It’s no secret that I’m not a religious person. I was raised heathen – not officially, of course, but my parents were lapsed Protestants who hadn’t much use for organized religion or, as far as I could tell, God. Still, when Christmas time rolls around I find it’s hard to ignore, as the billboards so delicately put it, the “reason for the season.” Holidays are tough. There’s stress, travel, anxiety, craziness, family. Each year, I try to come up with some sort of coping mechanism for all of it and each year I basically fail. This year, I found myself – for reasons I cannot explain and do not care to explore too deeply – wondering if there wasn’t some aspect of the religious celebration that I could incorporate into my own life. At least for, like, seven days.
And that’s how I settled on a genius new approach to a stress-free, peaceful and calm Christmas week: I would endeavor to be more like Jesus.
It sounded like a good idea when I first came up with it, although it presented a rather large problem: I don’t actually know much about Jesus. Mostly anecdotal stuff, whatever I see on TV, read on billboards. When I was a kid, there was a minister who would come to our school every once in a while and tell us stories of Jesus, but who was listening to that?
Settling the question of what it means to be like Jesus quickly and neatly is a bit like trying to scale Everest in an hour. It’s simply not going to happen. People on all sides of every issue have been asking this question for centuries and then twisting the answers to fit their agendas. (Although, it occurs to me as I write this, I was also creating an answer that would fit my agenda.)
I knew I didn’t want the Jesus of the Tea Party. Or of bigots and homophobes. (I’m pretty sure their Jesus isn’t the real one – whatever that means.) So which Jesus did I want? Thankfully, there’s the Internet. I Googled “how to be like Jesus” and figured there’d be step-by-step eHow article. One of the things that popped up was this article about a pastor in Grand Rapids who tried to live like Jesus for a year. There’s always someone out there trying to one-up you, you know?
I loved, loved, loved that there was a Yahoo! answer for my question. The winning response was: “Be very caring and love everyone just for being themselves. It really pisses off your enemies...” And it was written by a guy with a beard, which seemed incredibly Jesus-like to me. Done and done!
I realized that it was a losing proposition to try to figure out what other people thought it meant to try to be like Jesus. I was going to have to stick with what little I knew, or thought I knew. I was going to have to rely on my own limited concept of what Jesus was probably like.
There’d be none of the eating or living restrictions. No robes or sandals for me. I was trying to be very, very, very mildly Christ-like. Emphasis, in case it has been missed, on very. This is how I would try to be like Jesus for seven days: by trying to be kind, by helping others, by being patient and loving.
As simple as it all sounded – compared to how this challenge could have been defined by a more devout, less lazy and blasphemous soul than I – it was still a tall order.
The first couple of days of this week’s change involved making the road trip to my sister’s house in Indianapolis for Christmas. I found myself wondering: how would Jesus behave on a road trip? Would he ask if we were almost there yet? Would he whine about being bored? No, he’d probably sit quietly, try to be calm and patient, and distract himself with his knitting. Figuratively speaking. So that’s what I aimed for and I think I succeeded. But you’d probably want to ask my husband for sure.
The next couple of days were those leading up to Christmas Eve and I spent them just hanging out with my sister’s family and enjoying the company of my nieces and nephew. We played games, sang songs (seriously – there was Christmas karaoke on the TV), ate and made stuff. It was a pretty peaceful time and I couldn’t help thinking Jesus would be pretty proud of me – before smacking me for my hubris.
But then, just as Jesus was tried, so was I. On Christmas Eve, my mother-in-law collapsed in a very frightening – but ultimately not serious – episode. There was no calmness initially, just much heart-racing and panic on my part. We had to call an ambulance and then Chris and I spent four hours with her in the ER of a small but splendid hospital in the suburbs of Indianapolis.
Yes, I was bored at times, but I also was feeling tremendous gratitude for the paramedics, nurses and doctors who gave up Christmas Eve with their families to take care of ours. Even as I realized that as midnight delivered us into the first hours of Christmas day in a dingy hospital suite, I felt surprisingly at peace. I just had a sense that this was the right thing to do, the right place to be.
