Surprised? Here is all the evidence one needs to see that I have not prioritized my list of the “forty I’ve followed.” I didn’t put Jesus first, nor worked my way up to him. Obviously, if I had made a list of the forty (one for each day of Lent), I would have included Jesus on it, but I’ve been just forging ahead day by day, and now…

When did we meet? Maybe I was too young to notice. If my baptism at the age of two and a half at the font in the sanctuary of Union Presbyterian Church was the first I had heard his name, it went over my head (as did the drops of water, applied by a red rose held by a Rev. Hayes — an old tradition that has thankfully been discarded…I refer to the rose, not Rev. Hayes, I hasten to add).

Or, maybe Mom or Dad had taught me something about Jesus in my preschool years, perhaps at Christmastime. I know I learned of Santa then, but we weren’t that much into church when I was that young, so I’m not sure about Jesus’ name coming up. It may have been either at the Methodist church that Dad and Mom tried for a few Sundays when I was in elementary school, or at the feet of Mrs. Plymale (about whom I have already written here) at the little Baptist church they built next door to our house. The latter is the one place I was certain to have been introduced to Jesus, since Mrs. Plymale was into memory verses, and John 3:16 was among them. She most certainly would have fleshed out who “God’s only Son” was (pun intended, I guess).

Contrary to the views of all who insist on some dramatic “born again” experience, when Jesus as much as slaps you upside the head and says, “Here I am to save your soul, you loser!” I never had that one lightning bolt conversion. Quite the contrary, the gospel of Jesus dawned on me gently throughout my childhood, beginning at baptism, and continuing through my faithful participation in Sunday School, worship, and youth fellowship at Union Presbyterian. That gospel, good news, trickled into me like a gentle, always refreshing rain, and my spirit grew, and sometimes even flourished in a community of faith that took seriously its own baptism vows. They kept their promises to nurture me.

I never didn’t believe what I learned in that church. I have this odd bit of memory that takes me to the corner of Loder Ave. and Main Street in my home town. It was the intersection where we crossed the street coming home from the junior high school a couple of blocks away. On one corner was the funeral home, and across the street was a Cities Service gas station. On another corner was the old Moose lodge, housed in what was once a magnificent columned home built by the Mercereau family, pioneers in the area, and Presbyterians. And on the fourth corner was our church yard. One afternoon (I can tell by the light of the memory) I stood on that corner and thought about God. That’s all. Just God. Just for a few seconds. But I remember it. Eventually, as early as my teen years, I would call it my “God consciousness.”

Naturally, the church was filled with witnesses to God’s love and Jesus. We called them Sunday School teachers. And youth group advisors. And Mrs. Loomis, who taught my seventh grade math class, was the choir director. She too was a faith-teacher. And the pastor, Rev. Kerr, of course. I listened, I learned, I grew, I absorbed, I grew some more.

And, whether it was because I respected and loved my parents or for some other perfectly good reason, I never “rebelled.” I just behaved. I never smoked. I didn’t drink. Although I swear a lot now, I didn’t then. I was a good kid.

In ninth grade, as part of the process of designing an appropriate high school curriculum for a teen’s vocational choice(s), our guidance counselor Mr. Consol sent home a form we were to fill out with our parents’ help. First choice for Jeff: dentistry (this was before my math and science skills crashed and burned); second choice: scientific writing (Mr. Consol explained that my science and language aptitudes were quite high and, even though I had no idea what scientific writing was, he suggested I put that on the form); and third?

My Dad was reading the newspaper, while sitting in an upholstered wingback chair in the living room, when I took him the form. He wrote down choice one, and choice two. What did I want him to write for choice three? “How about the ministry?” I said. After a beat, he looked at me and said, “Are you sure?”

“Sure.” You see, church “took.” The gospel, as much as I understood it, had taken. Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection made perfect sense to me, in ninth grade. I had no idea what “the ministry” meant vocationally, what Rev. Kerr did day by day when he wasn’t leading worship or preaching in the sanctuary, but I thought I’d follow him. (See my previous entry on Rev. Kerr.)

When I look back on those days of my adolescence and think about my circle of friends, some of whom I am back in touch with, having returned to my hometown, I see “school friends” and “church friends,” and many who were in both circles. My point is that the church was as much a part of my youth as was school. When my math and science courses became more challenging, my first two vocational choices dried up. And the ministry became my call. No, not by default. I prefer to think of it as providence!

As I look back on these paragraphs, I see that I have written far more about myself than about Jesus. That is true of almost all the essays I’ve written on these Lenten days. While couched in the language of tribute or gratitude, my naming of names of those I’ve followed, or more precisely, those whose lives have helped shape mine spiritually — I am the sum total (a math term!) of their shepherding love and nurturing friendship. You take all these reflections together and you know not so much about the individuals I’ve followed, but about me. And my “God consciousness.”

Since before I knew exactly what it meant to follow Jesus, and to this very moment when I know all too well, I have indeed followed him. Yet, I confess this caveat, and base it on Luke 22:54b which reads, “Peter was following at a distance.” It’s part of the Passion story, and as Jesus is led away to his trial, Peter, bless his heart, plays it safe, and doesn’t get too involved.

Not the brightest light on the academic marquee, I struggled to follow Jesus through college and through seminary, and, since no one bothered to check my transcripts, I eventually got to teach at one of our Presbyterian graduate schools. By the grace of Jesus, I might add. Must add. But put off by what St. Hereticus called “the odor of sanctity,” I have avoided “Jesus language” and other vestiges of piety in everyday speech, saving most of my Jesus talk for sermons and teaching. But, I do follow Jesus.

And since God created me an introvert, I’ve not been too much into Christian activism, reporting on peace marches instead of actually pounding the pavement, and telling justice stories instead of shouting prophetically, and hiding behind cameras and microphones instead of doing courageous things that put me in front of them. But, I do follow Jesus.

At the very least, if Jesus had been only a very wise teacher and sage, I would follow him. I like what he taught, and how. Parables and conversations, healing touches and visits with outcasts, saying his prayers and encouraging dim disciples (like me) — all the while modeling the unconditional love of God, love deep and wide– that would be enough for me to be a follower.

But there is more. In our adult class at church during Lent, we’ve been considering the names and “identities” of Jesus, and this past week we talked about Jesus as “Son of David, “Son of Man,” and “Son of God.”  I like the “Son of Man” part best. For one thing, that’s the term Jesus used most often himself. Son of God? A son of God. The Son of God. Marcus Borg cautions about how literally to take all the names of Jesus. Literally a shepherd? Literally a door? Literally bread? Hmmm. Yet the creeds say “truly human, truly God.” Truly ambiguous. Yet, to some of us, truly acceptable.

As in Jesus accepts me because I accept him because he accepts me. Or, put “love” in there for “accepts.” Personally speaking, here’s where my faith is in flux: I still have room to grow. But I do follow Jesus.

I read today about a little game with the term “good NEWS.” Nurture, Evangelism, Worship, and Service.” I’ve spent almost my whole life (so far, so good) preaching that, committed to that, and so far as it has been within reach or painfully stretched for, living the good news in that way. The gospel of Jesus. Sometimes close at heart, sometimes at a distance. But I do follow Jesus. And heartily recommend it.

I’ve written a lot today. There’s more. But I have the rest of my life.