001

Table of Contents
 
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Author Note
Introduction
 
come and see
feeding
healing
forgiving
raising the dead
follow me
 
Acknowledgements
the author

001

for Paul
my Boyfriend’s boyfriend

Author Note
This book is a work of nonfiction. To protect privacy, some names have been changed, as well as a few identifying details.
 
I used letters, e-mails, and my own notes as well as memory to reconstruct events and conversations, compressing stories and chronology in some places; I regret the inevitable errors.
 
To review my reporting, I checked facts and quotes with participants. Still, what happened over the course of writing this book was frequently wilder than I was able to record.

introduction
You’re such a freakin’ Jesus freak, Sara,” Paul said. “I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.”
The two of us had been cooking for hours, preparing lunch for the volunteers at our church’s food pantry. Paul Fromberg was my friend and the rector at St. Gregory’s, where I was a part-time lay staff member; together we served in the beautiful, Byzantine-inflected liturgy on Sundays. But every Friday we turned the sanctuary around the altar into a free farmers’ market, opening it to anyone who walked in the door, giving away literally tons of free groceries to as many as eight hundred hungry families.
The food pantry was led by a gruff ex-con with missing teeth, who organized a hardworking crew of nearly fifty volunteers, mostly misfits and oddballs who’d come to get food. The volunteers were generally poor, and often didn’t get enough to eat during the week, so we liked to make this lunch into a big family meal, with a couple of courses and a home-baked dessert.
In the grimy, maddeningly small kitchen, Paul and I had been bickering and banging into each other, cursing the dull knives and the broken Cuisinart. Two of our hotel pans had gone missing, so I’d made the green chile enchiladas in an assortment of cake pans. We ran out of oil. Then the oven rack, which someone had jammed in backwards, fell out as Paul was removing a tray of saffron rice, which spilled everywhere, nearly scalding him.
All morning long our volunteers had been wandering in to talk, even as, with mounting irritation, I kept shooing them out. A couple of junkies were skulking around, trying, purely out of habit, to get over on us. A thin schizophrenic girl kept hovering, asking me for candles and matches and glasses of water. The sweet middle school Latino kid who’d been suspended for cutting class wanted to hang out and brag to Paul about his girlfriends, and his mother kept dragging him away. “Carlos, just do one thing useful today, OK?” she’d snap. Out on the floor, a pallet of potatoes had spilled in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary, and our whole argumentative cadre of head-injured men was quarreling with a group of developmentally disabled adults over the right way to set up the snack table. “When is lunch going to be ready?” asked the tenth anxious helper, sticking a head into the kitchen. “What’s for lunch? Are we eating soon?”
But I’d interrupted Paul just as he was plating the enchiladas. A young man in a black windbreaker had come by, worried about his upcoming visit to his sister and asking for a blessing. “You just always want to put your hands on everybody,” Paul grumbled to me, but he set down his dish towel and leaned close, praying as I rested my hands on the man’s bent head. “Gracious God,” Paul finished, “fill us with the power of Jesus, amen.”
“Amen,” I said brightly. “Now let’s serve. Is there another pan of rice? Oh, I forgot to tell you, we’re getting that bunch of kids from Downtown High School for lunch today, too, but I’m sure we’ll have enough for everyone, or you can make more beans.”
“Jesus freak,” said Paul, under his breath.
002
What does it mean to be a Jesus freak? Or, more to the point, what would it mean to live as if you—and everyone around you—were Jesus, and filled with his power? To just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?
It’s actually pretty straightforward, Jesus says. Heal the sick. Cast out demons. Cleanse the lepers. You give the people something to eat. You have the authority to forgive sins. Raise the dead.
Throughout the Gospels, as he roams through Pales-tine, these are the commissions Jesus repeatedly hands to the ordinary people around him. Each is a specific call to action, a task for his followers to carry out on the spot—and to repeat when he’s gone. They don’t always understand, but he insists. You can do this stuff, he tells them. Walk this way. Come and see, don’t be afraid.
After he’s murdered, the story goes that Jesus rises from the tomb and knocks around for a while on earth, surprising his friends. He shows up on the beach grilling fish for breakfast, appears in the guise of a stranger on the road, reveals himself at suppertime in the breaking of bread, even offers his wounds for a doubter to stick his hands in.
