A thousand times in the weeks that followed, I reran the events of that morning in my mindreconstructing the man’s words and my thoughts. The thought that he reminded me of John the Apostle had been a passing fancy, except that he seemed to acknowledge it with that penetrating wink.
But how could John still be alive after 2000 years? Could it have been a miraculous appearance as when Moses and Elijah were transfigured in Jesus’ presence? Even if he were, could he have read my mind or disappeared so easily from view?
I even went back and read Jesus’ puzzling words to Peter about John’s future. He had just warned Peter that the day would come when men would lead Peter to his death because of his friendship with Christ. Disturbed by the thought, and perhaps desiring not to go that way alone, he pointed to John and asked about his future. Jesus' answer shocked everyone. If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.
John wrote that Jesus’ words had started a rumor among the other disciples that John would not die. But he went on to say that that was not exactly what Jesus had said. He had only said ‘what if ?’ Obviously the larger lesson of Jesus’ words was for Peter to follow the path the Lord laid out for him and without comparing himself to others. A worthy lesson, no doubt, but did Jesus mean anything more by that illustration?
I second-guessed everything about that morning. It didn’t help that when I told the story to my wife and one other close friend they hummed the theme music from the Twilight Zone and laughed it off. Their refusal to take me seriously made me far less certain of what had actually happened that day. What I could not deny, however, was that whoever that man was, his words had shaken me to the core of my Christianity.
I had never heard anyone talk about Jesus the way he did and he had provoked an insatiable hunger to find out more about this Jesus I thought I knew. He seemed to view Jesus quite differently than how I’d been taught but the simple confidence of his words made me wonder if I’d missed something. Over the next few weeks I read all of the Gospels again--this time looking beyond the lessons he taught to see just what kind of person he was. I realized that although I had been a Christian for over two decades, I had no concept of who Jesus was as a person and no idea how I could change that. The harder I tried the more frustrated I became. I threw myself headlong into my ministry, hoping to bury the hunger and the questions triggered by that morning.
Four and a half months after that initial encounter things were about to get even stranger. I had set apart the morning to study for an infrequent opportunity to teach our Sunday morning services, but a series of crises prevented me from ever opening my books. First the volunteer sound tech had a chance to go out of town and would not be there Sunday. Could I find a replacement? Someone else stopped by who wanted to complain about how unfriendly our church was. They had been attending for two years and had never been invited over to anyone’s house for dinner or out for a cup of coffee.
Then Ben and Marsha Hopkins called telling me they wouldn’t be at home group that night. This was the third time in a row they were going to miss, not a good example for someone who was my assistant leader. When I pressed them, they finally told me that they weren’t happy with the church and were considering leaving. I tried to talk them out of it. I’d invested countless hours getting them ready to lead a home group on their own, how could they leave now? Our children are enjoying a youth group at another church closer to our home and we’ve been uncomfortable for sometime with how impersonal this church has become. When they first came here they were almost ready for a divorce. I spent hours with them helping them rekindle their marriage. Now just as they were getting to a place where they could give something back they were running off to what they thought were greener pastures.
Then to top it all off the pastor called right after lunch to cancel a meeting he had asked me to schedule with two of our trustees that were having some concerns about our building program. He said he just didn’t feel like dealing with it today. It had taken three weeks for me to arrange that meeting. I was furious and had to get out for some fresh air.
My office door betrayed my frustration to the rest of the office as it slammed shut harder than I intended. It startled my secretary and drew looks down the hallway. I motioned back to the door exasperated, as if it had made all that noise on its own. As I looked back my eyes fixed on the ever-familiar sign: Jake Colsen, Associate Pastor
I still remember the first day I walked through that door, surprised that the nameplate was already in place and awed with the responsibility it placed on my shoulders. I had never planned to enter full-time ministry but the day I walked through that door I felt all my dreams had finally been fulfilled. Four years later those dreams proved as elusive as ever.