Is that what Jesus felt when he was just hangin’ out being all like himself? A sense of peace and calm? Knowing that this is where you’re supposed to be? Instead of feeling sorry for yourself at the prospect of ringing in Christmas at a hospital, just feeling calm?
And did Jesus also feel indescribably tired? And maybe a tad queasy?
We left the ER around one in the morning and the next test befell me around 2:30 AM, when I awoke with what would turn out to be perhaps the worst stomach flu I’ve ever had. No, now that I’m not being Jesus like, and back to my usual hyperbolic self, I’ll say the worst stomach flu anyone’s ever had. In all time. Ever.
By the time dawn rolled around, I hadn’t slept at all and when I finally drifted away, I awoke to the smells of Christmas morning breakfast wafting upstairs. That was not going to work. Even Jesus couldn’t hack the waves of nausea. So Chris took me to a hotel and that was where I spent Christmas day, with my head in a hotel toilet, tears streaming down my face, while everyone else celebrated the season at my sister’s house.
I am, as you likely know, a person prone to self-pity, and this should have been the end-all, be-all. But, for some strange reason, it wasn’t. Sure there were moments when I was dry-heaving and writhing in stomach pain and the thought circled somewhere around the outer recesses of my mind: what would Jesus do? Oh, if only there were a bracelet or a bumper sticker to help me with my inquiry!
But I’m guessing Jesus’ suffering probably made my bout with the stomach flu seem like a walk in the park. So, somehow, despite being so incredibly not okay, I was okay being not okay. Does that make sense?
Even the next day when the stomach cramps had subsided enough to leave plenty of room for self-pity, I instead felt grateful to recuperate on my sister’s couch and at least get in some QT with my nieces and nephew. Sure, everyone talks about Jesus performing miracles, but this was a true Christmas miracle. I had perspective and gratitude.
I carried it with me like brave little soldier even after Chris left to escort his mother home to Iowa and I had to drive myself back to Ann Arbor, still not feeling much improved. I dreaded the drive, but immersed myself in podcasts, somehow staving off boredom…and still no self pity. What the what? When I arrived home, I even found myself thinking, “Well, I made good time. Didn’t have to stop once on the way home. Guess there is a bright side to being severely dehydrated.”
And I carried it with me right into the last day of my challenge, when I finally broke. And when I break, I break big. I won’t go into too much detail, but one of my Christmas gifts from Chris was having a cleaning service come in and do the baseboards and floors and other stuff that’s just too painful for me to take care of. The owner of this service was – is there even a Jesus-like way of putting this? – a wench. She was rude and bullying and I was tired and depleted. It just undid me, sending me into a fit of rage, accompanied by embarrassing onslaught of tears that I couldn’t stem even as the day progressed.
Thus, I thought that while I’d given it a good run, I’d ultimately failed on the Jesus front. But when I said so to my friend Kathi yesterday, she said, “It’s like when Jesus freaked out at the money changers at the temple. You know that story?” I shook my head and tried to explain that I only really knew one Jesus story and it involved a big cross.
So she told me, albeit briefly, of how Jesus found merchants selling stuff at the temple and was all, “Yo, don’t dis my house of workship by turning it into a Wal-Mart.” Or something like that. Dude got crazy mad and knocked over tables, driving the bad guys out. He was super-pissed. Wicked.
This surprised me because, as I told her, I didn’t think Jesus was allowed to be upset or get angry. She gave me that look people do when you’ve been raised heathen and are kind of missing out on a lot of information. “Well, that’s the point,” she said. “Even Jesus got angry.”
Huh. As soon as she said that, I thought, Damn! I could have been pissed off this whole time? I could have been mad about being ripped off about my Christmas and I could have felt totally sorry for myself? But I knew that wasn’t really what Kathi was telling me. It’s also how I knew that the seven days were up and that I was, slowly but surely, going back to just being me.