I had this somewhat obvious epiphany the other day.
I’m not, nor have I ever been, Rob Bell.
I know, I know, groundbreaking.
I’d probably give this one a “discovering you have enough change in your late model civic’s ashtray to pay the meter” on a scale of 0-to-St. Paul blinded by the mystical presence of the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road.
Or, maybe, like a soft 3.
But, regardless of the rather obviousness of the truth greeting me in the midst of a conversation with an old friend last week, I soon realized the power it had held over me for sometime now. Now, it isn’t that Rob and I look alike (he’s around 6 ft. 15 inches, and me, a cool 5′ 9.5”) or that we’ve shared similar career trajectories (he’s written a couple of bestsellers, been on TV regularly, and is currently on tour with Oprah speaking to thousands each week. And me? I had 40 people read something I wrote for free on the internet 2 weeks ago.)
However, we did go to the same grad school, have both been dressed down by the conservative Evangelical intelligentsia, and I still wear dark rimmed glasses. So, while not twins, we’re probably distant cousins, separated by years and years of success, renown, and monetary acclaim.
All of which fail to explain why I had apparently been living under the shadow of a man I don’t look like, have never met, and will never surf beside over a long weekend in Malibu for a reasonable $700.00, but then again cargo pants were the default setting for many of us in the mid-90s AND STOP ASKING ME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNANSWERED MYSTERIES HOLDING OUR UNIVERSE TOGETHER LIKE A GIANT-3-WOLF-MOON-BLANKET.
It’s amazing, how the unarticulated hair-caught-in-the-shower-drain of our collective psyches holds so much unacknowledged sway over our perceived self-worth, causing a quite unexpected rise in the water level during a typical shower before work. It was just a simple conversation with an old friend from grad school about where a few of us had ended up on the great occupational ladder comprising American professional Christianity.
Some had found work outside the world of getting paid to pray, getting coin to join, getting…I can keep going if you want.
Others hadn’t found work at all.
And still others were enjoying the successes accompanying placements at big churches with big budgets and big name pastors with even bigger internet followings.
I “order” pizza from Little Caesars professionally, and write things for free on a Baptist website.
(Insert John-Bender-freeze-frame-fist-pump-at-the-end-of-the-Breakfast-Club here.)
But, it wasn’t until the conversation shifted to my own apparent “failings” at creating a ravenous following of internet (and real life!) disciples lapping up my every (hastily edited) word about the divine, that my continued inability to become another human person named Rob Bell started flooding the bathtub of my emotional well-being,
spilling my fragile ego all over the bathroom tile:
“I guess I’m slowly coming to grips with the fact that I’ll never manage to become Rob Bell. Wow, I’ve never said that out loud before, and hearing it escape my mouth is mostly embarrassing, but, truthfully, it had been sitting in the back of my mind for a few years like a piece of corn from lunch. Occasionally, the human heart is an unfathomable mystery.”
In the closing moments of John’s Gospel, we happen upon an emotional scene unfolding between the resurrected Jesus and his disgraced disciple Peter (who, if you aren’t familiar with the story, denied knowing Jesus at all in order to save himself during the crucifixion).
Repeatedly, Jesus asks Peter:
“Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”
You know that I do.
“[Peter] when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go…Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.”
This moment of gentle redemption, tenderness, and authentic humanity bubbling up between Jesus and Peter is abruptly interrupted when Peter, after hearing about the gruesome death awaiting him, notices “the disciple whom Jesus loved” following closely behind them,
leading him to wonder aloud:
“Lord, what about him?”
So, naturally, Jesus softly assuages his concerns:
“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
Oh Jesus, you always know what to say.
These days, the constant temptation awaiting me every time I open my computer and happen upon folks with larger audiences, better websites, more lucrative writing deals, and infinitely more Facebook mentions, is to disparage them to everyone within earshot in the name of my psychic health.
Which, inevitably as a Christian in America, “psychic health” quite often ends up going by the name “God” instead.
“You know why they’re enjoying success? They’ve caved to popular opinion, and the whims of ghost writers from major publishing houses. Jesus was crucified by the political authorities, and these jokers are all desperately fighting with each other to get invited to a prayer breakfast.”
“That dude’s a sellout, and a bully, and wears bedazzled Nashville jeans.”
“You read her book? Yeah me either, but the internet told me it was terrible, heretical, and also filled with embarrassing typos.”
“Man, people love a spectacle, and that’s all that dude is: dry-ice and lasers.”
From Driscoll to Furtick to Held Evans, and inevitably to Rob Bell, those of us on the underside of the American Christian Celebrity Industrial Complex have this uncanny ability to live for years resentfully toiling under the words, weight and media wattage of people who’s stories and words and recently uncovered anonymous message board outbursts were never intended to serve as our own.
We alter our accents, stifle our true identities, and even start posting weirdly pithy quotations where more human tweets once laid, all in an effort to be told that who we are, what we do, and what we have to say, matter deeply to someone.
And by “someone” I most certainly mean “hundreds of people we don’t know on the interwebs.”
“…what is that to you? You must follow me.”
The unexpected truth awaiting all of us (Peter included) at the end of John’s Gospel is that the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” despite apparently being the first Highlander, never managed to have his name recorded at all: no crude bathroom wall shoutouts, no retweets, no back page acknowledgments. Instead, the only thing left standing at the epilogue of a life well lived is love, grace, and a militant (if not somewhat smothering) solidarity to the way of Jesus
even in the face of the death of everything we think we deserve from the world.
So, whoever’s shadow you find yourself either resentfully toiling underneath or jealously attempting to undermine-because, you know, “THE GOSPEL AND GOD’S GLORY” or something along those tired lines-may you remember the unnamed disciple and his quest for a beautiful, liberating, and quite anonymous redemption. And in so doing, may you embody a God who, rather than narcissistically demanding allegiance and recognition from the world, died quietly in service to its redemption.
leaving only the surprising silence of an empty tomb in his wake.