The son of working class parents, I had grown up in church. Even through the tempestuous teen-age years of the early 70’s I never strayed far from my spiritual roots. Graduating from college in 1979 with a business degree I ended up handling commercial real estate in Kingston, California, a sprawling metropolis in the fertile farmland of Central California. The economy had exploded in the 80’s and early 90’s and I had built a lucrative practice and a stellar reputation.
My wife and I had helped found the congregation I now worked for. Fifteen years ago a few families and some college students, disillusioned by the power games being played in the traditional church we attended, decided we’d do better starting a new one. We met in homes for a while; treasuring the fellowship we had together, but soon rented a building and hung out our shingle for the community. In the early days growth had been slow, but in the last 10 years we’d grown to over 2000 people, including construction of our own building and a full complement of pastoral staff.
How flattered I was when the pastor invited me to join his staff to oversee the business affairs and to help with pastoral care. I was 39 at the time, very comfortable in my profession, raising two young children. The adult Sunday school class I taught was one of the most popular on the schedule and I’d just completed two terms on the church board.
He told me how much I was needed. It would free him from responsibilities he wasn’t gifted to meet. Even though I was making more than enough money in real estate, I knew it was just moneythe god of mammon, as I’d heard it preached. Was I wasting my life on my own pleasures? What did my life really count for? I rarely had time for the things I thought most important and took the job hoping I could finally put that nagging guilt to rest.
And it did for a while. For the first year or two I was caught up in the notoriety of being on staff at a growing church and actually having time to pray and study the Bible. Soon, however, the workload became oppressive. I not only worked full days but was out five and six nights a week. I didn’t even have time to dabble in real estate on the side as I had planned to help offset my lower paycheck.
When my frustration peaked, I often sought solace in a long walk. I told my secretary I’d be out for a while and left the ministry complex headed for a park two blocks away. It had often been my refuge and sometimes prayer closet, though I hadn’t been out there much in the oppressively hot summer months of a Central Valley summer. Today it was in the lower 80s a sign that summer would eventually pass and the cooler days of autumn were approaching.
Turning the corner, however, I was surprised to see the park filled until I remembered that my wife had said it was going to be a minimum day for our kids. Disappointed, I scanned the park to see if there were any quiet corners I could stake out. That’s when I noticed hima lone figure on one of the benches across the park. Even from this distance he looked like the stranger I’d seen in San Luis Obispo.
My heart skipped a beat. I had often prayed that God would give me an opportunity to talk to that man, but had given up any hope of that. The thought of him brought back incredible memories of that morning and the hunger it had tapped in my heart. I was almost certain it couldn’t have been him, but I thought I’d at least take a closer look while I was here.
As I approached him, he appeared to be the right height, but that was tough to judge with him sitting down. The build and beard looked similar, but he had on sunglasses and a baseball cap that made it hard to be certain. He seemed to be staring off in the distance, unaware of my approach.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, and my heart was pounding wildly.
What if this is him?
What should I do? As I walked past him, his head turned and I immediately averted my eyes. It can’t be him. I couldn’t decide; didn’t have any idea what to say and had dawdled about as long as I could without saying something to him so I moved on down the sidewalk. I was ten yards past when I had enough courage to pause briefly and pretend to overlook the park as an excuse to let my eyes run back to the man on the bench.
It certainly looked like him.
His head started to turn and I turned away again feeling awkward. Before I knew it I was walking away from him again. Fifty yards up was another bench; this one empty. I meandered to it and sat down, able now to look back. The man was just getting up from the bench and started off in the opposite direction.
Oh no! What do I do? I guess it’s now or never.
I jumped up from the bench and started after him, catching up a few feet with every step. Finally I was close enough that I either had to pass him by again or speak. "Excuse me, Sir!" The words popped out of my lips before I knew for sure they were coming.
He stopped and turned towards me. "Yes." One syllable is not an accurate test, but the voice sounded close.
