| Mar 10, 2014
The film version of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump yielded many great quotes, but my favorite comes from a conversation between Gump and Lieutenant Daniel Taylor when the two meet in New York after returning from Vietnam.
Lieutenant Dan: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
Looking for Jesus can be a fraught and complicated occupation. I have a good friend, a pastor, who told me recently that when she started her ministry in the congregation she now serves she was told, “We don’t use the ‘J word’ here.” She said that she tried and tried to figure out what obscenity started with the letter J. She racked her brain, but couldn’t come up with it. Finally, she gave up and asked, “What’s the ‘J word’?” An incredulous church member told her, “Well, ‘Jesus,’ of course.”
Flannery O’Connor, in the preface to the second edition of her comic novel, Wise Blood, famously talked about the challenge of finding Jesus. She articulates this challenge by reflecting on the experience of Hazel Motes, the central character in her novel. Motes is an atheist evangelist (and I mean, an old-fashioned southern evangelist whose message is caustic atheism) who is God-obsessed and Christ-haunted.
O’Connor writes: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to do so.” (Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952/62).
That ragged figure, of course, is Jesus. Hazel runs as fast as he can away from Jesus, only to run straight into his arms.
Where do we find Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question throughout his life. I am particularly fascinated with two of his responses, the first of which occurred in a series of lectures he gave in 1933. They were originally published in English translation in London under the academic-sounding title of Christology, but the title of the American edition picks up on the theme that runs through them, Christ the Center. Bonhoeffer’s version of the question, “Where do we find Jesus?” is “Where does Jesus stand?” His answer is so compelling, and I will share it with you in full:
“He stands pro me. He stands in my place, where I should stand and cannot. He stands on the boundary of my existence, beyond my existence, but still for me. This expresses the fact that I am separated from the ‘I’ that I should be by a boundary which I am unable to cross. This boundary lies between me and myself, between the old ‘I’ and the new ‘I’. I am judged in my encounter with this boundary. At this place I cannot stand alone. Here Christ stands, in the center, between me and myself, between the old existence and the new. So Christ is at the same time my own boundary and my rediscovered center, the center lying both between ‘I’ and ‘I’ and between ‘I’ and God. The boundary can only be known as a boundary from beyond the boundary. In Christ [humanity] knows it and thus at the same time finds his new center.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, John Bowden, tr., Harper & Row, 1966).
Bonhoeffer was pursuing the question of where we find Jesus right up to the end of his life. This comes through with special force in two passages from his Letters and Papers from Prison, both in the notes he made for the book he never got to write, in a section he intended to title, “The Real Meaning of Christian Faith” and in a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge on the 16th of July, 1944, from Tegel Prison. Again, I will quote the passages at length where Bonhoeffer begins with a sentence fragment indicating our “finding” or “meeting” Jesus:
“Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others.’ His ‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence.’ … Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge, ed. Macmillan, 1972, 381).
Where do we find Jesus? Bonhoeffer continues to ask. Where does Jesus stand? He stands with the God who is pushed to the margins and beyond. As he writes to his friend: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” (360).
The Jesus who is found standing pro me (for me) is the same Jesus who calls me to find myself in standing for others. The Jesus who is found on the cross, calls us beyond ourselves to that spiritual reality many describe as “self-transcendence,” by “being for the other” as he is for others.
But, of course, the paradox of finding Jesus is that we are the ones being sought, not God. This represents the irony of the term so often applied to those who are curious about faith, but often unaligned to a religion, “seekers.” The real “seeker” is not me, but God. The real “seeker” is what O’Connor referred to as that “ragged figure” of Jesus who moves “from tree to tree” in the back of our minds, and at the margins of our lives, and at the boundaries of human existence and society, pushed out of the world and onto a cross so that he might stand at the center of our lives.
Lent is a good time to remember Søren Kierkegaard’s prayer that finds Jesus front and center:
O Lord Jesus Christ … save us from the error of wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to resemble you. AMEN.