I headed across the hall toward my R.A.’s room to thank her for the post-it note wishing me well on my media writing test. But when I leaned through her doorway, instead of Judy Rock’s perky smile, I came face to face with Jesus Christ.
Or rather, an artist’s life-sized rendition of Jesus—head thrown back, laughing.
I blinked at the pen and ink poster, peering at its wrongness. My thumb rubbed against the smooth paint on the door jam.
Jesus belonged on the cross—where I’d seen him a thousand, maybe a million, times at Saint Michael’s, St. Hugh’s, Saint Joseph’s. In the front of the gold Bible that came free with our Encyclopedia Britannicas. He dangled from rosaries, people’s necks and earlobes, rearview mirrors, on the scapulars that sometimes slipped from under Grandma’s clothes.
God, happy? A halo of thorns barbed His head. Blood trickled down his face. Nails the size of railroad spikes gouged His hands and feet.
I always glued my gaze to Jesus’ eyes—bottomless springs of sadness.
He wore my sins and mankind’s. How could God be anything but tragically, mammothly unhappy?
I stared at Judy’s poster. A melody that was not music—the feeling of kites flying in clouds—caught at my consciousness.
But my mind canted louder—guilt was the proper response to God. When I knelt in the dark cubicle of the confessional and listened to the priest clear his throat on the other side of the screen, didn’t guilt slosh in my cells? Thick, silver-gray syrup like the lead Dad had melted down on the kitchen stove for ballast in our boat?
My roommate hypothesized that Judy’s twenty-four-seven happy came from drugs. But laughing Jesus seemed like the more plausible explanation.
I found Judy in front of the mirror in the bathroom down the hall.
I thanked her for the note, Happy Jesus teetering on my tongue. But I had a test to take. I left thoughts of a cheerful God tiled in with Judy and the scents of shampoo and toothpaste.
My religion was fine.
But the question that had dogged me since I turned sixteen drummed against my skull as I jogged down the stairs. What is my purpose? What is my purpose? What is my purpose? The wordless hunger for God that throbbed under the question hadn’t gone away either.
Over the summer, I’d fallen in love with golden-haired, golden-hearted Mike Smith, and a little bit with God—the recipient of my thank-you prayers for Mike. This God was an upgrade from the cosmic, punitive deity who only noted my screw-ups—all I had to show for my three-year expedition to find God. Now God served as reticent uncle with whom I carried on a one-way, Shakespearean English correspondence. If I was going to scuttle the over-chewed prayers that had long lost their flavor and craft my own, the least I could do was address God with reverence. And, trust me, no appropriate prayer existed to thank God for 16-year-old tennis Adonis Mike Smith.
When I went away to college, Mike got lost in the clutter of boys in my head—the one I left at home, the ones I went out with, and the ones caught in my peripheral vision. But God was becoming the wide river running under my life and I would learn Him by layers.
One Wednesday Judy invited me to Joy Explosion, an oddly apt name for a Christian campus gathering of Judy’s Happy Jesus people, I presumed. Baptists, she said. I made an excuse because I didn’t want to hurt Judy’s feelings. Flirting with Baptist was the next best thing to sin if you were Catholic.
Judy kept inviting me. Not every week, but often.
On November 4, 1976, almost three years after I’d set out to “find God,” I followed Judy through a classroom door into pandemonium. Sixty familiar and unfamiliar faces filled up the room. Clusters of kids carried on animated conversations. Greetings arced across the room.
Judy introduced me to the students orbiting us, and I was sucked into the happy cacophony of a protestant planet.
Someone strummed a guitar and the students calmed and claimed their chairs.
Voices rose, singing prayers to God in unison, in harmony.
The foreign feel of joy fused me to my seat. My Catholic eyes blinked at Happy Jesus come to life in the faces around me. Not so easy to dismiss as Judy’s poster.
