I did not always love Jesus. I certainly did not always like church. My faith story and religious convictions have evolved over time. The same is true with my ethics.*
I hated Sunday mornings as kid, except for the ones when the person responsible for baking the communion bread slipped in a loaf with raisins.
It happened. It was awesome. Raisins went everywhere.
But raisin bread didn't exactly go with wine. I would have preferred orange juice or at least something less fermented.
Still, I was always somewhat of a good kid with a pretty strong conscience. There was even the time when I was angry with the bully on my bus who told me Santa wasn't real, to which I responded, "Shut up you balankety blank." Yep, I said "blankety blank." Unlike Ralphy in the Christmas Story, I didn't need to be edited. I took care of that myself. The bully in the back seat also took care of my ego the days that followed.
I desperately wanted to be the cool kid, maybe even the "bad kid." I wanted to get in trouble without feeling guilty. And I tried. Many times. But always ratted myself out or didn't try hard enough not to get caught. I would either end up in the principal's office or my living room hyperventaling in remorse and promising never to do whatever I did again. They knew I meant it, too. The inhaler was proof.
All my attempts to fit in, develop an image my peers would value, and maybe even to be welcomed at that lunch table so desired by so many, always failed in the end. The large ears and crustache in 4th grade didn't help either. And just when I thought I was breaking new ground and maybe even getting a bit edgy, my family relocated back to Maryland from Pennsylvania, where I had to start all over in a new middle school.
My mom always says it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me...and to her.
But it wasn't. Instead, one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me was when Mom tossed a Bible on my lap as we rode home from school in our Chevy Lumina minivan we named, "Big Red."
I was struggling to fit in again, to feel like I belonged in this new school with people I was convinced were way cooler than me. After being bullied a lot in my old school, I was nervous about the same happening in the new. I was contemplating my next move and how to refresh my identity. Certainly these were reasons why my mom wanted me to read the Good Book.
Maybe her son would find hope.
And I did. I am not sure what I read first- probably Genesis- but I started reading. I never stopped. The story gripped me and it all started with Mom throwing a Bible on my lap as I sat buckled in the front seat of Big Red.
One of the first Scriptures I committed to memory: Joshua 1:9.
"I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."
No doubt this was and is comfort for a teenager looking for assurance, courage, and promise that someone was on his side.
So I kept reading and wanted others to read with me.
I started a Bible study in middle school, meeting every Thursday morning before school, and a huddle of Fellowship of Christian Athletes when I was a junior in high school. And, not surprisingly to someone who lacked the cool factor, "cool" kids were not the ones who showed up. Instead, my new friends and community was made up of all those others considered not worth their time. I wasn't initially thrilled. I wanted those with stronger social status to stick around. But alas, they did not.
I guess I had not yet read enough of the Bible to realize Jesus never started with or drew the attention of the elite either. At least not the kind of attention I was looking for as a junior in high school. There are some youth ministries and programs that may need this reminder, too.
So, why do I love Jesus? As I look back at my adolescence, I love Jesus because as I have followed I have found a sense of belonging, significance, and affirmation that I am never, ever alone. God was with me wherever I went.
And I discovered, through my new faith communities, like the small Lutheran and Methodist youth groups, FCA, and that middle school Bible study, that I was quite good at talking to people about this good news. Now, all these years later, I get to tell youth every day: you belong. you are loved. you can do all Jesus said and did, especially to love and bless the poor and outcast.
I am blessed to be able to journey alongside teeangers and adults alike, echoing reminders I always longed to hear that even in the darkest times (and I have had my share of darkness), God is with you. When you mess up, Jesus will dust you off and give you another shot- God is with you. When you think you cannot go on another day in this world filled with so much madness, God will remind you not to be discouraged and that as Jesus rose from the dead, so too will you, me, and the whole world be lifted from death and dying.
God is with us, drawing us closer to the day when all will be made new and right and good again.
That's why I love Jesus.
And I love Jesus because of my mother tossing a Bible at her distressed teenager on the ride home from a long day of middle school.
Thanks Mom. Thanks Big Red Chevy Lumina.
*I shared versions of this on Sunday night with youth as we begun a new series of storytelling based on the question, "Why Do We Love Jesus?"
**Click here for a little related poetry I wrote, "Love to Say We Love"
Below is a video of my college professor, now on hospice, sharing about why he loves Jesus. Thank you, Dr. Peterson! Eee more from: www.workofthepeople.com