Painting by Thomas Blackshear II
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know His name.
Growing up in a Catholic family with his image everywhere, a crucifix in most every room and a rosary on my wish list, Jesus is deep in my childhood memories.
In my favorite pictures, then, He was handsome. Our hallway had a framed picture that my parents called “The Sacred Heart”, with Jesus glowing in light, showed an equally glowing heart in His chest, erupting fire, a wooden cross and a crown of thorns. Despite the gruesome image of crucifixion the heart connotes, His face was peaceful, and like the Mona Lisa he wore a content expression that was almost a smile. This I passed everyday going to and coming from my room at the end of the hall.
Another image of “handsome Jesus” is the one in my grandmother’s extra guest room, where we used to go and sprawl across the bed, pick at the bedspread and talk about boys. Above the door that led to the kitchen hung a paper picture (probably torn from the top of a calendar) that showed Jesus, clothed in a long, flowing white robe with a red velvet sash, walking with a shepherd’s crook among many white sheep. As they grazed, he walked with a small lamb around his neck, a confident look of moving forward on his face. Sometimes, on the same bed, as I talked on the phone to friends, I would look at the picture absently. It wasn’t until I grew up, and tried to find the picture, that I realized I loved that image of Him. Confidently leading a bunch of grazing sheep, and carrying one who was too small to navigate the rocks.
These pictures influenced my heart. They influenced what I actually believed. I believed that Jesus was a good guy, who lived a long time ago A holy, glowing shepherd who was full of love.
Although I tried to really get into it, I knew that church was something that was connected to my family and our life together. As I grew up, moved away, went to college, church became something I did when I went home.
It wasn’t until I was absolutely desperate that I returned to what I was brought up to believe.
I was 23 and was running away from my boyfriend who I had been living with, our infant son was asleep in his car seat beside me. The things I had taken were now rattling around in my car: a quickly disassembled crib, my son’s clothes and his diaper changing stand.
I had secretly been addicted to crank, a cheap methamphetamine, for about a year. As a ticket to more (or free) drugs, we began to deal out of our house. Long hours and tweaking were beginning to be noticeable in my appearance – and my relationships. My otherwise peaceful boyfriend had become violent, and sometimes after 24 hours or so of being high, we would fight. These "crash" periods, while normal for the user, were becoming wildly unpredictable, with escalating aggression. I had been planning my escape from my boyfriend, who had recently become paranoid and utterly overprotective. I had even timed my exit and measured what I could fit in my car. What I didn't count on, for the day that I left, was a fight that would leave me not only bruised, but hysterical. After he fell asleep, I left him and Sacramento, half-crying, half-choking from emotion.
I had only one place to go where he wouldn’t come after me: my parents’ house. The problem was, I realized, as I was driving, I forgot to take drugs with me. I was already on my way down, and I didn’t know anywhere I could score in my parents’ small town. In my head, as it was clearing, I did the math. I had a few hours before the shaking, the stomach cramping, the terrible dead zone...and then cravings that made you crazy. I also knew I was now in a different reality: I had no money, no privacy, no plan and a baby. If I were driving home, I’d be putting myself right under my parents’ nose and they’d be able to tell, from my skanky appearance, that I was in bad shape. When I pulled into the driveway, I knew I was doomed. Any road from here would be tough.
Robert Frost once wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. That was me. My mom opened the door, greeted me holding the baby, and quickly sized up what I knew she would: I wasn’t just visiting, and I was finished.
After setting up the crib in the downstairs guest room, I got on my knees and prayed. “GOD, if you’re up there, get me off drugs.” It was all I could manage, and I was out of words.
It was instantaneous.
I had never before felt what I did then, and it was incredible. That night I ate dinner at the table with my family. I ate solid food, for the first time in four months. I digested my food and went to bed. I feel asleep – by myself.
It was then that I realized that God had answered my prayer. It was then that I realized that God was real...not a religion. It was then that I realized He was probably really pissed off at me.
So, I went back to church. I got a job. I tried to be a good mother, a good daughter, a good citizen. I tried to be the best darn person I could be. The problem was, I wasn’t a good person. I knew that in the world, I was one of the people who was bad. My thoughts, my actions, my tendency to hurt those who loved me...it all pointed to the fact that I was faking goodness. I was a poser.
One day a friend asked me to come with her to church for a women’s meeting where she would be speaking. I agreed, only to be nice, and got to hear her speak about Jesus and his love. In my head, I was wondering what was on HBO, what I had in the fridge... until she began to talk about how He changed her life.
Apparently, my friend, the associate Pastor's wife (who looked like Christie Brinkley and glowed like Moses) was a bad person too. As she spoke, she relayed a lot of memories of growing up, her mistakes, her patterns of choices, her decisions to use...but she spoke without shame, as if she were reading a shopping list. I looked intently at her, a young mother like me, sharing with a room full of church people stuff I wouldn’t have told to my skankiest drug-addicted friends.
I was in major disbelief. “No way,” I thought to myself. “No way did this happen to her...”
It was then I heard Jesus’ voice for the first time: “It didn’t happen to who she is, it happened to who she used to be. And THAT’S why I died.”
It is hard to put this: but it was as if heaven opened and all of the things I was supposed to learn about God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit, the Bible, and everything I had ever heard in church became real. What I was supposed to have drizzled over me like rain came down in a tidal wave. I felt drowned with hope and belonging. It was I found my long-lost Jesus...that I never really knew in the first place.
In that room, I couldn’t stop crying. I was overcome with a love that was so powerful that I realized that posing and pretending were no longer necessary. I felt unchained, and beautiful and so overwhelmed with love....
I also felt a little embarrassed. A breakdown like this, in public, was pretty unusual. “If these ladies want to talk to me or pray for me or anything, I am so out of here...” I thought, afterward. Instead, a quiet hush over the room, and I realized that others were sharing the same incredible revelation I had, just in their own personal way. At the end of the meeting, as I picked myself up and got ready to leave, I slipped out the door, unnoticed. My heart had been changed.
That was twenty-two years ago.
Today is the day that we call “Good Friday”; the day that we believe is the one when Jesus was crucified. The day when he proved that the most hateful, most pathetic, most selfish, cruel, disgusting, ungrateful people are worth loving. On this day He made it possible for me to say I am a princess, the daughter of a king.
He died to transform the wreckage of my life and make me a masterpiece of His grace. It’s too wonderful for me to believe, when I look at the big picture.
Look at me.
Do I look like something special? I’m not. I’m the most ordinary specimen of a human being. BUT I hold inside of me a secret: the punishment of the cross has become my peace.
He was not given to the world to condemn it. He was given to us by our Father to set us free, not only from hell, but from this world and its empty promises, from ourselves and our unsatisfied desire for more, more, more.
That secret is one I'll live the rest of my life to share.
It makes me glow.