Can I Get a Witness?
I had a whole different post in mind yesterday after some really good conversations with students this week, but then this morning I had the privilege of reading the ascension passage from Acts in our ACB Zoom service, and Hillary's message was on Jesus' last words before ascending. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of all the earth" (Acts 1:8). Hillary talked about our invitation to share with others about how life with Jesus is better. Our stories are the best evidence for the resurrection of Jesus - this is what I try to teach my students.
This is also what I've been struggling with through this year as I watch so many students who only see the message of Christianity as a list of rules and no fun. I called up Givorgy after the church service and we talked about how both of us actually actively choose to love Jesus and want to invite others into that transformed Jesus lifestyle that's so much better than the empty hedonism we've watched friends and youth spiral into. I also asked him if he could set up a space on my website to host stories of choosing this Jesus lifestyle because it's worth it. (For those of you who don't know, Givorgy designed this entire website.) He said it was totally possible, so today, I'm sharing a blog post about why I chose - and continue to choose - life with Jesus instead of without, and I'm inviting you to email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org where I'll collect them and create a section on this website to share why you choose life with Jesus.
When I was in college, my childhood best friend and I went on a camping trip, and during our long drive to Bandon, she asked me, "Do you think you'd still be a Christian if you hadn't grown up in a Christian home?" At that point, the answer was clear to me, "Yeah, I chose Jesus."
It wasn't a flippant response. I'd had time to think about how easy it had been to claim Jesus as a kid, in a Christian family, going to a Christian school, attending a Christian church, AWANA, and the whole shebang. However, my first year of university, I was at a nominally Lutheran school but it was a largely non-Christian environment, and I saw how important the Jesus community really was to me. My friend had graduated high school and chose not to attend a single church service for the next five years. Our conversation was happening in this period, and she was ready to shed the Christian label as part of her growing up experience.
During my years at Multnomah, I intentionally traded the loaded term "Christian" for "Jesus follower" because in the Pacific Northwest, people are highly suspicious of organized religion, and I honestly get why. There's a lot of baggage with the history of the Christian church, and lots of terrible things have been done in the name of Jesus. Mascot of the Jesus follower movement in the PNW Donald Miller started to apologize on Reed College's campus and published his revolutionary Jesus loving lifestyle in Blue Like Jazz.
To be fair, I think there's still some shortcomings in the Miller theology, but it's a conceptual launching point in my journey to choose Jesus. In my studies of theology in Bible college, I was able to learn no one has perfect theology. Some of my favorite theologians embrace the idea that God is not an unknowable mystery but rather an infinitely knowable mystery, and this to me is the allure of the Jesus relationship lifestyle. I am limited and not enough to make it through life on my own. When I read the Bible, I see a story that says this infinitely knowable and relational God wanted to have relationship with me, a created finite thing, so he breathed life into humanity created in his own image and entered into the story by taking on human form and living this perfect, loving life before conquering death on my behalf. Significantly, this God invites me into relationship rather than forcing it upon me.
Here is the perhaps most important and nuanced position of my eschatology: I think Jesus saved me for now and for eternity. I believe people can reject Jesus now and live in a self created hell on earth and spend an eternity with that broken relationship because of the free will God gave us. I also believe that as the Lord spoke to Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, all shall be well, and in all manner of things all shall be well. In my finite, fractured theology, I take this to mean that I'm not responsible for forcing conversions of people, but rather I'm responsible for living in right relationship with God and others to the best of my ability that invites those around me to also have right relationship with God and others. Jesus always invited people to follow or reject him, and he loved them regardless. He hated brokenness not people. He also clearly said that he came to give life and to give it to the fullest - and that meant transformed lives beginning in that very moment. People who touched Jesus lived differently from that moment on. They didn't wait until death to have right understanding and live well in a heavenly existence. From its beginning, the early church held people to a high standard of right relationships and condemned lying, immorality, and spiralling self-righteousness because they saw Jesus called us out of the selfish darkness into glorious, generous light.
Growing in up Christian culture, I saw a lot of legalism and hypocrisy, but I also saw people like my parents who loved young people where they were and encouraged them to make good choices. My mom mentored countless college kids, and she grieved over their poor choices, but she never ever judged or condemned them. My middle school small group leader Robin took a collection of weirdos and let us be dorks and loved us all no matter what came out of our mouths. My high school Bible/chemistry teacher fed me Cheez-its and told me I could be a leader in the church if I took my faith seriously and kept pursuing intentional growth.
