Jan 26, 2007

The Nice Jesus On Every Wall

Three weeks into my sixth-grade year at Prince of Peace Lutheran Day School, I got sent to the principal's office. My family were loyal members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, and I'd been attending POP Day school since I was four. This was the first time I had ever gotten into trouble.

It was also the first time I had stood up for myself.

As I sat on that hard wooden bench, waiting for Miss Olson, the retired-missionary principal, to come out and paddle me, I looked up at the picture of Jesus on the wall.

You might know it: Head of Christ was painted by Warner Sallman in the 1930s, and is arguably the most famous portrait of Jesus from the 20th Century. Not like Jesus had his portrait done, but you know what I mean.

Painted in humble, muted yellowy browns; a kind Norwegian-looking Jesus sits there, looking calm, sober, and slightly depressed. His eyes turn upward, as if he's listening to the Father. Maybe God is just now telling him he's going to be crucified, and Jesus is steeling himself for the sacrifice ahead.

Sallman painted a lot of pictures of Jesus. He must have had some old Lutheran friend stand in as a model, because Jesus always has the same long brown hair, square Nordic forehead, delicate features and sad eyes.

There's Christ Our Shepherd: Jesus tending sheep in the Alps. There's even a black sheep, though it is placed in the background. And then there's my favorite: Christ At Heart's Door: Jesus knocking on the door of your heart. Well it's really a farmhouse door, like a Thomas Kincade, painted before they invented anti-yellowing agents. But I saw the love and patience in Jesus' eyes as he stood there knocking. Like he would have stood there forever, waiting for me to open the door. "Oh Jesus don't be sad, I would pray, "I'm here, I’m here opening the door!" That was my favorite of the paintings.

But the one I knew the most was Head of Christ, or the "Nice Jesus" as I called it. And it hung in every classroom, pastor's study and toilet at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and School.

I spent many a day praying to the Nice Jesus on the wall: Jesus please raise my kitty from the dead ... Jesus, please make Toddie Williams love me ... Jesus please make my dad stop cursing. Jesus didn't answer many of my prayers. But that was okay. I knew he was listening, and I knew that he loved me.I saw the love and concern in his eyes. I saw his loneliness and sorrow, so I knew that He saw mine.

That's my image of Jesus: Jesus who loved, who listened, who never left; and who rarely intervened. Which was why I was in Miss Olson's office the third week of Sixth Grade.

My early years at Prince of Peace Lutheran School had been happy and uneventful. My mother was a timid Norwegian Lutheran who took her four children to church every Sunday while Dad stayed home and cursed at the TV. My brothers were already in public junior high; it was too late to reach them for Jesus. But my older sister Nancy and I attended the day school from kindergarten through sixth grade.

All of my teachers were little old retired spinster missionaries who smiled and turned the other cheek. My pastor, Torvald Ingebretsen, was a gentle man who never got angry, except when he preached on the Old Testament. In fact, no one at my church ever got angry. Which is why my dad rarely went to church. My anger was why I was in the principal's office.

Since my first day of fourth grade, I had been openly bullied by a Lutheran sociopath. Lisa Shanahan kicked my chair in choir when I got a choir solo. Oh, you think you're so cool! Bang, bang, my chair vibrated. She ridiculed me when I got better grades than she did. Oo, Susie wrote a poem! A poem about Egypt! DORK! The other girls laughed with her, terrified she might turn on them next. One day I got her out in Four Square. She got the girls to whisper and ridicule me, through the rest of the day, the rest of the week. For three years.

Oh sure, my friends would come to me in secret. Susie, we really like you. We just don't want Lisa to get mad at us. I believed them. How could anyone Lisa? Still, nowhere was safe, not even Girl Scouts: Lisa's mother was the troop leader, and they worked as a team. Camp outs were hell. I was alone.

Susie, my mother sat me down on her bed. This was the one and only time I ever remember my mother sitting me down to give me some parental guidance. Susie, I hear you say you're angry a lot. And that's not good. Because if you're angry, people won't like you. Well, that really pissed me off. I was angry was because Lisa was bullying me at my own birthday party in our house! And Mommy wasn't stopping it. Mommy never stopped it.

