We Moved the Jesus Picture, Part 1

While this might not sound like a big deal to anyone who hasn’t actually lived with the social organism that is called a “church,” those who have will know that moving furniture can precipitate a war. The Jesus picture hung in the old sanctuary – pre-1967. It has been in front of the congregation for more than 40 years.

I will admit, when I first saw it I didn’t much care for it. It does have the virtue of not being a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus. A local member of another church painted it. It stands 6 feet tall. Jesus is dressed in white, and he stands against a blue background. His features are vaguely Jewish. Although his hands are not quite in proportion to his head and the artist chose to hide his feet behind a conveniently placed rock in the foreground, the painting is actually a very good amateur painting. (YOU try painting feet from the front and have the toes not look like “little piggies.”)

As I said, I didn’t much care for it at first. It does look dated, and makes the whole sanctuary feel cramped. But it sort of grew on me. Most of the congregation hasn’t stood up close and actually looked at it. I have. I saw the lines where the artist’s pencil made indentations that the paint couldn’t cover. It took a lot of time and love to render the painting.

About two months before Easter, I began seriously thinking about taking it down. I’ve been here nearly two years now, and I think most of the congregation trusts my leadership. I began praying about it. Now, if you’ve never prayed about a major decision, you probably have this mental image of clasped hands, closed eyes, and sweet and sentimental murmuring. No. When I pray it is often from behind the wheel of my car, speeding through traffic, shouting and mumbling. I doubt that the drivers who stare at me at the stoplight while I rave, bits of froth spraying my windshield, would even consider that I was having conversations with divine authority.

The Sunday before Easter, I talked to a former pastor of the church. He asked me, “Is the Blue Jesus still there?” He told me a story about how he had mentioned moving it, and someone had hauled him aside and said that they liked him there, and would hate to see him have to leave. He got the point, and kept his mouth shut.

But something in his story galvanized me. It was, in fact, an answer to prayer. Later in the week I woke from meditation with a simple phrase, “they can’t know resurrection until they stop nailing Jesus to the wall.”

On April 17, I took the picture down. I made a slideshow that used a variety of images of Jesus along with newspaper clippings that went along with the lyrics of Casting Crowns’ “If We Are the Body,” which played along behind it. I wrote a sermon in which I challenged the congregation to stop looking at the body of Christ and become the body of Christ. I took a photograph of the picture and had wallet-size pictures made. My plan was to allow those who had sentimental attachments to the picture to take one of the photographs to carry with them everywhere they go. That way Jesus would go with them, instead of staying nailed to the wall of the sanctuary.

We made a huge note, with ripped edges, which said, “Not here. Am risen. See you soon. – JC.” We posted it at the right edge of the sanctuary. Again, I was trying to hammer home the idea that the promise of resurrection is that Jesus is with us even when we don’t see him.

The day of the big event, I spent the morning praying my heart out. Now, let me just add a little thing about prayer here. Although I am a believer, I am also a skeptic. People tell me all the time about their answered prayers, and internally I roll my eyes about how they miraculously found their keys and their lost dogs, or the miraculous healing of their hang nails. But another voice chastises me because in my experience I, too, have had answered prayer. To me the most powerful answers to prayer are not miraculous happenings or meaningful coincidences (although they do happen), but what happens in and among people. I prayed that the congregation would have a conversion experience. I prayed that I could let my ego go, that this event would not be about me as a change agent but about a transformation within the church.

At 9:30, people filed in through the sanctuary to go to Sunday School. Many looked toward the front, and obviously noticed the picture gone, and they read the note, but nobody made a comment about it. Each person shook my hand, smiled, said something about the weather, cast an eye over the front of the sanctuary, and went about their business. Angie and I looked at each other. It was not the response we were expecting. The lack of response was unsettling.

…to be continued.