Where is Jesus now?
Awake at 2:30 this morning, I wondered what becomes of the images and metaphors we use in our initial spiritual or religious contexts after we exit them. Where do they go? Who does God then become? How, then, do we connect with the Divine?
For those of you who may require some explanation, evangelicals describe a personal, literal relationship with Jesus the Christ as the only way to salvation; and we often refer to that moment as “asking Jesus into our hearts”. Essentially it means that we have chosen to invite God into the deepest parts of ourselves, assume authority and control, and become the saving, redeeming force of our entire lives.
It’s pretty intimate when you think about it.
I was nine when I asked Jesus into my heart (the first time). It wasn’t a happy moment or a joyful moment or a rapturous moment. It was one filled with dread, fear, and sweating through my sleeping bag in my smelly bunk at Bible camp. We’d been shown overhead slides of what the devil looked like, what hell looked like, what the Great White Throne looked like, and how God would cast all unsaved souls in the eternal lake of fire if we died unsaved. We were told stories of how some humans, too stubborn to accept Jesus, even began burning before they died the first time.
Of course I asked Jesus into my heart. Especially after being repeatedly asked if I knew where I’d go if I died in sleep.
As I grew up, I discovered that not all ‘born-again’ folks experienced the same trauma that I did during their salvation experiences. In fact, many described their experiences as tender moments with their parents at bedtime, or glorious moments during a worship service, or a redeeming moment during a crisis or place of deep darkness. The shame and fear I experienced was common to some, but not to all.
How was I to juggle these competing realities?
Fast forward twenty-five years.
Exploring progressive Lutheranism, I was shocked and amazed to discover that this flavour of Lutherans didn’t have a language that speaks of “asking Jesus into your heart”. Like at all.
Salvation is a work of God once for all through Jesus on the cross. It’s bestowed at baptism. The salvation prayers of my entire life aren’t even heard of in this branch of Christendom.
How do Lutherans then have a personal relationship with…?
Someone explain to me how this works?!
It took a long time to reconfigure my entire concept of God, or lack thereof, as I broadened my understanding of the divine, salvation, and traditions different than the sprawling evangelical world I’d been brought up in.
Some Lutherans understood my language about “asking Jesus into my heart” and affirmed it. Others, however, didn’t understand nor did they want to, and offered a good deal of derision towards the practice. As traumatised as my own narrative was, I sometimes found myself becoming deeply defensive towards my former life and culture.
I’d entered the tradition with the fundamentalist teaching that mainline churches were barely Christian anymore, lukewarm, watered down, nominal all still floating in the periphery of my evangelical-wired brain. Mainline denominations saw evangelicals as less educated, less respectful, less academic in our approaches (which was why we had to redouble our efforts to show the world the truth). Somehow we were always less.
Rationally, I knew all that was categorically untrue, but the highly sensitive evangelical instinct remained. It was the default switch that tripped the entire system. Once that was fired up, everything else was processed immediately through that intricate system.
I held these — my own deeply wrong prejudices — with both wonder and frustration; and I encountered some deeply wrong prejudices about evangelicalism, especially if a person had been born and raised in mainline churches and had limited or no knowledge of the evangelical community.
I’d like to think that now I’m more denominationally multi-lingual. I can speak different images and metaphors from different traditions and understand the necessity and profundity behind them. That, in itself, is a hallmark of growth. Had I remained in fundamentalism, the literal wiring would have screeched that Jesus had literally entered my life and literally rescued me personally from death. To even speak of this as a metaphor is a telltale sign that things have most certainly changed.
After all of that, I wondered: where is Jesus now?
The truth is, even after experiencing traumatic and abusive teachings promulgated in fundamentalist circles, the metaphors themselves are not bad!
Like any image, the metaphor of Jesus residing in my heart is of course limited. It doesn’t have the scope to fully understand the entirety of Jesus’ role and relationship with me and with God the Creator. One of its major drawbacks is its hyper-focus on ME. It’s all about my personal relationship with Jesus often to the exclusion of Jesus-in-Community.
Knowing this, however…knowing it well…having words to describe an intimate relationship with God’s Son is a powerful form of relationship. Why should the metaphor itself be chucked because it has been used by authorities who used it in fear and control?
It’s not likely an image I’d use now to teach anyone else about who Jesus was and is today. I’m speaking directly to those of us who have already embraced this image at some point and now struggle to know what to do with it after the fact.
Some of us will leave it behind fully, and we need to.
Some of us will return to it and the community that taught it.
Some of us will find beauty and value in it and try to redeem it within whatever tradition we find ourselves in presently.
Some of us will continue to battle with it and need to simply leave it alone.
My own reality remembers how, despite the initial ‘sinners’ prayer‘ experience being terrifying, that belief that I had a personal relationship with Jesus saved me from some truly dark moments. Without that relationship — that sacred connection — I would have believed myself completely alone in the world, at the mercy of suicidal thoughts, convinced that there was something irredeemably wrong with me. Having Jesus as a touchpoint in that image of him being in my heart rescued me from losing hope altogether.
I can’t abandon that reality.
So if you find yourself ashamed today or confused about some of the images or metaphors you once ascribed to in former traditions, breathe easy. We are able to untangle some of these images themselves from the abuse and power they were used in.
If you need to abandon ship totally, beautiful; let’s walk that path together, remembering you’re never alone. If you need to return to that tradition to find purpose and community, great; let’s explore that together and see what new life is waiting for you. And if you’re stuck, let’s sit together. There’s no need to find a single, coherent answer today in this moment. You too are welcome. You are not alone.
For those of you who have been so badly abused while at the same time hearing messages of love and hope so that now you can’t hear of you being lovable, beloved, or worthy of love, I see you. I hear you. Sifting through image, then, is a work of salvation unto itself. You, too, are not alone.
For now, I still believe Jesus and I have a deep, intimate relationship cultivated through years of prayer, tears, trauma, confusion, darkness, pain and toil. It’s a relationship built on the belief that no matter how humans fail — how I fail — there’s Someone close who desires communion and mutual love.
And that’s something to celebrate and enjoy.