I’m not sure, but I think my daughter, Zoe, is Jesus. For a couple of reasons. But before I talk more about her, let’s talk about me. You know, since I’m not Jesus and I like talking about myself.
I hate failing. Really hate it, even when it’s partly out of my control. Just a few days I wrote about how, for My Jesus Project month in which I’m working on “Jesus the Ascetic,” I was fasting from solid foods, giving away half of my possessions, practicing a new spiritual discipline each week, and reading through the Gospel of Matthew with an ascetic perspective.
A couple of days later, my doctor and dietician pulled me off of my fast because seizure symptoms had re-emerged. I felt like I had failed, and it took me a day or two to muster the courage to even write about it. Yes, part of the practice was about listening to my body. Yes, another part was to learn to distinguish between my wants and needs. But I had pride at stake — as evidenced by the bruising of said pride when I had to change my diet.
So in a way, the pride at the root of my practice actually was the bigger shortfall. I’m still eating vegan all month, abstaining from alcohol and refined sugar, but I had set a goal and made a public statement about it, and I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do it.
Further, my mentor for the month, Reba Riley, called me out — not so much for the shift in diet (well, a little bit), but mostly because of my motivations behind the overall My Jesus Project practice and my motivations. I was struggling, not just with the perceived failure and resulting embarrassment, but also with the fact that I was busting my ass in this practice — far more so than I’ve ever done for a previous book. Despite grandiose expectations (always the seeds of premeditated resentment), the traffic and overall public response has been pretty lukewarm.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that we talk a lot about following Jesus, but most of us don’t put a lot of serious energy into figuring out what that really means, day to day, myself included. So I’m taking a year to try and figure it out. And I’m trying to do it in a way that invites other folks to figure it out along with me.”
“And you’re writing about it.”
“Yeah,” I said.
"Let me put it this way. If no one else was watching, if you were doing this only for yourself, would you still do it?” she said.
I was silent, partly because I knew the answer. I mean, I’d do some of it, but I wouldn't spend this much time out of every day, and I probably wouldn’t give up quite as much.
“Maybe you need to reassess your motivation,” she said.
“Maybe you’re not struggling because people don’t seem to care as much as you’d like — maybe it’s because your motivations aren’t as pure as they should be.”
Then there’s Zoe. We’ve always known she’s a mystic. At age three, she announced to us, unsolicited, that she had seen God. I’m not so much for blinding flashes of light and visions, but who can argue with a three year old who’s seen God?
“Tell me about God,” I said.
“She has a big, beautiful face.”
But there’s more than that. I fail, and I get frustrated, lose confidence, look for external justifications for my failure, and think about giving up. She fails and she just keeps going, over and over again. I’ve never seen her quit something because it’s hard, or even get flustered. And frankly, it amazes me.
Then there’s her generosity. After Halloween, she divides up all of her candy and gives away all of the stuff. I get all of the peanut butter cups. Who knows what else everybody else gets? I mean, I got mine, right? Beyond that, things just pass through her, and yet she always has enough. More than that, she never seems to worry about it.
When her friend Ben was having a birthday, she filled a gift bag with all of her toys she thought he’d like. Then before she left for school, I found her in her room, emptying her piggy bank. Finally we agreed there might be more noble beneficiaries of her well-earned money.
This week, she figured out who. She brought a box to me from school and set it on my desk.
“Do you have any change for me? It’s for the kids who are hurting," she said.
“Which kids?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking through the coin slot, “but they need help. Does it matter?”
When you’re right, you’re right. I pulled all the change out of my pocket, told her to grab whatever coins were on my nightstand, and then gave her one of the dollar coins I had.
“Thanks daddy,” she kissed me and ran off to hit up her mom.
Next morning, she was so excited to take the box back to school, she could hardly stand it. So we dumped the contents out to count it.
“Umm, Zoe,” I puzzled. “You have more than fifty bucks in here.”
“Awesome!” she jumped up and down. “That’ll help a lot of kids.”
“How’d you do that in one day though?”
“I put my money in there,” she smiled.
“How much of it?”
“All of it, dad,” she looked at me quizzically, “Forty-five dollars. The kids need it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” she hugged me. “I’ll get more.”
And with that, she ran off to school, so excited to give away fifteen weeks of her allowance that I couldn’t help but think about the biblical story about the widow gave all that she had at the temple.
In that story, I was the rich guy, feeling good about handing over pocket change.
Suffice it to say I have a long way to go to figure out this “following Jesus” thing. Sometimes I look to scripture, read books, seek wisdom from my mentors, undergo monthly spiritual practices, and try like hell to be more like this guy who supposedly walked the earth two-thousand years ago.
Maybe I just need to start following Zoe around a little more often.
Christian Piatt is the author of postChristian, Blood Doctrine, and the Banned Questions book series, among others. He is engaged in a year-long effort called My Jesus Project to more deeply and honestly follow the life, teaching, and example of Jesus through prayer, study and action. Follow along his journey, and even join in, at www.MyJesusProject.com.