"This may sound funny, but you look like somebody I saw a few months ago on the coast in downtown San Luis Obispo. Any chance it was you?" His sunglasses stared back expressionless. If I could just see his eyes, I’d know for sure.
"As a matter of fact I was over there a few months ago, but only for a few days. Did we meet?"
"No, but someone who looked like you was downtown during a car show talking to a group of people out on the street."
"It could have been me." He shrugged his shoulders.
"This was an argument about religion. And if you’re the same man you stepped into the debate and spoke about Jesus and how much he really loved people. Does this make any sense?"
"Sure it does. I talk to people all of the time, especially those who are seeking spiritual things. It could have been me."
"My name is Jake Colsen." I stuck out my hand to shake his.
"Hi, Jake. I’m John," he responded offering his hand as well.
The next breath didn’t come easily nor the next few words. I felt like I’d lost my breath to a stomach punch. "Are you the same man who spoke to those people? It was a Saturday morning. Did you see me there?"
"I don’t specifically recall your being there, but it sounds like a conversation I might be in."
"Could we talk for a moment?" I glanced at my watch realizing I had only 30 minutes before I had an appointment back at the office. I motioned toward a bench not far away.
"I’d be delighted to." We walked over and sat down, staring off in the distance.
"This is going to sound strange," I finally spoke, "but I have been praying for the chance to meet you. Your words really touched me that day. You spoke about Jesus as if you had been with him personally. At one point I even wondered if you were John the Apostle."
He chuckled. "That would make me a bit old, wouldn’t it?"
"I know this sounds crazy, but as I was thinking that you stopped in mid-sentence, turned toward me and nodded as if you were agreeing with me. I tried to chase you down as you left the group, but I seemed to have lost you in the crowd."
"Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be then. At least we’re here now. What did you want to talk about?"
"Am I what?"
"Are you John?"
"John, the disciple of Jesus?" He smiled obviously amused at the prospect. "Well you already know my name is John, and I do claim to be a disciple of his."
"But are you the John?"
"Why is that so important to you?"
"If you are, I’ve got some things I want to ask you?"
"And if I’m not?"
I didn’t know what to say. I had been deeply affected by his words whoever he was. He seemed to know some things about Jesus that had certainly escaped me. "I’d want to talk to you anyway, I guess."
"Your words in San Luis Obispo moved me deeply. You seem to know Jesus in a way I’d only hoped to. I’m a pastor, on staff at a big church in townCity Center Fellowship. Ever hear of it?"
"No, I don’t think so!" he shook his head.
His answer offended me a little. Why wouldn’t he know about us? "Do you live around here?"
"No. Actually this is the first time I have been to Kingston."
"Really? What brings you here?"
"Maybe your prayers," he said laughing. "I’m not really sure."
"Listen I’ve got to go in a few minutes. Could we meet again sometime?"
"I don’t know. I really don’t have the freedom to commit to an appointment. If we need to get together again, I’m sure we will. This happened without a schedule."
"Could you come over for dinner tonight? We could talk then."
"No, I’m sorry. I already have something tonight. What’s going on?"
Where to start? I had so much but only 20 minutes left before I had to rush back to the office, and even then I’d be late.
"I am really frustrated. It seems like everyone I’ve talked to lately is running on emptyeven Christians I’ve known for decades. I met with one of our elders yesterday, who I’ve always thought to be a rock. Jim’s pretty disillusioned with it all these days. He told me he often wonders if God is even real or if this whole Christianity thing is just a crock."
"What did you tell him?"
"I tried to encourage him. I told him we couldn’t live by sight but by faith; that he’s done a lot of wonderful things for God and he’ll honor that someday. We just have to be faithful and not trust our feelings."
"So you told him he didn’t have the right to his feelings, or his questions?"
"No, that’s not what I said."
"Are you sure?" The question was gentle, not accusing.
Taken back, I replayed what I had said to him.
"Understand something, Jake, this life in Jesus is a real thing. It’s not a game. When people sense something’s wrong, you know what I’ve discovered? Something usually is."