Then one night, Jesus walks through a wall and simply appears in a locked room where his terrified disciples have been hiding from the religious authorities. Their Messiah is dead, their movement crushed, their hopes shattered, and they’re completely unprepared for the man to stand among them again.
“Peace be upon you,” Jesus says, and shows them his still-bloody hands and side. And then, for the final time, he tells his followers what he’s been telling them all along: that they, too, are children of God, and that they are to continue doing Jesus’ work, “even greater deeds than mine.”
And so he stands quietly among his cowardly friends and just breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” He breathes on them again. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
That commission evokes the moment of creation, when the Spirit of God breathed over the waters. But this is a new creation: Jesus is breathing more life into humanity. He is handing over the greatest power of all: to forgive sins, to make peace, as he’s forgiven the friends and strangers who’ve betrayed and killed him. From this power, and from the practical acts of mercy he’s given every human being the authority to undertake now—feeding, healing, casting out demons, cleansing the ritually unclean—resurrection itself springs.
Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.
003
I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread. The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of “beliefs,” but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.
Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. That desire took me to an altar, at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where I helped break the bread for Holy Communion, then to a food pantry that I set up around the same altar, where we gave away free groceries to anyone who showed up. From all over the city, poor people started to come every Friday to the church—100, 200, 450, 800—and like me, some of them stayed. Soon they began to feed and take care of each other, then run things, then start other pantries. It was my first experience of discovering that regular people could do Jesus’ work.
In the thrilling and difficult years after my first communion, I kept learning that my new Christian identity required me to act. Simply going to church offered no ethereal juju that would automatically turn me into a less smug and self-righteous person. Time and again, I was going to have to forgive people I was mad at, say I was sorry, be honest when I felt petty, and sit down to eat, as Jesus did, with my betrayers and enemies: the mad, the boring, and the merely unlikeable.
As I got pushed deeper into all these relationships, I started to suspect that the body of Christ was not a metaphor at all. “Because there’s one bread,” as St. Paul, another poleaxed convert, wrote in astonishment, “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
I found that hard to swallow. Couldn’t I choose whom I wanted to be yoked together with for eternity? And it was nerve-wracking. Sooner or later, I was going to have to consider the possibility that feeding wasn’t the only command Jesus intended his one body to take seriously. All of us were also expected to heal, forgive, and raise the dead—not in some lofty symbolic way, but right here.
And yet—on what many of my new church acquaintances insisted on calling, rather smarmily, my “faith journey”—I began to taste something, see something, touch something which suggested that Jesus’ vision of what we could do was true.
“I know this sounds nuts,” I said to an old friend, who’d been shocked at my conversion to a faith I’d mocked, and baffled by my sudden urge to give away pallets of lettuce and cereal. “But, uh, when we’re all together at the Eucharist and at the food pantry, it’s the same thing. Because Jesus is real.”
004
I went to church a lot. I’d moved through panic at the mere idea of sitting in a room full of Christians to a passionate engagement with worship. I encountered the transcendent power of ancient technologies: fire and water and beeswax candles burning all night. I heard the beauty of the unadorned sounds that suffering men and women can call forth when they sing in harmony. Ignorant of Scripture, I began to let King David’s laments, Ezekiel’s rants, and Mark’s wire-service reports of miracles wash over me. I knelt. I smeared ashes on my forehead. I ate the bread of heaven. And as I sunk deeper and deeper into the practice, I began to sense how, even in church, we could follow Jesus: moving from piety to passion, from habit to risk, from law to love.
I had companions, notably Paul Fromberg, a gay priest from Texas, who’d emerged from Fuller Seminary, failed heterosexual conversion therapies, and a closeted job at an Episcopal cathedral with his faith miraculously intact. He praised God aloud without irony, and kept a postcard of Jesus on his desk, next to the pictures of his husband and family. A big man with a big heart and a big brain, Paul steered me, more or less patiently, through Scripture, answering questions as we chopped and cooked. “Did you ever think you’d wind up here?” he’d tease, as I got him to translate a Greek word, or explain the history of the Reformation. “I mean, when you ate that first piece of bread, did you have any clue what you were getting into?”