This torment went on for three years. My kind spinster missionary teachers told me to forgive Lisa and turn the other cheek. My friends came to me in secret: Susie we arelly like you! We just don't want her to turn on us. But my mother?

Mom, go tell Mrs. Shanahan to make Lisa stop!
My mother got flustered. I can't! I can't face her! She's too bossy.
Then talk to Miss Olson? I countered.
Susie, mom's voice trailed off a moment. Her voice came back trembling and scared. Susie, I can't handle your problems, you have to learn to resolve your own arguments!
But I didn't argue with her, Mommy! I didn't do anything!

My mother turned her back to me and wept.
I had no one.

But I had Jesus. I'd read about Jesus in the Bible, how he healed the sick and stood up for the weak and defenseless, and how he loved the unlovable. That was me.

Jesus was my invisible buddy who listened and loved me. The fact that he also loved Lisa made him a traitor or a wimp. But then, no one had stood up for me. Not the spinster missionary teachers. Not my callow friends. Not my mother. My father never came to church except to criticize the sound system. At least Jesus had the excuse of being too busy with the Viet Nam War.

So I trusted him. I spent many afternoons staring up at the Picture of the Nice Jesus on the wall. I prayed to him as Lisa kicked my chair or cackled to my gutless friends. "Please Jesus, make her stop. Please Jesus, make her nice. Please Jesus, make her die."

Jesus sat there, looking upward, listening only to his Heavenly Father. I hoped God was telling Jesus about it. Maybe Jesus was so sad, because he loved me and he couldn’t intervene.

So that is how I ended up in Principal Olson's office.

Three weeks prior, on the first day of Sixth Grade, I walked into class, only to discover that Wendy Barnes, the only girl who'd ever stood up for me, had left for Tewinkle, the public junior high. Lisa had planted herself in the seat behind mine, ready for one last year of taunting and torture and tyranny.

That afternoon I went straight home and found my mother in the back yard.

Mom, I want to go to Tewinkle.

Mom kept her back toward as she watered her irises, for what seemed like an eternity. The water spilled over into the strawberry troughs, and on into her nasturtiums. My mother put a lot of work into her garden. It was her outlet for being ignored by my father. Like she was ignoring me now.

Mom? I repeated after a long silence.

Finally Mother's back heaved and her voice pinched up into sob. "Why do you want to leave Prince of Peace?"
She was acting like I wanted to leave Jesus. But I didn't I wanted to leave Jesus, I just didn't want to be bullied anymore.

Mom began to cry openly. I went inside the house. Nothing more was said.

Three weeks later I was in Miss Olson's office. As I looked up at the Nice Jesus on the wall, I realized how much He reminded me of my mother: Maybe because they were both brown-haired, Norwegian, and depressed.

Miss Olson came out of her office and sat down next to me on the bench.
Susie, do you know why you're here?

I did. That afternoon, Lisa had hit me out in a game of prison ball. And she was on my team. Prison ball is like Dodge ball played in teams on a soccer field. Once you're hit with the ball you go to the goalie, and all you can do is throw the ball to one of your team members in the game so they can get an opponent out.

Lisa was hit out almost immediately. So she stood with the goalie, simmering every throw that I was still in the game. As other members of our team got out and joined her at the goal, she began her diabolical plan. She whispered to them. When they got the ball, oops! They didn't throw it to me; they threw it to the other team, so the other team could get ME out. That's all she wanted. She wanted me out. But I was fast and agile and angry. I dodged the bit fat red ball aimed right at me. Or I caught it and hurled it back at my opponent, getting them out instead. I was going to win.

Lisa had each side chanting for my demise. Girls are catty and fickle. And the boys, well boys always love watching girls fight. It was down to two players on our team. Me and Becky Knapp, a retarded girl who limped. She'd been ignored most of the game. Finally Lisa slipped the swollen rubber ball to Willie Snow and he slammed me, hard. The ball dropped. I was out. Becky the Retard was the only one left.

I ran straight for the goalie. Straight for Lisa. She was squealing in delight. My face was throbbling with adrenaline. I grabbed her thick red pony tail, and spun her around like a lasso with her head on the end. Like you spin way you pick up a toddler and swing them for play. Only this wasn't for play. This was for everything.

