I looked up from my computer to see an older gentleman standing there...awkwardly. I was in a different coffee shop than usual...where I go when I need to mix things up. I was trying to get some writing done and decided a change of scenery would get the creative juices flowing.
I smiled politely as I pulled out my earphones. He continued with his spiel, which I'll admit I don't really remember. He spoke fast. He and his wife were traveling, they were involved in a ministry, they had gone to some college, he had been asked to draw a picture of Jesus for the college's yearbook, here was a copy of the picture, it conveniently had the plan of salvation printed on the back, I could use it as a bookmark...or something.
Without waiting for a response, he handed me the homemade tract and returned to his seat. Another young guy had just entered the coffee shop, wearing skinny jeans, a beanie, and a sweet handlebar mustache. He took the seat right next to the older gentleman...but strangely enough, he didn't get offered a Jesus picture. Maybe my T-shirt, jeans, and clean-shaven lip looked more ripe for the harvest.
I don't really mind getting evangelized in public places. I could definitely use more boldness for Christ myself, and I respect those with the courage to engage strangers. However, I do like when people start off with a question. Something relevant like, I don't know...do you know Jesus? First of all, it saves them some breath. But also, it shows that they care enough to get some basic info before telling me how to change my life.
So there I sat, holding Jesus. He had been thrust upon me. I didn't really know what to do with him. The older gentleman was still sitting right there. I couldn't just put Jesus in my pocket. I couldn't stuff Jesus in my backpack. The gentleman had suggested I use Jesus as a bookmark, but I didn't have any books with me (although I wish I could have pulled out my ostentatiously large ESV Study Bible to put Jesus in for safe keeping.)
I finally set Jesus down on the arm of my chair. At least we weren't making eye contact. It actually felt like Jesus was avoiding eye contact...come to think of it, he actually looked a little pissed.
But the older gentleman was not finished "engaging" his fellow coffee shop patrons. He pulled out his cell phone and started making calls to friends and family--all just to catch up. Roughly half of these calls were on speaker phone. (I never figured out how he decided which ones were on speaker and which weren't.)
It became clear that we were all supposed to hear these conversations. He was passive-aggressively evangelizing us. He was telling us his story by making us eavesdrop. He was sharing the gospel to a captive audience who couldn't respond, who couldn't say "no." I put my earphones back in and turned up the volume.
"Whaddaya think about the pope?" I heard him ask one woman, identified as "Viv." Viv was not on speaker phone, so I couldn't hear her take on the papacy. "The pope!" he said again, "The new pope! You know, the Catholic church? In Rome? Rome! Yes, there's a new pope! The old pope retired. No, I don't know why..."
Apparently, Viv wasn't Catholic...or even paying attention in the slightest.
"Yeah, well, you know the Catholics all wanted someone more liberal. Someone who'd make women priests, say abortion is okay, and then all that homosexual stuff. But it sounds like that's not who they got!"
The hair on my neck stood up. I was not listening in on some private conversation. He was speaking to be heard. The dude with the mustache looked uncomfortable. Heck, I was uncomfortable. I looked down at Jesus for some affirmation, but he still wouldn't look at me.
I finally had enough. I was just getting mad. I couldn't focus on my writing anyhow. I packed up my things (perhaps a little more demonstratively than necessary) and left the shop. Jesus came along too. I couldn't just leave Jesus behind, even if he wouldn't look at me. He might get thrown away.
Even now, as I sit here typing this, Jesus is sitting on the bed next to me. I can't throw him away, but I want to. Something about this picture really bothers me. Why won't he look at me? Why is he looking up and away like that, with his arms crossed? Is he waiting for me to get my act together? To say I'm sorry? Is he waiting for me to "pray the prayer printed below"? Haven't I already prayed that prayer? Yes. Many, many times.
Maybe it bothers me because this image was just forced upon me. I didn't have the opportunity to reject it. I didn't ask for it. He just handed it to me and left. What am I supposed to do now?
I can't help but project the older gentleman's characteristics on this Jesus. He didn't really care about me. He never asked me any questions. He didn't ask if he could talk to me. He didn't even ask my name. He knew nothing about me. I was just an easy target...and apparently an easier target than the guy sitting next to him.
No, he didn't want to listen to me. He didn't even want to talk TO me. He wanted to talk AT me. He wanted me to get his message without having to engage with me. Who knows? I could be messy. I might ask questions. My response might not fit into the clear-cut 7-step plan of salvation printed on the back of Jesus. There might be parts of my story that didn't fit his categories.
In his conversations, I heard intolerance and disdain. I heard ignorance and misunderstanding. I heard plenty of all that, but still I didn't hear a monster. I also heard a lot of faith. I heard a lot of prayer. I was moved as I heard him discuss his wife's battle with cancer. I wanted to put this guy in a box and dismiss him, but I couldn't. He was more complex than that. I just wished he could see my complexity. I wished the Jesus he gave me could see my complexity, but the Jesus he gave me wouldn't even look.
The reason I haven't thrown this picture away probably goes back to a silly Sunday-school superstition...but I need to do it. I need to throw it away. This Jesus is aloof and distant. I imagine him tapping his foot, waiting for me to finally get it through my thick skull how ridiculous I've been. The corners of his mouth betray the slightest of smiles...as if he's almost even enjoying the distress he's causing me.
This is not Jesus of Nazareth. This is not Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. This is a jesus we've created after our own image. This is a jesus on whom we can project all our insecurities and self-absorption. This is a jesus who affirms nothing but our deepest fears.
This jesus is going in the trash.
I will instead turn my eyes to Jesus, my friend and my Savior. Jesus, full of life. Jesus, who didn't wait for me to come to him, but who ran to meet me, embracing me, wiping away my tears.
'Tis that look that melted Peter | 'Tis that face that Stephen saw | 'Tis that heart that wept with Mary | Can alone from idols draw.
Captivated by His beauty | Worthy tribute haste to bring | Let His peerless worth constrain thee | Crown Him now Unrivaled King.
This is the picture of Jesus we need to see. This is the picture that changes hearts and changes lives. When I see Jesus not just looking at me, but looking into my very soul, and still loving me...that leads to transformation. That leads me to love Jesus even more, and it leads me to reflect his love to those around me.
I don't want to hand people a jesus picture that looks like me. I want them to see the real thing.
Grace & peace,
Your Brother Behind the Mask