I didn’t exactly study the Bible—that great mongrelized library of stories, books, letters, songs, unfinished manuscripts, polemics, lists, and lost treasures. Rather, I swam in it. I couldn’t read Scripture in order to single out one lesson with a beginning, a middle, and an end, or use it to fix a stable doctrine. But in the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymns of many traditions, I discovered something of the spaciousness of God’s meaning, and the wildness of God’s sense of time.
And I found that Jesus does not, anywhere in the Gospels, spend too much time calling his people to have feelings, or ideas, or opinions. He calls us to act: hear these words of mine, and act on them. I started to help lead liturgies, then write liturgies, because I wanted to take the language I found in Christian worship and use it as a blueprint for action in the world. Together, Paul and I wrote versions of the prayer sung at the altar during communion: “Sustainer of the covenant,” one said, “you choose what is despised to make us whole.” Both of us really knew that, in our own flesh. Paul and I, in different ways, had each brought our stigmatized bodies and hungry hearts to church, and discovered that Jesus was waiting there, completely unbothered. As our grateful prayer said, “In the midst of our shame, you cover us with a garment of love.”
St. Gregory’s had given me room not only to receive but to give. And it allowed me to act as if the stuff we did on Sundays meant something, and was a guide to our whole lives, in church and outside.
Worship and service were parts of a whole; the Friday food pantry and the Sunday Eucharist were just different expressions of the same thing. Well-meaning Christian visitors liked to describe the pantry as a “feeding ministry,” but that just seemed like a nervous euphemism to me. What I saw was church: hundreds of people gathering each week around an altar to share food and to thank God.
And then, on Sundays, in the very same space, communion. “In the fullness of time bring us,” the congregation would sing, “with every tribe and language and people and nation, to the feast prepared from the foundation of the world.” The priest, and whoever else was serving that day—a woman with cancer; a fussy older guy; a serene, angelic seven-year-old boy in shorts—would lift the plates of fresh bread and cups of wine and turn, showing the food to the people standing pressed close around the big round table in the middle of the sanctuary. You never knew who’d be holding the bread. Paul liked to say that “the surest sign of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is when there’s somebody completely inappropriate at the altar.”
Frequently that was me. “Jesus welcomes everyone to his Table,” I’d announce, “so we offer the bread and wine which are Christ’s body and blood to everyone, without exception.” There was no altar rail or line, so we’d head out into the crowd, carrying communion to clergy and teenagers, old ladies, Jews and baptized Christians, random visitors. “The body of Christ,” I’d say, looking each person in the eyes and handing each person Jesus. And time would stop, over and over and over.
This thing is real.
005
On Fridays at the food pantry, I’d get the same overwhelming sense of truth, of being part of something bigger than my own likes or dislikes or imagination. I watched the concrete, earthy body of Christ take form in pushy Chinese grandmothers, thieving heroin addicts, and weepy transsexuals who came to get food, then wound up feeding others. I watched myself, and the people around me, start to change.
“Coming here made the biggest difference in my life,” admitted Blanca, one of the volunteers, when she told me how she wound up serving at the pantry. “I was newly sober. The world was raw to me, and I was raw to people.” Her long soft hair was falling out of a bun, and she poked it back in place, looking at me intently. “In six years’ working here I’ve learned to be a little more of a team player and less the big-mouth,” Blanca said, quietly. “Now I yell but then say I’m sorry. We’re learning to how be with each other.”
Sharing food in this way was about making whole new lives possible. At the food pantry, we drank out of the same cups and put our sick, scarred hands on each other. We ate without washing correctly. And sometimes, when we thought were just going to have lunch, we tasted heaven.
None of it was easy. As one friend said, ruefully, when I complained about a filthy, hostile visitor to the pantry, whom I kept wanting to bounce: “Sara, if you want to see God, sometimes you have to sit in the smoking section.” Or, as I wrote to a colleague, complaining about St. Gregory’s parishioners: “The thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people.”
