“Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.”
“Grandma, where’s your mean picture?” asks my seven-year old grandson.
“Mean” picture? Our house is full of family photos, paintings, icons – but I can’t think of any “mean” pictures.
“I’m not sure which one you’re thinking of,” I finally respond.
So we go on a search. And when we find it, I’m stunned. It’s my icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
“That one!” he says triumphantly.
“But what’s ‘mean’ about it?” I ask, puzzled.
“Look how he’s holding that sheep around his neck by the ankles, just to keep himself warm. That’s mean.”
Jesus as animal-abuser: that’s a new perception. So I tell him the parable of the lost sheep, and how I see that icon—that picture—as a tender image, not a mean one.
My seven-year old granddaughter is the one who gave Jesus gray hair when she colored in the line drawing of an icon. In both instances of my grandchildren’s misperceptions of Jesus, I was caught off-guard, and despite best intentions, I suspect my responses were somewhat muddled. My grandchildren are unchurched, and I’m increasingly aware that my husband and I are the only ones likely to offer a positive image of what it means to be followers of Jesus.
I’m writing from the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, here on silent retreat. This morning’s homily challenged us. “Why are we still followers of Jesus? What is our testimony? What would we say to a curious, unchurched person who questioned us? After all, we are called in Acts 1:8 ‘…[to] be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
So, it dawns on me, I’m called to witness in my own home in Brunswick, Maine to my unchurched grandchildren. Not by proselytizing, but, as Madeleine L’Engle says, “…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” Most days, my light doesn’t feel so lovely, and my words aren’t always clear, but I begin to understand that this is what I am called to do.
And not just with my beloved grandchildren, I realize, but even in the Church itself, among young people who follow the news and know what violence and cruelty is being practiced by those who call themselves followers of Jesus. These children, too, need our witness.
The news, after all, tells countless stories of white nationalists who identify as Christian, thereby portraying Jesus as someone who hates the “other,” delights in cruelty, denigrates women, and ravages creation for profit. We know that’s not the Savior we actually read about in scripture, the one who calls us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the incarcerated, tend the sick, and love even our enemies. But as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry acknowledges, that negative image of Jesus has become the prevailing story: “…the perception is very real. And perceptions often become realities, unless a counternarrative emerges.” Our task is to tell the counternarrative.
While I was trying to untangle these radically different perceptions of what it means to follow Jesus, at first the old “faces and vase” optical illusion came to mind. After all, it’s an exercise in changing perception, but when I actually looked at the image itself, I saw only good: two black faces in profile, or one white chalice. It wasn’t at all like my grandson looking at Jesus carrying the lost sheep and perceiving animal abuse, or the distortion of Jesus into a radical rightwing political figure.
Perhaps all we can do is be our best selves, tell the stories Jesus told, and work at crafting our own testimony—what I guess I’d call our “elevator speech about why we follow Jesus”—so when the time comes (and it will) when we are asked to account for the faith that is in us, whether by our children, our grandchildren, or a total stranger, we can respond in a way that counters the horrifying public image of Christianity, in words and ways that shine some of that lovely light in this dark world.
Why are you still a follower of Jesus?
What is your testimony?
[Image Credit: Perception by By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]