I was fortunate enough to receive an early copy, and just finished reading it. I highly recommend it.
It is an "easy" read, in that you can read the whole thing in a few hours. But, other than that, I wouldn't use the term "easy" to describe any of the content. At times it will make you laugh, cry, cheer and cringe. More than once I found myself looking up from the pages to ponder a point Sara introduced. If you're up for an emotional roller coaster ride, some frank talk about "church," and a few deep reflections on scripture, this is a book for you.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Sara a few times. The passion in her writing is even more intense when you meet her in person. Sara and I disagree on a few minor points, and have had at least one strident debate. Even though I am still fully convinced that I am right (heh heh), such exchanges increased my admiration for Sara. Her tenacity was cause for me to rethink some of my positions, and thus stretched my understanding of those topics. It's hard to label such strident, tenacious passion, as it's not limited to social justice, or liturgical renewal, or theological matters. Sara is one of those persons who simply does not fit easily into any box. Except maybe one. She is seriously into this Jesus stuff. Yes, indeed, Sara is a bonafide "Jesus Freak."
Here's how she describes that label:
...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 straightforward, Jesus says. Heal the sick. Cast out demons. Cleanse the lepers. You give them something to eat. You have the authority to forgive sins. Raise the dead... Jesus Freak, p. ix.
To live as if you were Jesus...that is one of the major themes of this book. To be Jesus.
Now, at first glance, that may seem to be a rather radical idea. It really isn't. It may be a bit foreign to our Western sensiblities. Yet, we find this same theme in much of the thinking of the Eastern Orthodox Church, among others. It should be a normative idea in our tradition as well. After all, if Jesus Christ is the sacrament (the outward and visible sign) of God, and the Church is the sacrament (the outward and visible sign) of Jesus Christ, then it simply follows that we, the Church, are called to re-present Jesus to the world. If we take the Aristoltelian stance that the empirical representation of the ideal contains within it an essence of that ideal (instead of the Platonic notion that the Principle, such as Beauty, dwells elsewhere), then it is perfectly appropriate to speak of our vocation as "being Jesus." (Apologies to Plato and Aristotle for over-simplifying their ideas.)
The theme of "being Jesus" is expanded as the book unfolds. It dances through stories drawn from the community of St. Gregory's of Nyssa in San Francisco. Sara is the founder and director of their Food Pantry. Many of the personalities are found within the Food Pantry community. Some of those we meet I recognized quite well; the ex-con, the addict, the mentally ill. Perhaps the quick recognition was because I have been defined with those very terms at various moments of my life. Or perhaps the recognition was drawn from the many years in which I've been involved in food distrubution programs. Or perhaps the recognition was so easy because of the effectiveness of Sara's descriptions. Maybe a little bit of each?
In hindsight, I think it was primarily Sara's descriptions that brought each character to life. There's little doubt that most people, regardless of their life experience, will be able to envision the dramas Sara paints with words. Here is an example of Sara's descriptive prose:
...Then, after a year or so Zoe came to me and said she was ready to let go of the idea of multiple personalities who had accompanied her through the years of crucifixion. She explained that she'd dissociated to protect herself, naming "Scott" as the part of her who served as "keeper of the pain," "Dave" who handled the wounds, "Margie the religious freak," and on and on. She showed me what she'd painted: a small, trippy multicolored icon, with a stylized image of each personality. In the middle was the figure of her new self, Zoe, walking forward into the light, holding the hand of someone who looked like a cross between her therapist and Jesus.
"I want you to keep this in a safe place," Zoe said, awkwardly. "it's my birthday today; I'm going to start just as me."
I stood with her by the outdoor baptismal font, holding the icon, as she touched each figure and told me, in excruciating detail, the stories behind them. Zoe and I blessed the icon, and, as she would put it later, "gave my personalities over to the care of God." It was a windy afternoon, and there were birds darting around the water.
I put my wrists on the sides of her head and reached over with my thumb, making the sign of the cross, trying not to cry. I breathed on her, speaking aloud her single name.