In church on Sundays, and at the food pantry on Fridays, I found myself overwhelmed by the implications of the incarnation—the inescapable physicality and humanity of a God who should have known better than to dwell in this muck with us. I craved the deepening meaning Jesus brought to my life. But to get there I had to get over myself.
I realized how my continuing conversion depended on being thrown together in intimate ways with all kinds of strangers I hadn’t chosen. Being the body of Christ didn’t allow a lot of room for sentimentality or waffling, and didn’t depend on my ability or failure to like any particular individual. It just demanded a new heart from me, a new way of seeing other people.
They hugged me at the Peace on Sundays, when I wished to be left alone; they sang hymns irritatingly off-key until I turned around to glare, and then smiled at me. Or they showed up at the pantry after disappearing on two-month benders, cheerfully offering to share their stale sandwiches and beer; they gave me ripped-out pages from their secret journals, and flowers they’d stolen from the city park. One Friday a guy pulled down his shirt to show me his broken collarbone, where another angry meth-head had slammed him with a two-by-four. One Sunday while I was trying to get my sermon ready, a suburban mom held on to my hand for half an hour before she told me her daughter had tried to kill herself. Kids climbed on me, old ladies patted me, my priest delicately wiped a smear of chocolate pudding from my hair.
If Jesus is about anything, it’s the inconvenient truth that a spiritual life is a physical life. The people I met were Jesus’ body: suffering, feeding each other, healing the sick, forgiving one another, rising out of death. Their freaky hands and legs and backs were doing his work, carrying his power through the world.
006
It might be comforting, to those Christians who doubt the current indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our damaged, compromised selves, to tell ourselves that our failures are because Jesus is now far, far away.
It might be reassuring, to those tired of dealing with our violent, scary, or just unpleasant neighbors, to think that we can worship God by turning our backs on them. That we can’t do much anymore about our lives, or the lives of other people, except gaze at the sky and pray to a disembodied spirit. That Jesus was alive once, and we remember him fondly, but now we’re left with nothing more powerful than plastic crosses, Christian rock bands, and church committees. With Jesus safely tucked away in heaven, we’re off the hook.
But he’s still breathing in us.
I was standing at the bus stop across from the church one Friday, as the food pantry was winding down, talking with Miss Lola Brown. A tiny, elderly black lady with sensible shoes and bent, arthritic hands, she was shaking her head in despair because she didn’t know how to get her groceries across town to her apartment. “I can’t even lift this,” she said, pointing to the teetering shopping cart, filled to overflowing with potatoes, cans of beans, and some exuberant heads of lettuce.
I was exasperated. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money to give her for a cab. I had to be somewhere else in a little while. I looked at the man standing next to us, a big, quite psychotic white guy, a ranter, who’d also just been at the pantry. “OK, we’ll help you,” I said, not very nicely. I had no idea how. And then the bus pulled up, and the man shuffled forward, muttering, and the two of us lugged her cart on board.
Miss Brown smiled and raised her hand to heaven. “I know,” she testified. “I know the Lord will always send me help.”
I told that to my wife, Martha, when I got home, and she rolled her eyes. “Couldn’t the Lord send her a taxi at least, if he’s got all that power to help?” she asked. “Instead of a crazy guy and some feeble middle-aged lady, and she’s still got to take the 22 Fillmore for an hour?”
“Nah,” I said. “Jesus has a sense of humor. He just sends us.”
Like most people, I have an ambivalent relationship to power. I want it and I’m scared of it. I think I couldn’t possibly use it well, and I know others can’t. Why should humans receive the power of the Spirit? Isn’t that what God’s for?
But Jesus is right here with me and the crazy guy—the lowly and unprepared, as the prophets foretold. Among the weak, faithless, and doubting, as his disciples proved, then and now. He doesn’t look for the most “religious,” the most doctrinally correct, or, for that matter, the smartest of his beloved people to build his kingdom, but hands over authority to anyone willing to suspend self-doubt and simply trust Jesus’ faith in us.
There is no other authority on earth we have to wait for, no permission we need in order to act on his words. All it takes to be a Jesus freak is to follow him.

