Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
The gospel invites you to the hard reality of story and the glorious reality of redemption in story. – Dan Allender
In the last two years, University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has won the NCAA National Championship and the golden crown of college football, the Heisman Trophy. Both of which, as a die-hard Tennessee Volunteer supporter, make me sick. But it becomes harder and harder to dislike this prodigy quarterback. As I scowled through his Heisman award ceremony, he took the podium and used his acceptance speech to glorify Jesus Christ. I really tried to keep my scowl, working to hold onto my disdain.
During this past week, ESPN.com ran an article on Tim’s off-season, where he’s apparently decided to use his newfound popularity and success as a platform for the gospel. The setting? Correctional facilities and prisons. Tebow’s passion for sharing Christ has stirred him to move into venues far more dangerous and uncomfortable than the bottom of an SEC tackle pile. He is a hero to those young men, a hero from which they want to hear. As I read the article, my respect for Tim increased by the line. And yet, it begged me to ask some questions as well. Questions not necessarily about Tim, but more about how Christians approach sharing the gospel in general.
I’ve had some perceptions dispelled in the last five years about what it looks like to live out the great commission. I’m not sure where my original ideas came from, but somewhere along the line, evangelizing became an “us and them” mentality. In college, several examples arose of what this looked like. It might consist of a booklet containing the “four laws of salvation”. And perhaps it meant going door to door sharing these. Other times it meant speaking at a ministry night or leading a Bible study in a Greek house. Or it was going on a summer mission trip. Whatever it was, each contained one central theme: all of them had me going to someone else with something to offer them. There was no equal sharing. One is the giver, the other the recipient. All that is given and received can be very good. But it’s far too one-sided. Listen to the “they’s” in this quotation:
“It’s about having an opportunity to go in there and change people’s lives and give inmates hope when there’s little hope in their lives,” Tebow said. “Even though they’re very hard people, most of them are so far down in a hole that they’re in need of something. They need something to hold onto and something to pull themselves out. When their lives might seem like nothing and they feel like they’re never going to be able to do anything with their lives, when they hear this message and hear they can have eternal life in heaven, that gives them hope. That’s something they can hold on to. That’s something that really does get through to them.”
Two pictures bothered me from the ESPN.com article. Scroll halfway down to the one that shows Tim in his red Polo shirt and stylish pants in front of all the convicts dressed in blue. The other, at the close of the article, shows Tim signing autographs for the line of inmates. As you read, please don’t hear me judging Tim. I probably would have done no differently. But think with me for a moment. I have this picture in my head of Tim standing there among the men, dressed also in blue prison garbs. And rather than standing stage-like in front with a microphone, he is sitting in a chair, not in front, but apart of a circle of chairs. The time would consist of storytelling. Tim would get the chance to share of God’s intervention in his life. He’d get the time to talk about how Jesus offers life to the orphans and hopeless. But he’d also get the chance to listen. Each man that listened to Tim that day also had a story, one worth hearing. And I imagine that if Tim had the eyes of his heart opened in awareness, he’d lean forward to hear more. Not just to listen, but to learn. The brokenness he’d hear of may actually be more authentic than anything he’d ever experienced.
My paradigm has shifted.
My desire is growing to see believers know their own hearts so well that they have more energy to listen to those they’re ministering to than to speak. Yes, I know in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells us to take the gospel to all the Earth. I get that. I’m not contradicting that. Many times that means me speaking. But my journey this last year has given me deeper vision for what the gospel actually is. The entrance into tasting Christ’s life comes through brokenness. Anyone not interested in that is really not interested God’s story.
The message of the gospel is that I have far more in common with each of those inmates than in contrast. I’m not just talking about sin, though my guilt is equally damnable. I’m more focusing on the effects of sin. The destruction that the loss of Eden opened humanity to is nothing less than an atom bomb’s aftermath. Our world easily deserves an “Out of Order” sign hung on the outside. We do everything possible to avoid accepting and entering into life on God’s terms. We were fed a different gospel in Sunday school. Heck, we’re fed a different gospel in big church on Sunday mornings. My friend told me that if you can’t offer the gospel to someone on the streets of Calcutta, you’ve added something to it. We’ve added to the gospel. Jesus’ invitation is life through suffering. We gladly cut out the last part. Jesus routinely says that those not interested in carrying their own cross aren’t really interested in his offer. The thing is, the more I see, realize, and accept my suffering state, the more I grasp my commonality with the prison inmate. They probably know brokenness better than I do. And if that’s true, then they have so much to teach me about my own spiritual existence.
The ESPN article said that before leaving, Tim spent an extended time signing autographs for inmates. If my dream were to come to fruition, the men would be so captured by hearing the wars waged in each other’s souls that Tim wouldn’t be the only hero there. There would be numerous pens inking paper and Bibles, exchanging autographs.