something else. I don’t like what that does to me or to you. I can offer up what I see, what I love, what I regret, what I believe. I cannot make you see or love or regret or believe the same. And when I seek to convince you, I’m spending very little time listening to you and what you believe. I’m wasting the opportunity to be influenced by your words, your love, your life.
I’m a talker but I am trying to listen more. I love Jesus. And I believe that Jesus is present in you. I’d like to spend more time seeking out his presence in you and learning from that. When I think of the places where my faith has grown the most, it’s not when I convinced others of anything, but when I listened. So, if you want to talk about Jesus, I am up for it. He is my favorite, and I seek to give my life to him. But that conversation will not be about conversion.
For all my talking, there is something else I do not do: I do not tell you about the tenderest things.
There is a moment in the story of Jesus’ birth that resonates for me: the shepherds have shown up and are paying homage to this little baby. They’re telling Mary and Joseph about the chorus of angels that appeared in the sky and notified them of Jesus’ birth and of all that it meant for them. They abandoned their sheep and ran to Mary and told her of this thing that she already knew in her bones. And in that moment the author simply says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
I didn’t understand that for the longest time, but I think I understand it now. I talk about a lot of vulnerable things in this work - about my family, and my upbringing, about the things I get wrong, and the desires I have – but I have learned there are things that belong in my heart, and I do not want to violate the sanctity of that. Jesus is there too. For as much as I talk about Jesus, there are things between him and me that are just for him and me. Sometimes I feel guilty about that – like because I’m a professional Christian, I’m supposed to share it all with you and hold nothing back. Maybe I should get up and share the story of when I knew I believed in Jesus, or of the moments when I’ve most clearly felt his presence. But before I was a professional Christian, I was just a person who belonged to God. I am relearning how to honor that primary identity and to allow it its own space.
The truth I see is that, when I am in the presence of real love, my desire to convince anyone of anything disappears, as does my desire to share everything.
I remember watching that Ken Burns documentary about baseball and hearing a fan say that baseball was such a beautiful sport that it still manages to be great despite all the mistakes and dumb decisions the people in charge of baseball make. That’s a little like how I feel about Jesus. Despite all the mistakes and dumb decisions people like me make, Jesus keeps being Jesus. That’s what keeps me connected.
I’m a Christian because of Jesus. He keeps pointing me towards love and mercy. He keeps giving me hope and pushing me to give myself more fully to this world. For all his paradoxes and impossibilities, Jesus still makes more sense than anyone or anything else I’ve known. I will not try to convince you to like baseball or Jesus. Or Bob Dylan’s voice, or Cincinnati winters. And when I talk about them, I will probably leave some things out – the parts that belong just to God and me. And hopefully I will find some time to listen to Jesus speaking through you. Merry Christmas, and much love to you as we enter this new year together.
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