In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) is watching TV with Gump (Tom Hanks) around the holidays. It appears they are watching a military chaplain speaking to a large group of service women and men. Lieutenant Dan asks with feigned solemnity, “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
In genuine confusion, Forrest Gump responds, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.” Lieutenant Dan laughs, and then launches into a barbed mockery of what he sees as detached, fantastical visions of God and paradise that have no apparent connection to his struggle as a double-amputee veteran.
“Have you found Jesus yet?” is still a very relevant question in 2019, but for reasons more sobering than the image of revivalist conversions the question may evoke.
We find ourselves in a day of megachurches writing theme songs based on political campaign slogans. We are witnessing the president of one of the largest Christian universities in the United States defending his un-Christlike views and actions by saying, “I’m not a minister.” We’re witnessing prosperity gospel frauds being given positions of political influence and power. Movies and curricula have been produced to convince believers that an American president is some sort of long-prophesied leader.
As Andrew L. Seidel says in a recent article, Nixon’s presidency was the last time we saw this kind of top-level desperation attempt to shore up the support of evangelical Christians. These and other examples of Christianity being used as political capital – there may be a biblical image or oracle for it, but it would be more along the lines of Daniel’s “abomination that causes desolation.”
This is what it means to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” It is a spectacle so diametrically opposed to the teachings and example of Jesus that it boggles the mind that it bears his name.
Televangelist Paula White, President Donald Trump’s longtime “spiritual adviser,” recently joined the White House staff to lead the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. This is the same Paula White who tells conservative Christians to send her a five-figure check or else their “dream will die.”
“The self-denying message of the dusty preacher from Nazareth has rarely been what brings in the crowds or the money.”
Let me tell you about a few dreams that I know of.
I know of a man who recently caught a vision for building a Christian community center for local children. This is the most pressing concern on his mind these days, even though he himself is homeless and spends many nights sleeping on the streets, sometimes being taunted and bullied by intoxicated college students. I will probably never forget the time that I sat to pray with him, and he said, “No pastor, I’m going to pray for you.”
I know of another man who came to this country in search of safety and a better life for his family. He is talented and very hard-working, although most clients of his two thankless jobs don’t know that. He dreams of one day being able to drive, and of being able to bless others with the abilities God has given him. For now, though, he gets by, sometimes working two 8-hour shifts in a day.
I know of a married couple who came to the U.S. from a Middle Eastern country. The man came on a student visa to a doctoral program. He dreams of working for a U.S. technology company. When his wife went back to their country of origin to visit family, what was supposed to be a two-week visit turned into getting stuck there in a months-long waiting game due to one of President Trump’s travel bans. I will never forget the man’s graciousness in the midst of it. He never lashed out or spoke a negative word about our country, even though plenty of people have been negative and suspicious towards him for no reason. When this family made a cross-country move to the west coast for a job opportunity, they faced several travel difficulties and then were affected by wildfires not long after arriving.
Have you found Jesus yet?
I ask because there seems to be some confusion today about where to find him. I ask because it was this Savior from Nazareth whose mother celebrated the announcement of his birth by proclaiming: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). It was this Savior who directly identified himself with the poor and outcast (Matthew 25:40). It was this Savior who said that when we host a banquet, we are to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This is a friendly reminder that it is not by some fancy theological footwork that we place Jesus’ most powerful presence among the poor, forgotten and outcast of today. It comes merely by reading the stories of his life. When Jesus was on earth, he did do this, and was most vehemently criticized for it by the super-religious who wore their faith on their sleeve.
This is a friendly reminder that not everyone who says Jesus’ name is of his spirit; that the Jesus of the gospels poses a direct challenge to these promises of health and wealth and the bling of preachers arriving in private jets. The self-denying message of the dusty preacher from Nazareth has rarely been what brings in the crowds or the money.
“It is not by some fancy theological footwork that we place Jesus’ most powerful presence among the poor, forgotten and outcast of today.”
I know of a community of people who spend every Christmas Eve eating, talking and playing cards with folks who have nowhere else to go that night. They sing their hymns and light their candles, but then they go down to a basement room to roll out the feast and the sleeping bags. They put on the coffee and pull out the presents.
It’s stinky. It’s loud. They’re not all snug in their beds with visions of sugarplums, but if Jesus were to walk in, I think he’d be right at home.
Have you found Jesus yet?