We received such a wonderful pool of submission to our February writing contest. We asked writers to craft an essay on the topic “Let’s Get Weird for Jesus.” Essays were judged by the quality of the writing, and by the organization and strength of the argument made.

(By the way, our March Writing Contest is now accepting submission. Learn more here.)

The winner of February’s contest is Michael O’Donnell for his submission titled “That’s Really Weird.”

Michael O’Donnell is a writer, artist, teacher, and the founder and director of Polishing Copper Studios – whose mission is to invite and equip people into discovering their passion and purpose through contemplative and creative endeavors. Through his Life/Art Workshops, retreats, and classes, Michael leads people to connect with the story of their life, and to discover the art they were created to share with the world. Michael lives in Worthington with his wife, Leanne, and their six children.

Presented unedited, please enjoy the winning essay:

That’s Really Weird by Michael O’Donnell

When I was in college there was a girl named Alicia who used to make a scene everywhere she went. She was animated and expressive, with shiny black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a gap-toothed grin.

Alicia liked to try to make people feel seen and appreciated. She was loud when she talked, loud when she laughed, and loud when she worshipped in Chapel. She used to sit all the way in the front of the auditorium and wave her arms back and forth to the music as the campus worship band played through their set twice a week at the chapel services. Alicia was front and center at every single one of them, dancing and shouting her way through the songs at the top of her lungs. The rest of the student body produced no more expression than singing along and occasionally clapping their hands. In a world of sameness and conformity, Alicia certainly stood out.

The school was a conservative one, with a traditional Evangelical bent. Certain things were strictly forbidden among the student population. Dorms were separated by sex, and the opposites of each were only allowed in to the other’s at certain times and with doors open and transparency for all. Resident Assistants paced hallways to make sure coeds were keeping room for the Holy Spirit between them. Drinking alcohol was prohibited even for students who were of age. Staff had to follow suit, because there was even a question of whether or not Jesus made real wine appear, or if it was just really good grape juice. A dress code was in place, and the biggest prohibition of all was dancing.

“Real Christians” simply did not dance.

So Alicia presented something of a conundrum for the powers-that-were. She was dancing, but it was during worship. The faculty attended all of the chapel services, so it was clear that they saw her vibrant expressions. In fact, we all saw her. How could we not? Our collective reaction was a mixture of discomfort with a little bit of wonder, and I’m sure some disdain tossed in from those who frowned upon such things. But everyone knew Alicia, that she had a generous heart and she seemed sincere in her actions. She was outspoken about her faith, and wanted others
to know the joy joy joy joy down in her heart.

We all kind of let it be. That was who she was, and there was no sense in trying to change her.

We figured Alicia was just weird for Jesus.

That was a thing back then – being weird for Jesus. It seemed to be a challenge repeated from the pulpit whenever the audience was young people. We heard it at our local church youth group meetings. Those of us who attended Christian school heard it from guest speakers who were invited by the faculty to rally us all into revival. I remember the leaders at my church and school where I grew up encouraging me to get “radical for the Lord.” The apostles and disciples were willing to be whipped and beaten, boiled in oil, stoned and crucified upside down, ridiculed and berated for their faith. What was I going to do to win souls and prove my love for the One who was willing to be radical for me? We were shown the videos of the stories of the martyrs; presented with movies about the End of Days when we would surely have to choose between suffering or the Mark of the Beast, and only those who were on fire for Jesus would pass the test.

I took it to heart. It made me as uncomfortable as they intended, but I cared about others and I loved Jesus. I wanted to do well for Him. I wanted to say I was not ashamed of the Gospel. I was even secretly terrified that one day Jesus would be ashamed of me if I was, even for a second in an opportunity of witnessing, ashamed of Him.

I tried my best to be weird for Jesus. I witnessed to my baseball team. I gave God all the credit when people commented on my abilities. I even tried to convince a few of my classmates that the Rapture was going to happen soon and we had to rally our school to be ready, because that’s What Jesus Would Do. Yeah I had the bracelet. I had three of them. One for each wrist so that my right hand and my left hand wouldn’t know what the other was doing but it would surely be Holy, and one for my ankle so that my feet would not take me into the dens of the wicked. I started groups and invited only the truly courageous to take a stand with me, subverting the “half-way” Christians who only went to the minimum chapels required to graduate, with plans to spread revival across the whole campus and into the neighboring farming communities. I was determined to be weird for Jesus, like Alicia, but in my own way. I wasn’t going to push the limits of the rules, of course. Being radical for Jesus certainly took into account the wishes of those He placed in authority to make sure I was doing it right.

A lot of years have passed since then. I never led a revival on campus, or saved a whole village. I never convinced anyone of the immenency of the Rapture, or saw myself set “on fire for the Lord” for more than an afternoon at best. I simply couldn’t keep up the momentum.

I left the school and graduated elsewhere, got married and started on a path to pursue Jesus in art and through Literature. I tried to follow what was expected and even tried to be weird in the ways I could find that didn’t push things too far over the edge. I saw, more and more, that while there was a need to be radical enough to rouse a deaf world from the trance of everyday living without the Truth, there was also a need to break away from the familiarity of faith that slowly begins to take over as the years go by. God took care of that last part for me. So much of what I
grew up knowing became routine. I asked Him for something more than that.

