In the year of our Lord, 2019, I was referred to this past week with contempt as a “Jesus freak,” a designation that has not been conferred on me for at least fifteen years.
I heard variations on that theme occasionally through college and high school, of course, as many believers do when their behavior or particular attitudes set them apart from prevailing norms. But the dismissals were never made with malice so much as with eye-rolls, and I was never particularly bothered by them.
This one, however, caught me off guard.
I was talking with a colleague who along with me is going through a fair amount of upheaval in our department. Unhappy about it, she didn’t seem pleased with what she sees as my relatively laid-back attitude about the situation. “This is all out of our control, and I hate it and I’m mad,” she said, “and you should hate it and be mad, but you’re never bothered by this kind of thing like ever. Why? Do you just not care, or…?”
She likes hearing about how people live out their individual religions, and so when the opportunity arises I share it with her. She’s always been curious about my faith. “I care and of course I worry,” I said, “but for me, I guess this is one of those faith things. Christians believe that God is in control of everything, so I try to keep that in mind and–”
“Right, I forgot,” she snapped. “You’re a Jesus freak.”
She said it with so much contempt I was startled. Our conversation continued on after that and she seemed to forget she ever said it. We ended on fine terms with each other, but the word stayed with me all day. Jesus freak. Man, it had been a while.
What stuck with me more, though, was not the word but the spirit in which it had been spoken: frustration, contempt, irritation. I had offended her, I realized, by being calm. By not getting angry and upset. By having a comfort and a solace that was helping me to deal with a lot of change. No matter how happy I was to sit and emphasize, the fact that I couldn’t share her sense of helplessness, frustration, or anger was deeply bothersome to her.
It was a strange way to remember how powerful Christ can be, but it was indeed a reminder. For all that I consider myself a relatively high-strung person in terms of anxiety, and for as much as I gnash teeth and stress out prior to things like flying, my actions and reactions to the world are fundamentally defined by my relationship with Christ.
And it also reminded me of something awkward about the way we evangelize to people. Believers understand that those who don’t know Christ are missing something rich and meaningful; we want them to share in it. So – sometimes awkwardly – we tend to couch our evangelism in a weird performance of what we know they’re missing. “Man,” we say, loudly enough for them to hear, “I am just full of joy today. ….say, Susan, do you ever feel like you’re missing that sort of joy in your life?” We want to show people what we have that they don’t, so that they’ll feel compelled to seek it out themselves. But that sort of performance feels fake to many people, and, while sincere in heart, it sometimes is!
More natural by far is what I had forgotten: the slow enduring change that Jesus causes in us over a lifetime that informs our kneejerk responses in moments of crisis, despair, confusion. This isn’t something that can be performed; it simply is, and it’s impossible not to notice. In moments that I don’t even see it, Jesus is working out my salvation in me in strange and surprising ways that, as it turns out, upset people who expect something different. And that lingers.
The last time I was called a Jesus freak was in a teasing-but-pointed sort of way by a pagan woman whom I had befriended in college. We were hanging out in her dorm room. “Hey, Jesus freak,” she joked, “is it gonna bother you if I smoke?” If you told me then that I’d hear the name again at the ripe old age of thirty-seven, I’d have laughed. But I think I also might have smiled.
It’s good to know God is leaving his mark on my identity and my behavior, even after all these years – and even when I haven’t stopped to think about it at all.