Karin stands out as another one of the clearest examples in my life of the best part of choosing Jesus. I've shared before about how Karin is literally the coolest person I knew growing up - and still is. What I admired most about Karin as I grew up and as she mentored me is that she laughed and had fun and called me up to a higher lifestyle. She's never once condemned me for bad behaviors, but she's always asked me how I'm growing closer to Jesus and fostered conversations about how to chase him wholeheartedly. Sometimes it was over a cup of coffee when she asked me if I'd prayed about what God was working out in my life and other times it was when she handed me her freshly born child and made it clear that I was part of her family that would get to model for this kid what she'd modelled to me (which happened literally three times within hours of their birth and the fourth kid asap a couple weeks after birth). Karin wrapped me into her life not as an obligation but as a joy, and she's inextricable from my faith journey because she showed me a faithful life of following Jesus was more fun than the empty selfish choices I saw other people who walked away from Jesus community make. Karin's life is always full, and there's always room for me in it. That's what being part of Jesus community means.
When I first started calling Jen my mentor, she laughed that I technically had more years of following Jesus than she did, but she's always been a clear role model to me of how the choices to pursue right relationship with Jesus are always worth it. I don't feel like I missed out on anything because I didn't have the wandering hedonistic years celebrated in media and pop culture. In fact, Jen confirms for me that my choice to honor God with my body, mind, and soul on a daily basis is rewarding both here on earth and in my eternal future closer to Jesus. My slip-ups, shortcomings, and struggles through my younger years are vastly different than Jen's, but she met me where I was at and encouraged me to keep choosing closer relationship with God and others over my default of selfish isolation. When I wanted to give up, cut corners, or be lazy at different points in my life, Jen consistently modelled and encouraged faithfulness.
As a college student in charge of the entire children's ministry at my church, I made a mistake in managing others that triggered an inappropriate response from someone else. I am forever grateful for how Tina, Paul, and especially Shane stepped into that situation to defend me as a young leader. This is possibly one of the clearest examples in my life of how the church came around me to protect me but also lovingly foster my growth. Shane met with me after hearing multiple sides of the whole situation and gently walked me through where I fell short while affirming me in my strengths and separating me from the lies of someone else's false accusations.
Being part of the Jesus family at Westport meant that people like Tina and Jen were going to check on where my heart was at in my relationship with Jesus and foster growth rather than letting me stagnate. It extended beyond the "Westport" designation though. When Tina transitioned off staff, our mentoring meetings moved from her office to Insomnia Coffee across the parking lot; to this day our less frequent conversations are no less significant in my life as she purposefully challenges me to use all of my gifts to the fullest in my pursuit of Jesus while she practices the same. When the Westport church gathering dissolved, Jen still let me stay at her house during my HMA.
In fact, so did Karin who never went to Westport. Actually, Karin's house is my legal address in America. It wasn't about the church title for any of these people: they are committed Jesus followers committed to loving me. There was no "in group" to them of who they were going to love. Karin dedicated countless hours to running RFKC to let foster kids know they are loved; Jen has been involved with Safe Families to keep at risk kids off the streets. The love of Jesus is so evident in their life patterns and how they spend their time every single day. I'm folded into their lives as they love Jesus, love me, love others, and lead me in better loving Jesus and others.
When people ask me why I follow Jesus, it's very clearly not a future get out of hell free card for me. It's a transformational community that encourages the best relationships today rather than letting me run lone wolf and hurt others with some future ontologically unprovable heaven. Like I said, I try to emphasize to my students that the best evidence for the Jesus story is the transformed lives today. I know my life is better when I follow Jesus today because I've felt the hurt of poor choices to break relationships and I've felt the healing of Jesus people loving me and offering me healing and restoration right where I'm at.
One of the students I mentor gets the opportunity to work with Jen this summer and meet Karin. He reached out to me to help him find a community for this summer that would point him towards Jesus because he had limited options when the MK camp he was supposed to work at was cancelled. Like I've had with lots of students, this kid and I have had specific conversations about how his life ought to look different if he calls himself a Jesus follower. He's watched a lot of people keep the name Christian but dump the Jesus oriented transformation as well as people who dump the name Christian because those people look no different than the world. To me, being a Jesus follower means something beginning now rather than just a final status, and this kid has kept asking for accountability in his own growth because he wants that deeper loving relationship with God and others. I love that he will get interaction with some of these incredible Jesus loving people as he also becomes more like Jesus himself and extends that wherever God leads him.
Brooks won't read this unless someone tells him that he's mentioned, but the rest of you who are reading right now, if you call yourself a Jesus follower too, think about what that means for you today in this moment, write it out, and email it to me. I want to have a diverse collection of stories to share. About a week before moving to Germany, Jen and Tina took me out to lunch and asked me what I was most excited about learning as I moved overseas. My response was the excitement to learn Jesus outside of my cultural trappings, and one of the greatest gifts of my time in New Zealand was hearing Liz tell me how disgusting she thought the very American "wordless book" version of the Gospel was. It overemphasizes the streets of gold according to her Kiwi lens, and, honestly, I think I agree. In my years overseas, I have shifted my focus to the life with Jesus now on earth that is the start of my salvation rather than the waiting room to get to heaven.
Life is better with Jesus today. I look forward to reading and sharing your stories if you agree.