What happens when we need a God bigger than what we learned in Sunday School?
This article is a follow-up to a previous contribution titled, The Question that Made the Preacher Pause.
I began to speak. Since talking with Nancy, I had mysteriously acquired innate softness and genuine spirit. So with this newly acquired Nancy-like posture I answered her question. Well, at least I responded. Though it was a “yes”, “no”, or perhaps “I don’t know” question, it didn’t seem like that kind of answer. That seemed too simple. I felt like there needed to be more. Honesty demanded a deeper response; namely I needed to tell my friend about Jesus. But not just about the first-century Galilean teacher who was crucified. Nor did I want to give her some doctrinal position or just open up my Bible to 1 Corinthians or something like that. Instead I was compelled to tell her a story … the whole story.
Just moments earlier, on the other side of silence, Nancy asked me a question. She asked me if I thought her recently deceased lesbian friend was in hell. I had never met her friend. And I had only just met Nancy. She had graciously interrupted my sermon preparation with an ornery little Kindle problem. Though I didn’t know much about that sort I thing, I was happy to help. As we got things worked out with her device, we got to know each other. Nancy and I shared a small piece of our respective stories. She found out I was a pastor and a new daddy. I found out about her friend. After awhile we got to her question. In response to what I intended to be an invitation to a longer and deeper discussion, Nancy simply said, “Oh … okay. Thanks.”
We stared at each other.
Just for a moment.
And then, before I had the chance to respond further, Nancy stood up. Instinctively, I did too. She thanked me for helping her. We shook hands. She walked out the door. I sat back down and sank in my chair. I stared at my cup of iced coffee. Moisture beaded along the side of the Starbucks logo and slipped down to the table.
What was that? What did that mean? Did I blow it? Did she know what I meant? Had she heard “the story” already? What version? Who told her? Did she believe it? Should I have said something else? Should I have just started telling her the story? Did I offend her? Did she think I was dodging the question? Was I? Was I dodging the question? Should I have asked her more questions? About her? About her friend?
Another drop made its way to the table.
When I was seven-years old my dad asked me a question. After church my brother, sister, and I sat around the supper table in typical Sunday afternoon fashion. Once we thanked Jesus, we began circulating the deliciousness counter-clockwise around the table. As the green bean casserole, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes made their way around the table my dad stopped everything. He looked right at me. “Jason,” he said, “If you died today are you sure you’d be in heaven with Jesus?”
Now let’s be honest; certainty is a slippery concept for most seven-year-old boys. I was no exception. At the time all I could be certain of was that fried chicken was delicious and Mark McGwire was a stud. (Years later we all found out how artificial McGwire’s studiliness actually was at the time.) And die today? Did my dad know something I didn’t? I felt like I was just getting started. I mean I knew I was a little slower around the t-ball field the previous season but I thought I still had a few good years left. What about Jake? He was almost ten!
Despite my inner turmoil I thought I had better answer the question. And so, even though I grew up going to church every Sunday, Bible clubs every summer, and had watched every single scene of the Old Testament reenacted on a hundred year old piece of flannel, I realized I was going to have to tell my dad I wasn’t sure. After all, I knew those stories really well. Abraham, Moses, Esther you name it … I was nothing like these spiritual home run hitters. Surely the halls of heaven were reserved for the likes of these. At best I was hoping Jesus would let me try-out for the JV team.
But before I had the opportunity to break the silence, my mother, sweet southern-belle that she is, politely interrupted. Despite my dad’s apparent intention to see me saved before a single bite of fried chicken, my mom saw it differently. Supper was getting cold. She asked that our conversation wait until after we ate. I was so relieved. And I faintly remember sinking in my chair just a bit.
But then I started thinking. What if the end didn’t just come that day, but that very moment? What if Jesus himself descended from the hallows of heaven in between the fried chicken and some magic Jesus pill my dad was going to have me swallow after supper? I would have been a goner! I didn’t know much. But I did know Jesus was coming back. After all, a seven-year-old boy’s attention is easily arrested by the image of a Resurrected Warrior returning to earth from heaven to both retrieve his people to be with him forever and condemn “the lost” to eternal separation in hell. Anyway, I passed the casserole to my brother.
A few more drops slid down the side of my cup and I thought about that Sunday supper. I thought about my dad’s question. I thought about that seven-year-old kid. He needed more. In fact he craved it — a more healing remedy to the problem of his soul’s eternal destination than the ominous examples of spiritual superheroes. Those ancient example seemed impossible to follow or live up to. Tales of leading God’s people out of captivity to the Promise Land or infiltrating the ranks of an enemy’s culture to become queen? Those can pretty tough acts to follow when all you love is t-ball and fried chicken.
Spiritual dogmas, righteous examples, and most Bible verses seem violent and hopeless without a larger narrative making sense of it all. My seven-year-old self and that guy stuck on his coffee cup both knew that. We both needed that. And so did Nancy. We needed a story that covered and explained and brought understanding and possibility and life to everything else.
After supper my dad and I walked back to my parent’s room. We sat at the foot of his bed. In not so many words he asked me the question again. But before I had the opportunity to respond he reminded me a story I had heard him share from the pulpit many times before.
In the beginning before the beginning there was God and nothing else. And before there was anything else he authored a story, he made a plan. He crafted the whole narrative before a single matter played out in real space and time … or on a Sunday school teacher’s flannel graph. From beginning to end he saw every detail, knew every character, and marvelously wrote himself into the story. In fact, it was all about him.
The exposition led to a brilliant rise in action where the meticulous plan saw unfolded in the movements of creation. Even though the rise of the story gave way to the story’s peak of human flourishing in a garden where a couple enjoyed blissful relationship with God, each other, and the world around them, it was all rejected. God was rejected. And the story spun out of control. In fact the stories of people like Abraham, Moses, and Esther all fall within this movement of the story. It was a season of longing, expectation, and anticipation for a resolution.
Through the years human beings have craved a return to the blissful experience of that garden. Whether we attempt to reconcile and recover that harmonious climax through romance, work, wealth, or religion … our stories remain in this fall in action. And like any book, movie, or show, something must change its course. Something has to bring in resolution, restoration, and a return to the way things ought to be. Something need to set everything to rights again.
In the story of Christianity that resolution is Jesus. After all, the story of Abraham’s willingness to give his only son prepared the world the Heavenly Father sending his Son Jesus to a cross. The story of Moses leadership and the liberation of the enslaved people of Israel anticipated the ultimate rescue of humanity from the devastation of the fall provided by the resurrection of Christ. And the story of Esther affirmed that a life lived in light of a larger story could change the world; even if that world refuses to acknowledge the story even exists.
Maybe I should have just said, “I don’t know” or “tell me more about your friend.” Perhaps I should have told her about supper and the question my dad asked me. Or maybe it would have been best to just start in on this one big story, and about how our stories find resolution in this story. Honestly, I’m not sure what I should have done differently, or if I did anything wrong in the first place. But I did notice one last bead of moisture slip down and connect with the watery ring that now circled the entire base of my nearly empty coffee cup. Each individual drop had collected together, making one large puddle.
Photo credit: Flickr/SweetOnVeg