Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
The silence of the stage reverberated across the grand performance hall. The stage waited, naked without Shakespeare there to dress it: black flooring, black walls, and black curtains. Ghosts of laughter, tears, smiles, and gasps hovered like Hamlet’s father across the void. Red seats sat in anticipation, soldiers standing at attention. Only fifty of the two thousand chairs would hold people tonight.
I walked across the red carpet of the first tier’s entryway en route to sign in for the volunteer training. I weaved through chatting retired folks recounting the events of the now setting summer. They talked of the coming productions and the theater’s lineup for the fall season. I signed in and immediately went to work. I searched diligently for the seat that most hid me from the eyes of the trainer. Yes, even teachers act like students sometimes. I found a spot along the back row just under the windows enclosing the booth for stage lighting and special effects. Off to my left, trainees filled in the first twenty seats in six consecutive rows. Before long, the instructor arrived and immediately ordered my whole row to move closer. I grumbled and obeyed.
You see, I sat through these training sessions each of the last two years. I had already heard how to greet the patron, a word by the way that holds too much uppity power. I already knew how to hang a coat, how to direct someone, sorry patron, to the restroom. I knew how to brace myself for the cold, biting wind as I opened the door for folks. Despite my expertise, the performing arts center mandated the training, and so for my wife and me to attend any of the shows free of charge, I attended. But not as the golden student; I packed some personal reading in the form of a stapled packet that would blend in with the handouts they gave us.
My reading consisted mainly of a chapter excerpt a friend had given me. Reading about psychotherapy while attempting to hide and appear attentive all at the same time makes for difficult comprehension. The woman began her introductions and familiarized the trainees with the theater’s layout. I dove into psychiatric therapy. The premise of the chapter dealt with motivations by which humans operate and make decisions, both minuscule and epic. The author reduced God to a myth we’ve created out of our fear of inevitable death, one of the four assurances of human experience. His arguments crashed into my faith and it spun like a race car careening for the embankment. What if God isn’t real? What if I really have created him out of terror? I fought to hold onto the ledge of conviction as the rebuttal stood above me, threatening to mash my fingers that grasped the edge of the cliff. Suddenly I didn’t care about volunteer training, about hiding my reading, or about eating or breathing. I wanted to go home, lock myself in a dark closet, and pretend none of my eternal questions needed answering. Or better, I wanted to climb Everest to stare up into the starry sky, waving my fist demanding that God prove His existence to me.
At some point amidst the deconstruction of my life’s foundation, the director finalized the first half of the training and directed us into groups to receive instruction on various responsibilities. I sleepwalked to station one. Then I saw her. She was Eve in all her grandeur. I’d noticed her earlier in the evening, but now that she was in my group she became impossible to ignore. Brown curled hair fell just below her shoulders. She wore jeans that fit like jeans should and carried a bag strapped over her opposite shoulder that spoke of being a little more professional than a sorority sister.
The leader of our station taught us how to hang a coat. This time I really tried to pay attention, but Eve danced on the periphery. As we moved from station to station, I contemplated staring, following close behind, attempting a whiff of perfume, striking up a conversation. The night wore on and I partook in none of those. Thankfully I don’t think she battled with any of the same for me.
When the evening finally ended, I signed some papers indicating the performances we (my wife and I) wanted to see, and stepped out into the Nashville night. I glanced into my hand to see the chapter excerpt that only two hours prior had challenged my very essence. The woman’s splendor had seduced my energy away from contemplating God so quickly and wholly that I disregarded the struggle entirely.
I walked past the War Memorial and city fountains and pondered this reality: Beauty is enough to make me forget God. My mind had been so consumed with the challenge of God’s existence and the fear of death without that assurance, and it was all swept away by this woman’s sheer beauty. The experience of beauty really is enough to dispel the need for certainty and conviction.
Beauty is enough to make me forgot God. If God is the source of all beauty, and He created me with an insatiable longing for Himself, that means He created me to experience and need all the beauty that He is. In His goodness and grace He created a world that reflects His beauty, including myself, and in my depravity, I’ve skewed true beauty and settled for far less, which leaves me either gasping or anesthetizing. Still, my longing for beauty supersedes my need for assurance that God exists and that I am in good standing with Him. At first this sounds incredibly heretical. But perhaps beauty does not make me forget God, but actually points me to a deeper experiential need for Him that reaches a depth deeper than my heart/brain’s demand for certainty, faith, and belief of God.
Paul talks about faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the context of discussing the significance of love, Paul concludes with a vision for heaven and a statement, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
When heaven comes, folks will discard faith and hope like worn shoes. Love will be the only activity, which of course makes it the only one of Paul’s three that has lasting value. I love the C.S. Lewis story in The Great Divorce where a man comes into heaven boasting in his ability or passion to share the gospel. It gets turned on him, however, when he realizes that his “gift” no longer has any value in heaven; the man valued sharing the gospel over intimacy with the Father, and once on the Golden Streets, enjoying God and ruling a redeemed world is all there is left to do. In heaven, dodo birds will far outnumber measures of faith.
