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Michael G. Maudlin

Have You Seen Jesus Lately?

If Jesus is who he says he is, then Jesus should be where he says he will be …

Harold Fickett's The Living Jesus is based on a premise as uncomplicated as a two-by-four: If Jesus is who he says he is, then Jesus should be where he says he will be—that is, in his church. "Jesus' prophecy of continuing to abide among his followers meant far more than the usual elegiac memorializing," Fickett writes. "He gave us reason to believe that his very personhood—who he is—would invest itself in those who chose to follow Jesus' way." Fickett goes so far as to warn that if the church does not display Jesus' "holiness, or perfect love," then the world has reason to doubt the resurrection.

A novelist, ghostwriter, editor, and journalist, Fickett has spent a lifetime in the bowels of the church's subculture and knows its unseemly side all too well. What he is after in The Living Christ is what emerges out of all the muck, what rises above the personality cults, the glitz, the wunderprograms, the spectacular failures, and the everyday sins. He wants to see Jesus.

Where to look? Shouldn't Jesus be known to us today in the same ways he was known when he walked the earth? Yes, Fickett says:

I began doing spadework, thinking through what I knew of the various aspects of Jesus' personality as we see him in the gospels. I became convinced that the most illuminating way of looking at Jesus centered in the roles he played in the lives of those who met him, whether followers or opponents.

The result of that "spadework" is an interesting though idiosyncratic menu: Jesus as wayfarer, healer, man of prayer, liberator, prophet, and martyr.

The first category is the most forced: while Jesus was certainly a wayfarer in that he traveled far by foot, there is nothing revelatory about this attribute. A hobo is not Christlike simply by being a hobo. But this is Fickett's excuse to talk about Chaplain Ted Keller at Transport for Christ, a 24/7 truckers' ministry in Columbia, South Carolina. Keller and his volunteers counsel, problem-solve, befriend, encourage, and evangelize the lonely truckers who come their way. Exhibit a is 25-year truck-driving veteran Troy. Grandfather Troy has lost most of his family ties. One night, after drinking too much, visiting his favorite pornographic website, and almost picking up a homeless teen-turned prostitute, he begins to realize just how lost he is. He stumbles into Whispering Hope Chapel and finds Chaplain Ted.

Then we witness a true miracle: Troy hears and receives the gospel and discovers that at this late date he can truly change. Troy's first act is to reach out to the lost teen he had met earlier.

The "healer" is Father Peter Rookey, an eightysomething priest in the Servite order who travels the world putting on Pentecostal-styled healing services. Father Rookey became a priest after having his eyesight miraculously restored after 18 months of blindness. He first began to suspect he might have a vocation in healing after he administered last rites to his 16-year-old cancer-stricken nephew—who, to the surprise of his uncle, was healed. Based in Chicago, Father Rookey is in Mexico when Fickett catches up with him. Fickett sees thousands line up, many carrying cripples and acutely ill family members to the services. After the Mass, Father Rookey spends almost six hours anointing and praying for individuals. Some are "slain in the Spirit" Benny Hinn-style, some get up out of their wheelchairs, but most are not healed. Where Jesus is in all of this is hard to grasp. Fickett concludes, "I have a much greater appreciation for how people in the gospels could witness the miracles of Jesus and not know what to make of these wonders and the person who performed them."

Our model for Jesus-like prayer is Barbara Matthias, who, during the day, cleans the toilets of a McDonald's in Santa Maria, California, and in the evenings has ecstatic visions of and conversations with Mary—along with Joseph and Jesus. Matthias, a tiny woman (her physical development stunted by Turner's syndrome), received communications from heaven early in her life. The day before her father was to die of a heart attack, God spoke to her to prepare her for what was going to happen. She wanted to be a nun from age 10. But her timing was off. In the Sixties she was discouraged from joining a convent. A long, twisting path led her to a California roadside where another woman had seen Mother Mary. Matthias did, too, and on a daily basis. Now people come to her to hear what the holy family has to say and experience their comfort. Fickett admits that "visionaries, strictly speaking, add nothing to our understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, their messages, when authentic, tend to be boring: a long series of religious admonitions that we have already heard a million times." But he feels "Barabara's experiences bring the transcendent so close, give us such reason to hope for an eternal destiny."

