You have to sign in for the weekly bible studies at the jail. Name, unit number, time. Records must be kept. And so, the clipboard dutifully makes its way around the circle. One guy always has a massive grin on his face as he writes his name. I’ll call him Adam. I know why Adam is smiling. He has a standard practice by now. He writes his name, as per the requirements. But then he always leaves a few blank lines before writing another: “Jesus.” This day, he expands a bit. “Jesus of Nazareth.” He hopes he’s spelled Nazareth right.
It’s hard not to smile along with Adam. It’s a cheeky little gesture but the theological truth it expresses could hardly be more profound. Jesus is present with us when we gather. Jesus is in the room. Jesus listens in while we discuss 1 Peter 5 (as it happens). Jesus hears all that is said and all that is not said, sees and understands the pain that hides for fear of ridicule and rejection. Jesus meets us at the bottom, in the places of heartache and despair and failure and frustration and boredom and exhaustion with the world and with ourselves. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
Freddie deBoer wrote an interesting piece today on the human tendency to always be defining ourselves by external markers. We know well, by now, the myriad options served up for public consumption in the marketplace of identities (sex, race, gender, religion, politics, mental health issues, victimhood, fandom choices, laptop brands… the possibilities are virtually endless). Throw in the perceived imperative to project our uniqueness online for affirmation and validation (forever and ever amen) and you get a pretty toxic stew. We almost literally scramble over top of one another to be noticed for something—anything!—that could set us apart from all the other people engaging in the same project of self-definition-for-affirmation.
deBoer sums it up the problem (and yes, I am convinced that it is a massive problem) like this:
[T]he fundamental problem with trying to outsource the self is that your efforts are bound to fail. You will eventually be left with only yourself, and you’ll have to just be a person. If the internet makes this quixotic desire more common, perhaps it also better ensures that it will fail; there’s just so many other people out there, trying to be autism, to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be white male feminism, to be the most authentic communist, and so the field is crowded and you find that these things can’t distinguish you. Besides, I think your heart wants to be a you, and in time your heart will have its say.
The jail is a very difficult place to be “a you.” No matter who you are or what you’ve done, everyone wears the same uniform, eats the same meals, follows the same protocols, adheres to the same schedule. Same, same, same. And there is very little that obliterates individuality like enforced sameness. I wonder if this is part of why Adam writes “Jesus of Nazareth” on the sign-in sheet. He wants to stand out in some way, however small. We all do.
But I also wonder if Adam’s gesture goes beyond this. Perhaps it points to a desire, however small and stuttering, to be rescued from this exhausting imperative to create and define ourselves. Maybe it expresses the hopeful recognition that Jesus is the true and final anchor of human identity, not in a way that eliminates the unique “yous” that we were all created to be, but in a way that both validates them and—crucially—summons us to a love that extends beyond them. The human heart does indeed want to be “a you.” Sometimes it wants this too much. Sometimes the heart needs Jesus in the room to lift us to higher things.
Jesus of Nazareth is indeed in the room, and he listens in as we read 1 Peter 5. He sees the heads nod at the words:
Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.
An ugly word, that one. “Devour.” And an apt one for the endless demands of the self and what its conflicted and confused projects do to us. They chew us up and they spit us out. They lead and tempt and ultimately destroy. Every guy in the room at the jail with Jesus of Nazareth was well-acquainted with the roaring lion, prowling around, looking for its prey.
Ah, but Jesus of Nazareth is more than just a consoling presence in the room, more than just the one unto whom all hearts are open, and all desires known, more than just the one who shows us what it means to be human and where our identities are properly oriented. He is also the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Lion who seeks not to devour but to conquer all that holds us captive and leads us astray.
The image above was painted my daughter. It’s been hanging in my home office for the last six years.