When I am in heaven as I know it, I will have no need for faith. I will, however, gaze upon the completion of a word, beauty, that the world has spent my lifetime offering hints of, whether in distortions of illicit material or divine reflections like my wife, Hawaii’s Napali Coast, a river descending through the Rocky Mountains, and the Ponte Vecchio at sunset. But the experience of it will invite much more than gazing.
His Being will consume me with beauty words have not yet been created to explain. I can only dream about no longer aching for the attention of a pretty face. No more need to rewind a musical piece to hear a three second interval that triggers tears in my soul. It will be more than sitting aside the Painter with sunsets that never set. The Painter himself will hold my gaze. It isn’t that the need for peonies and Maui’s Black Rock Beach will go away. No, the desire will be fulfilled to a completion such that no more room for craving exists. And the consummation of beauty, in a place where faith has met extinction, will finally be a true offer of the love I searched for in the eyes of a stranger at the performance hall.
I am a falcon. I soar high above the orange and red Tennessee hills. I extend my arms and glide. I hear the quiet of the wind as it whispers over my wings. The altitude chills my tongue as I unlock my beak to announce my existence to no one. I enjoy companionship but just as much need this expanse. As I glide, I wait, patient, giving my eyes time to work. I see two-and-a-half times better than humans, and if you want to know me, you must start with my vision.
“Endangered” used to describe me, and now, even in cities, few spot me. I can survive in the clefts of a building downtown where the smog hovers or in the open wilderness where dinner scampers. People tend to celebrate the flamboyance of an eagle and miss me in the process. The wiser creatures fear me, know the sting of my power. I swoop from a mile away. Once my eyes work, my talons pierce. I hunt covertly, observe intensely, and frolic where the wind takes me. I am a falcon.
We have all read in scientific books, and indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
Some say the soul of a man is in his philosophy, but I say you can find it in his tears.
-singer/songwriter Drew Holcomb
In some of my best dreams, I am fully, and my horse cuts a new trail through valleys and over mountains, as I speak and watch the silence of anticipation, cut tape to open new dreams whether people clap or not, sip champagne at dinner as my wife blooms like a sunflower, step off the plane in Florence, Italy and Jackson, Wyoming multiple times a year, write eloquently without perspiration, witness resurrection in the hearts of men, teach and watch disciples leave my room, giggle late into the night as I lay in bed with my family, and weep hourly, alone and with others, because laughter is sweet and we are not yet home.
In some of my worst nightmares, should lives and I with it, like a horse with his nose in the butt of another, following the worn path when pulled, and I say yes to the man in the black suit multiple times a day, flip the pages of GQ, ache in my heart as I peer across to the corner office, pretend I know how to read the Wall Street Journal, ride the leather of my Benz bought on credit while I drive through the neighborhood marked 90210, order the caviar as an appetizer, smell the Chanel of the girlfriend I don’t know, and study the reactions and responses of the friends I won over beer and cards.
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.
I just returned from the Final Four in Atlanta. At times I forgot there was even a game being played. Our tickets happened to be in the NCAA coach’s section. Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s head basketball coach was about 10 rows back. Two rows behind him was Doc Rivers (former NBA player and coach). Also sitting quite close to me was Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), John Calipari (Memphis), and Steve Alford. Tim Robbins, a diehard UCLA supporter, sat within speaking distance. Last but not least was Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and his wife Juli, who sat three seats to my right. Honestly, I’m not sure who’s more of a celebrity between the two of them.
During timeouts, I found myself quite star-struck, standing up to scan the rows of faces all around me, looking for the next famous smile. It really was almost as fun as watching basketball. As I was caught up in the hoops hysteria, a C.S. Lewis quotation flashed across my mind.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners–no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
There are no ordinary people. If we were to really see deep inside the soul of the man who takes our money at the concession stand or the girl with the yellow “Event Staff” jacket who stands to check my ticket, we would be tempted to worship. They are made in the image of God. We already worship people, but only certain ones. The people listed in the beginning are worshiped by ESPN viewers on a weekly basis, especially from the months of October to March. It’s madness, not March, but the power we give people. I was star-struck, but it both lessened and increased as I talked to the man next to me. Steve is in the barbeque business and he likes to ride motorcycles. He hopes Florida will win the national title (please pray for him). I realized C.S. Lewis is right, and it should affect the way I view, judge, and dismiss people.
Kristi McLelland sat four rows behind me. You probably don’t know her. Neither did 55,000 others at the Georgia Dome Saturday night. But if they did, they would have pointed at her with greater excitement than I looked at Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and John Calipari. Kristi writes and disciples. She is a woman in whom the Spirit of God dwells. She knows the Word deeply and affects the lives of many people in her church. God uses her mightily and she reflects his image fiercely.
I had tickets to Monday’s championship game, but I can’t make it. Instead I am going to listen to the stories of some of my friends. Our time may not be broadcasted on CBS, but I will be in the midst of glorious immortals. Together we will journey, to enter into each other’s “immortal horrors” and “everlasting splendors,” hoping to find and see God better. And, hard as it might be to grasp, it will surpass experiencing One Shining Moment.