come and see
Somebody told me a story. And it turned out to be true.
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, we understand God through stories. How the stars were set in the firmament. The time the big brother cheated the little brother. What happened to the women who went to the tomb and found it empty. The Bible is stuffed with tales that jumble together the stuff of spirit—burning bushes, angry angels, mysterious clouds, and voices from heaven—with the most prosaic and earthbound details: bread, water, a coat; bricks, weeds, an argument among siblings, labor pains. We can barely wrap our minds around it all, but we keep listening. By the time Jesus appears, he’s holding everything indivisible: body and soul, heaven and earth.
I tasted Jesus before I read about him, and turned back to Scripture for clues about what I’d already experienced in my own body. Listening to and reading the Gospel accounts felt, for me, like the opposite of that old game of Telephone, where a phrase is passed down a line, losing its sense as each person attempts to repeat the words exactly. Instead, the tales about Jesus only gain significance in repetition, gain depth and breadth as they resound through different readers, are stuttered or proclaimed in a million different voices, down the years. Interpretations multiply, but in place of chaos there’s a glimpse of something that looks like truth: vast as galaxies flung across a night sky, specific as a puddle by the side of a road in Galilee or a rutted sidewalk in East Oakland.
Here’s what I hear: Jesus is the Word made flesh. While he lived among us, what he said and what he did were the same thing. His human body was God’s language, as much as his human speech.
Sometimes, in the Gospels, this language is easy to read, as when Jesus lifts a hand to rebuke the waves; pronounces, “Be quiet”; and the tempest is stilled. Sometimes it’s frustratingly mysterious, as when he scribbles in the dirt with a stick or invites his friends to eat his flesh. Jesus’ dense parables are invitations into more and more meaning, as are the daily actions he undertakes: walking, washing, lifting, touching, sleeping, eating a piece of grilled fish with his bare hands.
But it’s all teaching, and it’s all driving toward a point—though it’s frequently confusing. “What do you see?” Jesus asks, as he rubs spit in someone’s eyes. Or, teaching a clueless crowd: “What do you think that landowner would do?” Then, in a seemingly unconnected gesture, he takes off his clothes, kneels down, and washes some man’s feet.
But I don’t think the words and the actions recorded in the Gospels are random. Jesus is showing his disciples some crucial things about the nature of God, so that they could participate fully in God’s work after he was gone. So that their feeding, healing, and forgiving would take place on God’s terms, and add up to resurrection.
In stories that still have the power to scare us, Jesus tells his disciples to live by the upside-down values of God’s kingdom, rather than the fear-driven values of human society. He shows how family, tribe, money, violence, and religion—the powers of the world—cannot stand against the love of God. And he tells us that we, too, are called to follow him in breaking down all worldly divisions that get in the way of carrying out his instructions. Sure, it’s impossible to feed five thousand people, make a deaf man hear, bring a dead girl to life, as long as you obey human rules. So do it God’s way instead, Jesus teaches. Say yes. Jump right in. Come and see. Embrace the wrong people. Don’t idolize religion. Have mercy. Jesus’ tips cast a light forward, steering us through the dark.
007
Say yes. This message is first delivered not by Jesus but by his mother, following her astonishing encounter with the angel Gabriel. “OK, God,” Mary says to the impossible proposition, and Jesus comes to live in her.
As an unmarried girl in the ancient agricultural world, Mary represents the most unlikely spokesperson for a powerful deity. Yet this unimportant person fearlessly carries God’s good news that the proud will be scattered in their conceit, the hungry will be filled with good things, the rich sent away empty, and the lowly lifted up.
It is, of course, profoundly unsettling news: Mary doesn’t need a man to have a baby. She isn’t going to follow worldly norms. In fact, she prophesizes the overturning of the whole social order. She doesn’t ask permission of kings or family or priests to step off the precipice into unprecedented experience.
But her choice is also revolutionary because she submits. Mary sings out her yes without knowing what will happen. Trusting God, Mary opens herself to humiliation, physical pain, dislocation, terror, loss. And yet, just as Jesus will, she calls herself blessed.
Her courage remains a signpost for all humankind—for all the unimportant, frightened, powerless people who doubt that God can work through us. As the fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.”
Reports keep showing up over the centuries of Mary speaking to people in their own languages, appearing to cripples and prisoners, to refugees and shame-filled pregnant girls, sharing the message that the angel brought her: Don’t be afraid. She whispers that it doesn’t matter how unqualified we think we are; God can make new life in us, too.
Because at the annunciation, Mary didn’t get safety. She got a child she couldn’t give a place to lay his head, a child she couldn’t save from violence. Mary said yes; she got Jesus.
008
Jump right in. I like to think Jesus learned something about saying yes