He delivered.

We were six kids and fifteen years into our marriage and our calling. I didn’t know I was worn out by all of the familiar, but I was, and it caught up to me. God pushed a sore spot within that I was ignoring, and from there things started to unravel. He told me right away that He was with me, that I wasn’t going to die (it certainly felt like it at the time) and that we had a lot to get through before this was all over.

He started unpacking all of my experiences, from the ones fueled by faith to the ones where God seemed unavailable, starting with my earliest memories. I was grasping for solid ground and gasping for air. Panic disorder came to roost for a while, and that led to agoraphobia, something that had never been an issue for me – an extrovert and a teacher who thrived on being near the action. God was drawing me closer and closer to Himself, while all I could feel was that I was farther and farther away from all that was familiar, from all of that upon which I
had built my faith. Once upon a time I wanted to be radical for Jesus. Now I just wanted to run away and hide.

In the midst of that season, God offered me an invitation. He was speaking more clearly than I had ever heard Him before. Pain will do that to us – it intensifies our hearing. God said, “I want you to release all that you’ve ever known of me. I want to strip away all that you’ve held on to that you thought was me. But for this to happen, you’ve got to be still.”

I asked Him, “Then how will I know what is really You?”

In reply, He reminded me of a favorite verse.

“There comes a time when all that can be shaken will be shaken. Then, only that which is unshakeable will remain.”

I decided, for no other reason than the simple fact that I had nothing else to hold on to, to take Him at His word on this.

So I chose to be still. And He kept on shaking.

I went through a process of identifying the parts of my story that hadn’t made sense up ‘till then. I named them for what they were – spiritual abuse, sexual trauma, emotional abuse – and started to work on the results of such things – addiction, guilt-based obsessive compulsions, emotional codependency. Through it all, one thing remained constant.

I could take Jesus at His Word. This was something that was truly radical.

He walked through each memory with me, showing me where He was present with me in the suffering, in the loss, in the guilt and the shame that He didn’t place upon my heart. He unpacked the pain and grieved with me. He held me when I cried over things that made no sense. The most remarkable thing that happened was that, in His Grace, He even made sense of those things for me in ways that He did not have to. His ways are not my ways. His thoughts are not my thoughts. He did not have to let me in on some of the inner workings of His plans. But He did because of His great love for me, as I came to understand, in ways I could never have even imagined before. He made sense of my pain and even allowed me to see something of the reasons why He allowed those things that hurt the most, all the while healing me and mending my heart back together.

Through all of it, he repaired my mind toward Him. I discovered that He wasn’t expecting me to get things right. He didn’t hope for me to win every soul with whom I came into contact. I didn’t have to convince anyone of His return, or lead a revival, or shout at the top of my lungs that I was not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I didn’t even have to dance during worship services.

He showed me that He made me to know, and to be known. To be still with Him. To quiet my heart and listen for His voice, to take Him at His Word and live from the place of intimacy that, as it turned out, I was avoiding by trying to do whatever I could to be radical for Him.

There were places in my heart that needed a Savior. Places where I needed to be known, which, I learned, was why addiction took hold, and why obsessing over whether or not I was getting it right was my constant mindset. I spent half a life span trying to be weird for Jesus, but I came to know that the weirdest thing I could do was nothing.

To be still, and to know.

That word, “to know,” in the Hebrew, is used to describe the deepest intimacy that can exist between two people. It means to be vulnerable. It means to be in the barest sense your truest self, and to be seen by another in that space, and to not only be accepted there, but to be fully known and deeply respected, fully understood, and greatly appreciated. This is the place from which we were created to live.

When I think about what the world needs from us, I’m not sure that it’s a rally, or a showy demonstration of our devotion. It’s not a fiery sermon about who’s getting left behind, or who’s going to be the most radical follower that Jesus has ever had. They don’t need our slogans, or bracelets, or t-shirts with pop-culture piracy to make Jesus look relevant. In fact, I think they need less from us. Less noise. Less showiness. Fewer demonstrations of our own methods of holiness.

The world needs to know that they are known, on an individual level. Individuals make up the world. Individuals made by God, formed in His mind before the foundations of the world were even laid in place. Made to know, and to be known. Made to understand and experience the transforming love and Grace of the One who is waiting to walk with them through their pain, to show them where He was present, and working, and grieving with them. Made to know what it means to be deeply respected, fully understood, and greatly appreciated, and to live out of that space in all of the fulfillment and wonder Jesus won for us at the Cross.

We must be willing to go to those places in our own story, and live from those restored, healed, and transformed memories as people who have been changed by the Living God, not as people affected by a program or a mandate or a call to weirdness.

Being weird for Jesus means being still and allowing ourselves to be known. It means resting in the reality that we were made to know God, and to be known by Him, and to live from that reality as we invite others to do the same. In a world that is drowning in misinformation and inundated with data and ideologies of how we are supposed to act in every situation imaginable or else, and a movement in the Church that seeks to eventually pour out more activity and more programs, the most radical thing we can do for Jesus is be still.

Talk about weird.


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