by Ken Sehested
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow me.”
“I like my Bible tales, like Scotch, straight up. . . .”
—U.S. poet Maxine Kumin
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
“Thomas Carlyle said the best effect of any book is to excite the reader to self-activity.”
—Betty Lou, the main character in the comedy film, “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag”
I was a senior in high school when it happened. It was our first football game of the season, and we were playing New Iberia, not far from Avery Island where Tabasco hot sauce is made, 90 miles or so from home in Houma, Louisiana, southwest of New Orleans. The year 1968 is now, thirty-plus years hence, a metaphor for a whole new reality for my reading of history: assassinations, civil unrest and troops in the streets both here and abroad. Back then, though, I was a star athlete and a traveling youth evangelist. Headline news failed to factor into my world view, not so much because of my age as because of my piety.
I regained consciousness at half-time, sitting on the bench at my locker, head in hands, my thumb curled around the face-mask of my helmet. A blow to the head had knocked me silly sometime during the first half of the game, but I was still upright. As my teammates loitered about the locker room—sipping the sticky sweet beverage designed to maximize energy and rehydration, some retaping ankles or hands, complaining in small huddles about busted plays and brutal humidity—my rattled brain began to regain its composure.
“You gonna’ be O.K.?” said a voice from behind. I mumbled something-or-other, just enough to dispense with the distraction. My mind was intensely occupied, on something distant and obscure but strangely compelling. When the fog finally lifted, I found myself quoting, over and over again, very much like a mantra, the words from John 3:16—the sine qua non of evangelical Christian preaching texts—which begins: “For God so loved the world. . . .”
Although I did not know her work, novelist Flannery O’Connor’s paraphrase of another text from John’s Gospel would later become my all-time favorite and would describe my spiritual journey, my intense desire to be a disciple of Jesus, beginning with my preadolescent baptism, through the momentous and genuinely mystical experience which overtook me in my early teens, all the way through the years of theological dissonance, deconstruction and reconstruction of young adulthood. “You shall know the truth,” O’Connor wrote, “and the truth will make you odd.”
There was a time when my spiritual journey was characterized by a profound sense of schizophrenia. Who was that person, sharing my name, pictured in that hometown newspaper article headlined “FUTURE EVANGELIST”? By then I was caught up in a barely-secret cynicism, my inherited faith quickly dissipating and emerging new faith still in utero. My own personal “sacred canopy” was coming apart—foundations shaking, as Bro. Tillich would say—and instinctively I read through the book of Job, slowly and deliberately, during breaks between classes, at lunchtime and during study hall. I felt destined to be numbered among the damned; but regardless the cost I stubbornly refused to grovel before a gangster god or prostrate myself on an altar festering with pompous religious posturing.
My new-born faith would come with much labor, after an emotionally-panicked transition—something akin to the fear felt by all childbearers as the birth canal’s trauma threatens to halt the beat of one if not both monitored hearts.
Like Job, however, I was caught up in a whirlwind of sorts. Part of the joyful surprise on the other side of that rebirth was sight of the bridge which connected my present to my past journey of faith. However crudely conceived (“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with the girls that do”), at the core of my earlier faith was the credo that belief could get you in trouble (or at least make you odd). And that core remained, intact, sharper than ever.
A favorite hymn from my earlier years was an old Gospel tune, “This World Is Not My Home,” a song I had come to revile for its escapist piety. Now, suddenly, the lyrics made sense, when “the world” is understood (as used in the New Testament) not as creation but as the complex web of social, cultural, economic and political arrangements which govern the earth. Indeed, this present world is an inhospitable home to a vast array of creatures, human and nonhuman alike; and they are, in fact, the ones signified by biblical references to the “lost coin” and “lost sheep” and “the children” and “the poor,” all those to whom God’s attention—and all enlisted in the God Movement—is riveted: all those for whom “the world” has no use, is abandoning, will “write off” as an acceptable loss.
“To choose the road to discipleship is to dispose oneself for a share in the cross,” wrote the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops in their 1984 “Challenge of Peace” statement. “It is not enough to believe with one’s mind; a Christian must also be a doer of the world, a wayfarer with and a witness to Jesus.” Or as Bonhoeffer would write from prison, to his grandnephew on the occasion of the latter’s baptism: “With us thought was often the luxury of the onlooker; with you it will be entirely subordinated to action.” (The original German title of Bonhoeffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship was Nachfolge Christi, literally “Following Christ.”) Faith, as Clarence Jordan would say, is not belief in spite of the evidence, but life lived in scorn of the consequences.
The disciple is one who refuses “the luxury of the onlooker,” but chooses, instead, the role of accomplice in the consecrated conspiracy of life against the reign of death. Those so immersed (sometimes literally by both water and by blood) discover their buoyancy not by the will to power or the weight of moral urgency—but by the wonder of grace. As Matthew Fox has written, the paranoid and the pious share one thing in common: the former believe the deepest forces of the universe are allied against them; the latter, on their behalf.
So rejoice, you odd ones, even though you are reviled; for yours is the future vowed in creation and vouchsafed in the new creation.