For Chapter 4, click here.
That day I followed Tony all the way to Indianapolis, where the Shepherd was due to speak. I was told we were going to be staying at the Dragon House, another landing point of the Shepherd’s. As I drove across the very flat, field-lined interstate between Akron and Indianapolis, I found myself pondering whether this had all been a huge mistake. I even found myself thinking about how I could bow out. What excuse could I make? It’s not like the Shepherd had approached me. This whole thing had been my idea. I couldn’t suddenly say, “Oh, guess what, I’m too busy.”
I was, as I say, surprised these thoughts were running through my head. I just felt let down, I guess. I had had expectations about the Shepherd – what she’d be like, how she’d be one-on-one, and very few of those expectations turned out to be on point. I found her distant, insensitive to a certain extent, flighty, fickle…and what was this deal with having a house everywhere we went? Did she have a house in every city? She presented herself as maybe not poor, but certainly one of the people. I wonder if everyone but me knew about this driver and all of the houses.
The speech that she gave the next day in Indianapolis was more along the lines of what I had expected, I guess. It was the best speech I ever saw her give. I was allowed to record the event on video, which I did, and the Shepherd gave me a typed out transcript as well. The talk was in front of college students, hosted by their student council. She got a very warm round of applause. I was a little surprised that college-aged kids would be interested in this lady. It sort of gave me some hope for the future.
The Shepherd adjusted the microphone down so that she could talk into it. She gave an exasperated sigh as she struggled with it and finally someone had to come out and help her. “I bet you never have this problem,” she said to the very tall man. The crowd laughed.
“So hi everyone,” she began after the chuckling died down. “I’m very honored to be here today. It’s great to see so many fresh young faces in front of me. When you get to be my age all you see in the mirror is an old and wrinkly face, and that gets tiresome.”
“I want to talk to you today about how Jesus was an idiot. That’s right. By today’s standards, Jesus was exceedingly foolish. Now, let’s not get involved in whether he was the son of God or not. It doesn’t matter if you believe that he was divine or if he was just a man. I’m just going by the stories in the New Testament, which I’m sure many of you have at least heard of.”
She paused and looked at the crowd and pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose to signify a disapproving look to anyone who would say they had never heard of Jesus. I think she was also looking to see if anyone was preparing to throw darts at her. The crowd was quiet. Silent, in fact. Nobody was making outcries of anger. It seemed they wanted to see if she could talk her way out of this. She started walking from the center of the stage over towards the left.
“Now, there are three main ways that Jesus was foolish. First of all, he kept running towards people who thought that he was insane, a heretic, or a criminal. He was intent on convincing non-believers that what he said was true. Why would you do that? You’ve got 12 frickin men following you around who believe everything you say and who want to learn more. But Jesus kept going to places where he would not be accepted. His home town, towards the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, and amongst the masses. We know how the masses can be, don’t we? What an idiot to keep talking to people whom he know would, quite literally, crucify him.”
The Shepherd walked back towards the center of the stage. She was wearing a sharp, black, pin-striped suit that somehow, it appeared to me, made her look taller than she really was. Or maybe it was just how she was controlling the room. She seemed far different from the woman I had eaten breakfast with that morning.
“The second stupid thing Jesus did was throw away all of his belongings. Jesus could have had an ok life. He could have been a carpenter like Joseph, or maybe he could have been a rabbi, where he could have had a congregation that he could preach to and guide. But no. Jesus became a wanderer. He had no home, no real belongings so far as the Bible is concerned. He advised other people to toss away everything they had, remember? A rich young man said, ‘Hey dude, I dig what you’re saying, how can I help?’ Jesus told him to give everything away and join the Disciples. And you know, that young man said what most of us would probably say. ‘Are you CRAZY?!?” Jesus came back and said that this was why it was easier to pull a camel through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to get to God’s kingdom. Yeah, ok Jesus. Whatever. This is stuff my family worked for, that I worked for. Give it all away so I can walk around Israel? No thanks.”
“Finally, and this is really the stupidest thing Jesus did, he decided that he would spend his life amongst the people society liked and approved of the least. Whose house did he want to eat at at the beginning of his wanderings? Not John’s. Not Simon Peter’s. No, he decided to chill at Matthew’s house, right? He hung out with Mary Magdalene, who was apparently a woman of ill repute. He wandered among the lepers, among the possessed, among the poorest of the poor. Surely this was a waste of his talents. I mean, ok, he could cure the lepers, we get that, but honestly, couldn’t he have used his time better? He could have probably visited with the Romans and told them to chill the hell out, right? He could have told his parables in the richest palaces of his time. He could have built a house, his own temple, kept his disciples around him, and he’d have been totally beloved. But this moron decided to dedicate all of his time and effort to the people the rest of society didn’t even want to think about. What an idiot, right?”
Maybe the rest of the people in the crowd were smarter than me, but I couldn’t begin to guess where this tirade was leading. I had never heard of the Shepherd talking about religion, not to mention Christianity. So far as I knew she was somewhere between agnostic and ambiguous.
“You know, there are two things that really bug me about the story of Jesus,” the Shepherd continued. “First of all, most of the people he saved – they don’t stick around. All of those people he heals pretty much jump out of the story right after that. They don’t say, ‘Can I return the favor?’ They don’t say, ‘I am going to do whatever you ask me to do.’ They just slip out of the story. You don’t see a lot of gratitude in the New Testament, it seems to me. Mary Magdalene is an exception with the whole foot-washing scene, but that is a rarity.”
