Each week a few devout atheists respond to my essays. Mostly on social media rather than on the blog or via email. Some of them want to engage in a genuine way. Others are snarky and dismissive and apparently want nothing more than to announce how dim I am.
Recently, one comment caught my attention and stayed with me for a while. The person told me that he was enjoying the article until Jesus popped up.
What came to mind for me initially was the image of Jesus leaping out from behind a door to say “boo” or springing out of a jack-in-the-box. It made me chuckle. But eventually the comment made me think about what it is about this Jesus that has such a hold on me.
Well, it’s something Jesus said. And it might be surprising to some people that these particular words would draw me so powerfully to Jesus that I would devote my life to following him. But, anyway, here it is. Jesus said, “They do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a)
He didn’t say it like, “What a group of numbskulls!” Or, “How clueless can you get!” Or, “You can’t fix stupid!” And he certainly didn’t say, “To hell with those people!” On the contrary, he said, “Forgive them.” “Let’s work with this.”
Jesus embodies compassion. He sees us for who we really are and embraces us. Jesus understands that we all act like we know exactly what we’re doing and we’re really desperate to find out how to get the most important things in life right and hoping that nobody figures out what frauds we actually are.
The character Fleabag—from the BBC series by the same name—put it this way:
“I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life … because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” (Fleabag, Season 2, Episode 4)
Me too, Fleabag! I want to love and sometimes I manage to do just that, but mostly I realize, in retrospect, that I could have done that whole love thing much better had I known what I know now. I feel like I stumble and blunder my way through life’s most important stuff.
It’s not like I go about breaking the Ten Commandments because I haven’t memorized them adequately or have never learned them in the first place. Following the obvious rules like don’t murder your obnoxious relative and don’t steal your neighbor’s riding mower is pretty easy.
No, where I struggle is on the murky judgment calls. How much free rein is enough and how much is too much for your kids? When do you walk away and when do you die in a ditch? When should you risk trusting the person who hurt you or lied to you or betrayed you, if ever? How do you embody both justice and grace in this messy, messy world?
To be honest, I need—I yearn for—someone to tell me how to live my life because I haven’t been perfect by a long shot. Well, actually, just telling me won’t be enough. I learn by watching an example and then by committing myself to endless, imperfect repetition of what I’ve observed.
That is precisely what Jesus gives me: the example of what love looks like. He gives us lots of examples. He heals the sick and feeds the hungry and parties with the down and out. But the most startling one of all was the very last one. He showed us how to love even as Roman soldiers nailed him to a cross.
He said, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a) Sometimes we purposely wreak havoc. And the more challenging truth is that we unwittingly cause damage and leave messes for others to clean up all the time.
Deep down, that’s not what we had in mind. We wanted to raise children with no future therapy bills, to leave a better world for those who come after us, and to be remembered fondly for having been on this planet.
Jesus gets that about us. And instead of tossing us aside as a bunch of screwups, he forgives. He commits to our healing and our growth. He says that our future is more important than our past.
We see in Jesus just how God responds to us. And we also see how to live with each other. Life is about love. And love is about being there for one another even when it’s going to hurt.
Like I said, Jesus didn’t just tell us about love. He lived it. And that’s why he has such a hold on me.
I so understand the murkiness of following The Way. Do I let the homeless couple who knocked on my door stay the night in my house when I have medications I can’t function without that they will be tempted to take? Much less the silver (if I had silver) – addicts are God’s people and I want to show God’s love – but then so am I and I need to love myself so I can love my neighbor as myself. The saving grace for us all (literally) in my opinion is the Resurrection and God’s promise, as you said, that our future – this next minute and onward – is more important than our past. That as we constantly turn our faces back to Him we grow more like Him and are able to see things a bit less murkily. Or at least that’s the idea!
Cynthia I so admire how you live out the way of love. You’re a wonderful example!
“Jesus didn’t just tell us about love. He lived it.” which totally reinforces what you said recently, that faith isn’t about what you know, it’s about getting to know a person. This latter replays in my mind every day. And your personal testimony is powerful. Thanks.
Hi Liz! Thanks for the care with which you read my writings. It’s a huge encouragement. BTW, autumn has really come in Louisiana. It’s been lovely. I still get a kick out knowing that we’re in opposite seasons!
My imagination sees you and Gracie out in the autumn leaves 🙂
The fallen leaves are a treasure trove of smells for her
You got it.
What kind of god would appear at 11:15 am to an avowed atheist, call her by name and promise impossibly beautiful gifts to her utterly undeserving self??
That’s me. That’s the impossible grace of 32 years ago. And there have been more glorious impossibles along the way. More outrageously kind Promises.
I thought I knew what I was doing in my high fallutin highbrow life. In His light I learned I was empty. Didnt have a clue what I was doing.
You got it right!
Wow! Maggie thanks for sharing your story!
To me Jesus was fully Human but with a enlightened conciousness . If you are enlightened you are fully aware of the embodiment of the divine spirit /conciousness that you are , embodied in mortal flesh in world of matter with all the challenges that brings .. how can you judge ? .. it is a great privilege we must be truly magnificent to be here with all the challenges this material world brings . Jesus realised this because he was aware . And the moment enough of us become aware in the way he was there will be a new heaven and a new earth as foretold .. not necessarily a different heaven and earth physically but new in the sense that it will be perceived / discerned through the eyes of a new and higher consciousness x
Just a thought 😊 I’m no scholar .. Just me whittering
Thanks, Marisa! I appreciate your input. For the record, I’m no scholar either
Probably the most poignant experience I had was in Mobile on Thanksgiving day. We were helping a friend pack meals for his low income clients (he owned a Medical Supply Business)… it grew from a few meals to more than 200! He had found a homeless camp and asked me and Denise to take meals there. We took ten meals… the gentleman who met us showed us around the camp and introduced us to his neighbors. What happened next blew us away. He thanked us for the food and asked us how he could pray for us! We prayed together in the middle of the camp. We met Jesus in a homeless camp. He was African American and his name was James.
What a powerful story! Thanks for sharing this, Michael. One of my hopes for the blog is that readers will be gifted to and by each other’s stories and insights in the comment section. This one is a real keeper. Blessed Thanksgiving, my friend!
This was a great post and something I really needed to hear right now. Thank you for sharing it!
Thanks, Tammy! I’m grateful for holy timing!
I give thanks for you at this season and always. Your words and your life are always wake up call and a new note of hope!
So very sacramental! You always make Jesus present in such a kinetic way! I cherish the ways that you share your own life,, and the photos are always awesome! May you find increasing light and strength and vision! Deacon Belle
I am always left wondering in discussions like these; in articles like this whether there is a “perfect” or “right way” as such in every circumstance in life. There are some absolutes like do not murder; however as your article suggests there are situations in life where what is right or wrong, or perfect, doesn’t seem to be the fitting approach. I think we all have different experiences in this life, a different image of what”perfect” looks like, even a different image of of what Jesus means to us. Maybe the best way to navigate these murky waters is to accept these differences, accept that beauty lies in the imperfect and as has already been quoted, the key is to understand we are learning people, not rules.
That is as far as my meagre understanding goes at the moment…