"Zoe, you have the power to forgive sins," I said. "Go in peace"... Jesus Freak, pp. 115, 116.
Or this one, about Tree; "...a shy skinny ponytailed old hippie with a scratchy voice..." The setting is a visit that Sara and her daughter Katie made to the community garden started by Tree, at which extra produce was given away at the free farm stand:
...Katie was amazed. "it's kind of like heaven, she said, watching everyone swapping food. We started to leave, and Tree ran after us, shouting hoarsely, "Don't go! Wait!"
I turned around. "I have pie!" he said.
And he pulled out a gigantic blackberry pie he'd baked, with berries someone had picked from the side of the road up on a nearby hill. And we stood there at the side of the lake, with the crowd, and Jesus, and the homemade blackberry pie on a turned over five gallon plastic bucket, and Tree cutting up big pieces with a beat up old knife and handing them to all of us under the mature canopy, saying, "Taste it; isn't that delicious? I made it for everyone. There's plenty."
God gives us everything we have, and whenever we are willing to receive that blessing and pass it on, we live in the kingdom of abundance. He gave the food to the disciples, who gave it to the crowds. And they all ate as much as they wanted... Jesus Freak, pp. 59, 60.
We meet many other people; Michael, Laura, Paul and Martha, to name just a few. Interspersed with these stories are quite a few powerful relections on various verses from scripture. The stories and reflections carefully weave an expansion of the "being Jesus" idea. Not only are we called to be Jesus for others, we also must be open to recognizing that every encounter with another person is also an encounter with the risen Christ.
It is not enough to be Jesus for others. That assumes we have something to offer "them." That perspective attempts to identify who is "inside" and who is "outside." Such a faulty perspective separates what goes on in church on Sunday from what happens in the Food Pantry on Friday. In so separating ourselves, we are less. Not only do we erect artificial barriers; walls that do not belong in God's kingdom, but we miss out on the blessings others have to offer us. Here's an example of how Sara describes these artificial divisions:
...Religion is a set of ideas about God, purified and abstracted from ongoing relationships with God. And from religion springs sin: the attempt to separate ourselves from others, the failure to see everyone as an inseperable part of God's body. The feverish wish to practice correct religion with the right kind of people. The inability to comprehend that other human beings, not like me, are human beings. And that they hold, precisely because they are not like me, the key to my salvation... Jesus Freak, p. 16.
Hopefully, those who read this book will see it as a call to action, because that is exactly what it is. Some of us have spent more than enough time in debates about "what is fit and what is not." It's time to jump in, and be about the work of transforming this world in the name of Christ. Here is one way Sara articulates this call to action:
Everything Jesus has revealed, through stories and parables, bossy directives and patient touch, remains available to his disciples. He's shown that we have the power not just to feed and heal, forgive and cleanse, but to do these things in new ways that reflect God's nature and give us life.
It doesn't take a special kind of person - the selfish and obtuse are welcome too. It doesn't take a lot of equipment, or training - little kids can lead. Jesus is still with us, which meanswe can say yes to God's call, without knowing what they outcome will be. We can jump right in, instead of waiting for a committee to authorize our work. We can come and see what God is doing, all over the place, instead of worrying that we're not good enough. We can get over our fear of strangers, free ourselves from superstition, and find sweet streams of mercy in the middle of the world's driest places. We're not alone... Jesus Freak, pp. 19, 20.
I was so pumped up by the time I finished this book, I was ready to catch the next plane to San Francisco to join in the dance Sara had described. But then I realized that would be missing the point. Sure, I have fond memories of that city, and would love to taste the life of St. Gregory's. Add to that the fact that I'm a bit "foot lose and fancy free" at the moment, and maybe you can understand my initial reaction. But, then on further reflection, I began to wonder about the ways God is moving right here in New Jersey. Perhaps it is time to open my eyes, and realize that "...there's no way to be Jesus on your own private terms: You have to jump in and do it alongside your Boyfriend's other lovers..." (Jesus Freak, p. 166).