“The other thing that has always driven me crazy is the story of the Garden of Gethsemane. After all of this work Jesus has done, after he has told his Disciples that he is scared and wants their company, after he has elevated their status through his own presence, they abandon him. They fail him. They all fall asleep while he is waiting for the beginning of his journey to death. It’s no doubt Jesus struggles. How would you feel if you said to a friend that you were going to die in a few hours and their response is snoring? Darned right I’d struggle.”
The Shepherd was off to the right now. I watched as the heads in the audience seemed to follow her as one unit, all of them tracking her movements. They were clearly engaged in what she was saying, but was it a positive or a negative engagement?
“I’m not a religious woman,” the Shepherd said. “I don’t know if there was a Jesus or if there was simply a man named Joshua who did some amazing things when Israel was being persecuted by the Romans. Either way, we have these stories in the Bible, and we have other figures from throughout history, all over the world, who did stupid idiotic things. Nearer to our own time we have Gandhi, who decided to starve himself as part of a protest. Who does that? What kind of idiot steps out of a comfortable life and ends up starving himself? We have Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have had a comfortable life, like his father, leading his congregation, building his family. Sure, he’d have faced racism and segregation, but he could have had an okay life. A comfortable life. But he gravitated towards the white people who were so against the existence of his people that they burned down churches and killed children. What an idiot.”
“Now let’s talk about you. You’re sitting here as part of a college event. You’re getting educated. This room is comfortable, right? Apart from the fact that you have someone gabbing at you.”
More chuckles. It was hard to smile after the serious tone the Shepherd had set, but somehow it worked.
“You probably have parents and friends and teachers who are guiding you to reach up and out. Gravitate, or I guess they would say ‘network’ with people who can help pull you up. Look for people who can be a positive influence on you. If you run into someone who’s negative, woah. Stay away from them. If you know someone who is kind of ‘messed up’ you definitely want to stay away from that shit, right? They just ruin your vibe. They distract you from what you’re all about. They could pull you in, as if they are made of magnets and you’re made of metal. I saw something online the other day that said something like, ‘You can’t lead a positive life if you’re surrounded by negative people.’”
“Guess what? I think that’s the worst advice we can give each other. That’s right. I think we’re the idiots if we believe that crap. If all of us adopt that kind of attitude, how can the people who need help ever really get it? How can the sad ever get cheered up? How can the hurt ever get healed? All I do, all I have ever done, is go out of my way to find the people we are supposed to avoid. I talk to the homeless and the crackheads. I talk to the guy who cheated on his wife and can’t live with himself. I talk to criminals who have done unspeakable, completely unspeakable things. I seek them out. Now I don’t have a mission like Jesus or MLK or Gandhi did. I’m not trying to solve a big problem or create something huge. Rather, I’m in the weeds. I’m working on the tiny details of the universe – the individuals among us who somehow have fallen through the cracks. I want to talk to them to tell them that there is at least one person in the world, me, who cares about them. No matter what. I can’t forgive their sins or cure their illnesses and addictions, but I can go to them and I can say, ‘I care what happens to you. Is there anything I can do?’”
“You might think that this makes me an idiot. And you’re probably right. And you might think that’s too much of an effort. But let me tell you something, babies. There are people in this room who could use your care.”
Now the Shepherd sat down, her legs dangling off the stage.
“I’m going to ask a few questions, and if this relates to you, I want you to stand up. Stand up if you have recently experienced the end of a relationship.”
A few people stood up.
“Stand up if you were abused as a child. It’s ok, we’re here for you.”
A few more people stood up.
“Stand up if you feel like you are unlovable.”
Remarkably, and this took my breath away, a few people stood up.
“Mmhmm,” the Shepherd nodded at them and put her hand on her heart. “Stand up if you have been bullied, made to feel small and unimportant.”
A few people stood up, and the Shepherd herself stood up.
“Stand up if you feel like you could fade away from this world and nothing would change.”
More people stood up. I stood up. Without realizing it I had started to cry. Giant tears were rolling down my cheeks. Almost everyone in the auditorium was standing at this point. Many other people had tears rolling down their faces. A few people were leaning against the person standing next to them.
“Pretty much everyone you meet is a broken-hearted baby, my darlings. Everyone has a story. Everyone has ‘that thing.’ Look around. Are you surprised at some of the people who are standing? Did you think they were fine, always happy, always content? These are the people you can start reaching out to. Your roommate, your siblings, your parents. That’s right, you can reach out to your parents. Everyone can and does have off days. Things go wrong. People feel bad or left out or sad. That’s when you can reach out to them. No expectations of gratitude. No expectations of any benefit for you. Just reach out and lift ‘em up. Be an idiot, ok?”
The Shepherd asked everyone who was standing to remain standing, right where they were. She went down the stage stairs and row by row made her way to each person. Some gave her a handshake. Some, as soon as she stepped in front of them, burst into tears. Some gave her a hug, and some of those hugs lasted a long while. But she got to everyone, and everyone waited for her. Some people who were sitting stood up when she went by and whispered something to her, probably confessing they should have stood up but didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.
Be an idiot. You wouldn’t think that would be a great message for college kids. Somehow, though, it made all of the sense in the world.