04/11/2011 11:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Saved Early by Jesus

I was saved early by Jesus. I didn't know it was him then, and I am not entirely sure it is him now. Certainty about Jesus has never been our bond. Instead, warmth and trust come to mind.

Our relationship began on a tough night. The pastor of my Missouri Synod Lutheran Church showed up at my house, when I was 6, and told my father to stop beating up my mother. From that moment on, I have pledged myself to join Jesus in keeping little girls safe. From that moment on, I have also had warmth in my belly that could be called fundamental trust in Jesus and his ability to show up. The warmth has never left me. Thank you, Pastor Witte, you who showed Jesus to me.

Since that night, I have studied Jesus and preached Jesus and misunderstood Jesus and re-understood Jesus. I have demythologized Jesus and applied "critical theory" to his words. I have recited the Apostles' Creed from memory and gotten the Nicene wrong when I've tried to repeat it. I have let Augustine and Aquinas have at him and read Reinhold Niebuhr in distant respect for him. My studies have distanced me from the theological concept of "Christ" but not from Jesus or his warmth.

Jesus is my brother and my friend. He has grown larger than life and smaller than life -- both, not either. I have fussed with the fundamentalists over him, even though kind fundamentalists raised me. I don't see myself as their enemy, but instead as one who inquires about why they need to talk so much about the distanced Jesus or the correct Christ. I want to talk about the warmth in my belly that persists when I have to have surgery or right after I get hit by a drunk driver and realize I am in an ambulance. In times like these, my early memories of the warm protecting presence of Jesus accompany me. I don't really know how to be afraid.

If I were to describe this warmth, it would resemble the sacrament. In bread and wine, I have known the gathering presence of something divine, something larger than the fear or the pain or even the possibility of death and harm. I feel something. I sense something. It is stronger than any thinking I have ever managed about Jesus.

Because of these protecting sacraments of a warm Jesus, I have come to really dislike the word "Christology." Sometimes I worry that my seminary education gets in the way of the Jesus I know. Jesus, in my terms of trust and warmth, embodied in bread, wine, pastors and congregations, wouldn't make such a big thing out of himself. So I don't know why there is so much fuss about his fine points. Certainty -- or getting Jesus right -- would be like fully understanding my biological brother, whom I do not always understand. I do love and trust him, however.

When I am forced to move Jesus out of my belly and into term papers and fusses, I do a couple of very simple things. I imagine I understand what it means that Jesus Christ is Lord. By "Lord" I mean over all, beyond all, above all. I need not bow down to drunk drivers or physical pain. Nor do I need to bow down to states or churches. There is something larger than everything else and that is our "Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ." "Fear not" is the best response to what my belly has told me over and over again.

This emotional response to Jesus also has ethical implications. I am to love like he did, in that golden rule, which is not so much a rule as a bidding. When you are bid to live in love, which may involve nothing more than showing up and protecting children, you are truly safe, even saved. Nothing can scare you if you know love as your center. Everything can scare you if you don't. Why live with Jesus as brother and a sign of love? For my own good. My own welfare is tied in a knot with the welfare of the other, the city and the neighbor. I am utterly dependent on others, as I learned early. Jesus is the one who calls me out to the other on behalf of myself. Jesus is the argument that you can have what you can let go of and that you can't have what you can't release. Pouring out fills up.

Consider Zacheus, the rich tax collector who had to climb a tree to see Jesus. He needed to get above the crowd to see what was going on. Most of us do. The crowd has blinders that prohibit our vision. The crowd is happy to tell you that everything is up to you, that you are worthy only as you are productive, and that you better stay part of the herd. The crowd is happy to use interpersonal violence or war to enforce its blindness.

In church, as body of Jesus, we help each other climb trees. We become one small crowd that challenges the larger crowd. We gather weekly in a sacred space to remember our intuition that Jesus has something to say. From the Easter alleluias to the Advent lights and back again, the greatest intuition of the church is to see Jesus, the one who had a way of showing up and bunking in with sinners, so that children, and then adults, might be safe.

I have made a bet that Jesus will make me safe. My belly bets with me. The warmth I know in Jesus did not mean that my father stopped beating my mother or that he never hit me again. It did mean that I felt safe, anyway.

Some of us place double bets. A little here, a little there. A little Jesus, a little humanism, a little crowd following, a little lottery ticket. I have been an ordained minister for 38 years in the United Church of "Who?" I contribute to the blur about Jesus. I try not to, but I do. We hedge our bets because we ourselves have been hedged. Just because you know the direction you want your life to have does not mean you stay on the path.

The hardest part about Jesus is how expensive it is to follow him to his gold: We are to even love those who have hedged us or hurt us. That enemy business, which is so securing in such a phony way, is tossed out. Living without scapegoating or blaming or enemy-izing the other makes us very vulnerable. We are even to love those who continue to hurt us. We can't fight our way out of this relationship. I have never wanted to. The trust and warmth in my belly is just too valuable to me.