I smelled chalk dust. My palms sweated. The passion in the room thumped beneath my rib cage like a rock concert, the rhythm keeping time with the question that ran ruts in my soul. It felt too kite-flying free to be true. I had to get out of there.
But Judy had done me dozens of kindnesses. I owed her this evening. I wasn’t going rogue. Baptist. I was paying a debt.
Ten minutes in and a seismic shift threatened. What if the laughing Jesus was the new world I’d set out to find?
The music stopped.
Relief nosed through me as cynicism, hope, duty, and a sprig of happy tumbled to rest.
Bob Suttles—Judy whispered his name to me—a thirtyish guy with a big brother trustworthy face, stood behind a podium. He was quiet for a minute, as though the music had gotten to him, too. When he spoke, sincerity, kindness, and something harder to label—humility—laced his words.
At the end of his talk, Bob suggested we relinquish our academic lives to God. I shrugged. Why not? Nothing heretical here. Who knew God even cared whether I majored in journalism or creative writing?
I was afraid I’d make Sad Jesus sadder, but I had to go back the next week. Happy was too unexpected—bright umbrellas on an ordinary day. Too intoxicating. Too right, like stepping into a house you’ve never entered and feeling like you’ve fallen home.
That night Bob asked us to give God control of our physical bodies—exercise, what we ate. Fine. No problem. The third week, our romantic life. I knew the ƩAE I was dating was hot, but I didn’t know if Dave Holt was The One. My mother, no doubt, found Dad hot once upon a time. Look how that went. Divine direction? Definitely a good idea.
One night I found Judy folding her clothes in the basement laundry room of our dorm.
She looked up. “Hey, girl!”
I greeted her and dropped my laundry basket on the floor in front of the washer. We chatted and I sorted my clothes into the machine. I smiled, enjoying the splash of Judy’s joy.
She folded her last blouse and set it on top of her basket. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I inserted coins and closed the lid. “Sure. What do you want to know?”
Judy looked me in the eye. “I know you’ve been going to Joy Explosion for a while now and I wondered… Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
Water sprayed into the machine behind me.
My mind puzzled out the Baptist-speak. I breathed in, then out, the All-scented air. I knew the right answer, the one that would circumvent a discussion of all things Baptist. “Yes, of course.” I said it with just enough “duh” to end the conversation.
But long after Judy had returned to the third floor I thought about her question.
I chugged Joy Explosions, even braved a shot of Southside Baptist Church with Judy the Sunday before—all without a guilt hangover.
Happy Jesus intrigued me. A God who laughed. My journal letters to Him were changing, relaxing their Shakespearean tenor.
For the first time, I felt like I was getting divine feedback. When Bob Suttles talked on Wednesday nights, something inside me recognized truth and said yes. I started reading the gold Bible that came with the encyclopedias and migrated to college with me. A flood of words from the mouth of God, not tea-spooned out in a missalette.
I sat on the washer as the clothes whirred through the spin cycle under me.
Did I have “a personal relationship with Jesus?”
I found myself sitting in the dark in my upstairs sleeping porch in New Smyrna Beach over Christmas break, telling God I wanted to go all-in with Him—in case I’d forgotten to hand over some speck of myself.
Joy crept over me, a Catholic frog, slow-boiled in a Baptist pot.
Jesus was off the cross, alive in heaven—and plunked into the landscape of boys littering my life like half-eaten candy bars. He was happy because He was crazy about me—the way He was crazy about mankind—in my current condition. Capable and insecure, fervent and afraid, creative and flawed, fun and fathoms deep.
Perhaps my spiritual quest came down from Grandma—who’d rather have joined the convent than marry. Maybe it was the misery culled from my relationship with Dad that made me crave a better father. Most likely, God had been the one who pursued me.
He wanted to be the papa whose lap I would crawl into for comfort.
My purpose had been penned by nearly-Catholics in the 1600’s in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But like mankind, my journey to purpose proved an expedition that pointed me home.