I let go and Lisa skidded several feet along the blacktop before stopping in a puddle of scrapes and terrified screams. The boys erupted in whoops and applause. Lisa ran off wailing. Her mother came to pick her up, threatening to remove her from POP forever. We could only hope.

My girl friends came over to reassure me they'd always liked me. I shoved them away and waited for the PE Coach to drag me to the office.

Susie, do you know why you're here? Miss Olson repeated.

"Because of Lisa?"

No. Miss Olson surprised me. "Because your mother says you're not happy here. Is that true, Susie? Are you not happy at Prince of Peace?"

I thought of my mother crying. Crying on Miss Olson's shoulder because her daughter wanted to leave Jesus. So I said nothing.

"Well, Susie. I think things will change after today." She smiled put a coupon for an ice cream in my hand, and sent me home. In good Lutheran fashion, Miss Olsen had turned the other cheek.

As I walked out, I looked up the picture of the Nice Jesus on the wall. Silent and sad and immovable. I prayed, "Please Jesus. Please understand."


Stephanie said...

Wow, Susie. That quintessentially Lutheran Nice Jesus is a picture I know very well - Lutheran roots here too. But Nice Jesus doesn't have anything to do with being invisible when you're a kid. In the name of every invisible kid who ever wondered why no one else could see ... may the real Jesus help me to reach just a few. THAT story - YOUR story - it's the reason I'm going back to school. Children aren't invisible to Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Hi Suz, it's Doug - for some reason I can't get comments posted except anonymously here - Wow, it's amazing that you wrote that right after I watched a fantastic movie called "Radio" with Cuba Gooding Jr. last night - there are huge parallels! My elementary and Jr. High shcool experiences are pretty close to this as well, and I couldn't believe the "surprise ending" here.

I think what you are talking about here with the "do nothing Jesus" has been the whole reason why I am so "Mr. Proactive" at this point in my life, and why there are clashes when my approach hits the "learned holy pacivity" of most Chrstians like your mom - they spirtualize their fear based reasons for why not much is going on good in their lives and they have no power.

I'm not saying that we're completely on our own here, God regularly brings us in contact with people and tools we need that we would never find on our own, but it's very common to get shamed if you ever think that you should have any hand in what happens in your life at all. We were born with all kinds of talents and creative power to make things happen by our words and deeds, and yet we still sit still and feel we are supposed to wait for God to handle everythign for us. I was glad to see that for all the powerlessness that your mom seemed to feel in her life, she could at least make a phone call to try to help her daughter - the rest was just her own crap, but unfortunately, when we're kids we think that the adults must be right and whatever is happeninig or not happening must be our fault.

It's an old story that has been going on so long, you'd think someone would have figured it out so that the next generation wouldn't have to go through it all again with no help just like we did, but that would make too much sense...

Anonymous said...

You go, girl.

Anonymous said...

I think you have some serious unresolved issues here. I went to POP at the same time as you did, and the memories are quite different. I remember a Susie that was happy and treated as a friend by all the girls in her class. Girl scouts was a fun time. I have enjoyed watching your successes. God bless.

Anonymous said...

What a well written, poignant story. I'm sure you already know there is a disconnect between the "nice Jesus" culture you experienced and reality, and no doubt you are working through it.

Dennis said...

Wonderful reading. I found your blog the other day, via your website, via the QL 2009 convention page. God bless.

Maureen said...

I realize I am about year late in commenting but my sister just sent me this post...and I'm sure I will be reading more. I grew up with the Catholic Jesus...less nice, more scolding...but just as unrealistic.
I'm glad I found the Jesus I know today...Blessings!

J. R. Miller said...

You are a good story teller and writer. So far I am diggin' your blog and your sense of humor. This kind of relates, so check out my take on the Jesus portrait.

fasteddie said...

hey this is a really enjoyable story. Thank-you.
Phil Early
montrose Coloradl

fasteddie said...

p.s. didn't see an email... couple of thoughts: why do you list your age as 86? I'll be looking for your book on Amazon. and you and Julia Sweeney should travel together and have a comedic debate on God, no God. That would be fantastic in my imagination. Finally, you're taste in music and movies is really fine.
take care.

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