The "liberator" is Lauran Bethell, an American Baptist missionary who rescues Thai country girls from the slavery of the sex trade and either returns them to their families (if they are still wanted and if it was not the family who sold them into prostitution) or houses and cares for them. Through Bethell we hear the story of Malee, an Akha tribal girl who lost her mother while still young. Her father, an opium addict, sells his daughter and two sons to a local opium dealer who treats them as house servants. As a young teen, Malee hears about opportunities to make money so that she can support her younger brothers. A former fellow villager "helps" her come to the city, where he sells her to a local pimp who rapes her and chains her to a bed. After being "conditioned," she becomes a prostitute. A year later, straddled by yet another customer, she realizes that he is mumbling in the Akha language. She begs him to tell the village leaders of her plight. Bethell is contacted and Malee, since she is underage, is freed by the authorities. After Bethell's care and support of Malee, we last see her as a happy, married Christian mother living in a village. Who can argue that this is not an example of profound liberation?

After the eclecticism of his earlier choices, Fickett's pick for "prophet" is surprisingly predictable: John Paul II. Since Fickett is an adult convert to Catholicism, we can forgive him the exuberance of this nomination. And given the pope's record fighting communism and shaping the church, he is certainly one of Catholicism's most prophetic popes. Here Fickett focuses on the pope's emphasis on repentance for the church's Jubilee 2000 celebration and describes what influenced Karol Wojtyla to make this stand. We hear of his clandestine seminary days fighting Nazis and of his role at Vatican II in shaping the church's understanding of religious liberty. If the bureaucratic head of a billion-plus-member religious body can be a prophet, then there is hope for us all.

The last modern icons of Christ we encounter are Iranian pastors who are martyred for their faith. Near the site where Daniel was thrown in the lion's den, we meet Mehdi Dibaj, an Assemblies of God minister who spent nearly ten years in prison for his faith. A convert from Islam in 1955, Dibaj is given every opportunity by the authorities to regain his freedom. First, he is asked to sign a paper admitting he was wrong and that he wants to return to Islam. When this fails, he is beaten and tortured and put through mock executions. His wife succumbs to pressure, converts to Islam, and is married off to another man, though Dibaj's children refuse to renounce their faith. Next Dibaj is offered freedom in exchange for admitting that he is mentally unstable. It is only after fellow pastor Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, chairman of Iran's Protestant Council, courageously sends out an open letter to Western media publicizing Dibaj's plight, that he is freed. Not long after, Haik disappears and his murdered body is found. Still, Dibaj refuses to flee and continues his pastoral ministry; soon he meets the same fate. What is the result? "In 1977 there were only twenty-seven hundred evangelicals in Iran out of a population of 45 million. Of these only three hundred were former Muslims. Today, there are close to fifty-five thousand believers, of whom twenty-seven thousand are from Muslim backgrounds."

Certainly Jesus can be found in these well-told stories, though his image is not always clear. The most compelling testimony is found in the lives he has touched. Who but Jesus could turn an aging and selfish truck driver into a pious disciple or a twice enslaved girl into a happy wife and mother? Who but Jesus could bring about the astonishing growth of the church in Iran?

One unintentional lesson of these stories is how difficult it is to fulfill a true religious calling in this day and age. Chaplain Ted started out as a songleader and revivalist, but careerism and personal ambition drained the meaning from his profession and he eventually left it. Only after a dramatic near-death experience does he rediscover his vocation to preach the gospel. After the young Father Rookey finds success as a healer in Northern Ireland, the church clamps down and transfers him to Rome to become a bureaucrat for the next 33 years. Barbara Matthias knew from a young age that she had a religious vocation for a life of prayer, but no one wanted her and she stumbled through three marriages before finding her niche. Lauran Bethell endured many years of aimless work in Asia and suicidal depression before she discovered her calling. Only those leaders formed in an explicit context of persecution—Pope John Paul II and the Iranian martyrs—seem to have direct vocational paths.

While these dramatic stories make for wonderful reading, they are not in themselves compelling arguments for the faith. As Fickett would surely agree, the book depends on the same ingredient the church needs to succeed: God's Spirit. If the Spirit is moving in you, teaching you, enlightening you, revealing himself to you, then The Living Christ may be an instrument by which he does his work. Then again, he may use your local church.

Fickett closes the book with the story of Saint George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, Kansas, as it prepares to celebrate Easter in 2001 amid coming storm. Various vignettes profile different members and how their lives have been shaped by the church. His point seems to be that we do not need to go very far to see Jesus at work in his church. If the living Christ is active among the Lebanese of Kansas, then Jesus is close at hand wherever you are. Amen.

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