Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: JESUS FREAK by Sara Miles [Vol. 3, #19]

“Doing Jesus”

A Review of
Jesus Freak:
Feeding – Healing – Raising the Dead

Sara Miles

Reviewed by Margaret D. McGee.
[ InTheCourtyard.com ]

Jesus Freak:
Feeding – Healing – Raising the Dead
Sara Miles.
Hardcover: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Jesus Freak - Sara Miles This book is a blast – a blast of gospel strong enough to whirl its readers around and send them striding off in a new direction. In Jesus Freak, Sara Miles strips the good news of Jesus down to its essence and shares it in story after story. She tells of ordinary people doing extraordinary things when the walls between “us” (responsible folk trying to save the world) and “them” (recipients of our good deeds) come tumbling down. In the kingdom of God where Miles works and prays, anybody can get saved, because the Savior lives in everybody.

“Well, of course,” I hear my friends at church say. “Jesus taught that the good we do for others in the world is really done for Him. As Christians, we are supposed to treat everyone we meet as we would treat Christ. What’s new about that?”

What’s new is the simple and at times unnerving literalness of Miles’ take on the idea that Jesus—including all his power and glory—is alive and available for action in every person. For Miles, the authority to feed the hungry lies not only in the harried church lady cutting up onions for the soup kitchen, but also in the bleary-eyed wino waiting on the fellowship hall steps. “What would it mean,” Miles asks, “to live as if you—and everyone around you—were Jesus, and filled with his power?” (ix)

The key words here are “filled with his power.” When I am urged from the pulpit or by the good folks on the Outreach committee to pitch in and help people who are sick, imprisoned, or needy as if I were helping Christ, the Christ they are referring to does not seem to be an incarnate God full of power and glory. The image that comes to mind is of a battered Jesus standing silent before Pilate, or a broken Jesus dying on the cross. Look, they say, here is someone who has offered you the greatest possible love and sacrifice, someone you have promised to love and honor above all others, and now he needs your help. What will you do?

Well heck, of course I’ll give the guy a hand! Who wouldn’t?

Except that’s not the way it works in the Gospels at all. When did Jesus ever ask his friends to feed, clothe, heal, or save him? In his time of greatest need, Jesus asked them to stay with him, eat with him, and pray with him. To the best of their all-too-human abilities, they tried to do what he asked. But even those closest to Jesus could not bind up his wounds or save him from the cross.

When Christians are called to help others, it’s almost as if the world gets divided into two Jesuses: the one who feeds, forgives, and heals (that’s me when I help others), and the wounded victim (that’s the others). But for Miles, there is only one Jesus, present in every encounter and calling on me and everyone else to act in his truth: The power to save the world is available to you personally and to everyone in the room. Anyone can be Jesus—can feed, forgive, heal, and raise the dead. There is no “other.” Now get together and get to it.

Sara Miles was raised by atheist parents who firmly rejected the God and religion of her grandparents, who were ministers and missionaries on both sides of the family. In her earlier book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Miles tells of her young days as a restaurant cook and then a journalist, reporting from revolutionary war zones around the world. Then one day she wandered into a church for no particular reason, took communion, and got walloped by Jesus. “I came late to Christianity,” she writes, “knocked upside down by a mid-life conversion centered around eating a literal chunk of bread. I hadn’t decided to profess an article of doctrine, but been discovered by a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.” (xi)

Her conversion eventually led her to St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. There she founded The Food Pantry, which each week gives away tons of food distributed to anyone who shows up, no questions asked, from the altar in the middle of the sanctuary. The operation is staffed and run by volunteers, but from Miles’ telling, these are not necessarily the kind of folks you might expect to see on that side of the giving exchange. Volunteers don’t need to be church members or believers of any faith tradition; many first encountered the Pantry when they came to the door hungry and picked out their own groceries from the tables set up inside. These are the people who animate the stories in Jesus Freak, along with others that Miles encounters in her pastoral work in the nearby Mission District of San Francisco.

Jesus Freak is divided into six chapters. In the first, “Come and See,” Miles introduces us to the Jesus she knows (and sometimes playfully refers to as “The Boyfriend”) with a quick tour through well-known Gospel stories, giving us her take on Jesus’ mission and co-mission. “Because the thing about Jesus,” she writes, “…is that he believes in us…. He believes that our mortal bodies, our experiences here on earth, are enough to bear and hold God. He knows we can find him in our own flesh, and in the flesh of others.” (9-10)

The remaining five chapters, “Feeding,” “Healing,” “Forgiving,” “Raising the Dead,” and “Follow Me” are each filled with stories of people Miles encounters who “do Jesus,” despite what seems at times to be impossible odds against them. Her background as a journalist serves her well. Her sentences are lively and quick, and she has a keen eye for the detail that reveals character.

Not everyone engaged in social justice work will appreciate Miles’ approach. She doesn’t hesitate to express her frustration with those she sees as typical do-gooders, brimming over with the best of intentions for helping the “disadvantaged” (a term she particularly dislikes). She is impatient with organizational processes designed to make sure that Jesus shows up well-dressed and well-managed, and not in some chaotic and street-inspired Incarnation that gives church governing bodies and pledge-paying members the willies.

But she doesn’t let those little bumps in the road stop her, or even slow her down. Instead, in story after story, Miles shows what kind of world is possible when every person in the room has the power to feed, heal, forgive sins, and raise the dead—when it is no longer “us” helping “them,” but all of us—together—“doing Jesus.”

— ———

Margaret D. McGee, author of Haiku: The Sacred Art, shares new liturgical prayers and her further adventures along the spiritual path on her web site, IntheCourtyard.com.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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