"And I told him to ignore it," words spoken more to myself than John. I shook my head at the realization.
"Do you think you helped him?"
"I don’t know. I gave him a lot of encouragement, he seemed to be better."
John didn’t speak, letting me think it through.
"You’re right, I didn’t help him at all. I guess I just blamed him."
"Do you think he’ll come back to you next time he has those thoughts?"
I just shook my head, regretting just about everything I’d told him that morning. I’ll have to call him back and try again.
"But what about you, Jake. Is it working for you?"
"Is what working?"
"Your faith. Are you experiencing God’s life to the degree you desire it?"
"I get frustrated from time to time, just like today. But overall I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than what I’m doing right now"
John’s head didn’t move.
"I mean, I miss the money, and the free time I had, but this is far more worthwhile. We’re making a big impact on this city."
Again he sat silently. I didn’t know what else to say, but before I knew it tears began to well up in my eyes and I found myself gasping for breath. Suddenly I felt incredibly alone.
John’s head finally turned my way. "I’m not talking about what you’re doing. Are you filled with the love of Jesus like you were the first day you believed in him?" The words worked their way down into my soul and I felt my insides melting like a pat of butter in a hot pan.
"N… N… N… No!" I couldn’t seem to get it out, my voice jerking with small intakes of air. When it finally came out it did so with a long guttural sigh. "That hasn’t worked in years. It seems like the more I try to do for God the further he gets away from me."
"Or, perhaps the further you get from him."
"What?" Whoever he was he certainly looked at everything from a different angle.
"Do you know why you feel so empty?"
"I haven’t really thought about it, John. I’ve been busy and it seems like he’s using me to touch people. I just figured this is the way it was supposed to be. I don’t let myself think about it too much. It’s too discouraging. I mean I have a lot to be thankful for, wonderful children, a nice home and I’m serving God with everything I have. But it’s hollow in here." I punched my fist against my chest as my eyes moistened even more.
"Jim scared you didn’t he?"
"Huh?" For the second time, I was thrown off track.
"Maybe you feel just as empty as he does but won’t slow down enough to admit. Maybe the words you gave him were really directed at yourself."
"I would never have thought of that, but I do remember how uncomfortable I felt when he was talking. He was asking questions I didn’t want to answer."
"You know what this whole thing is about, Jake? John sat back on the bench, crossed his arms over his chest and looked out across the playground. It’s about lifeGod’s real life filling your own. The life of God is not some theological abstraction. It is fullness, freedom, joy and peace of living in him that endures in the face of your worst circumstances. That life was in the Son and he came to share it with anyone who would put his or her trust in him.
"It’s not about working hard, big ministries or new buildings. It’s about life that you can see, taste and touch; something you can frolic in every day that you live. I know my words fail to describe it adequately, but you know what I’m talking about. You’ve had moments like that, haven’t you?"
"Yes. Yes I have, but they were always so fleeting. I remember how much like that it was in the early days, but I’m a long ways from that now. What’s wrong with me? How can I be a Christian for so long, be so active in the church, and still not get it? How do I lose touch with that life, I’m certainly not trying to."
"I’ve watched it happen over and over again. It is epidemic today. Somehow our spiritual experience makes the wrong things important and we end up distracted from his true life. It happened in the early church too. Do you remember what happened in Ephesus and what Jesus said to them in his Revelation letter? Their theology was impeccable. They knew the truth so well they could spot error like a gnat in a bowl of soup at a hundred paces. They were not afraid to confront those who put themselves forward in ministry to find out who was telling the truth and who was fabricating a message just to build a name for themselves. Their endurance in times of suffering was second to none in all Christendom. Suffering seemed to make them stronger the longer they faced it and they never complained when assailed by others. But for all that was Jesus pleased with them?"
I had recently taught that passage, so I knew what John was talking about. "No, he chided them for having left their first love."
"That’s right. Amazing isn’t it? What they lacked created such a vacuum that any good they might have accomplished was swallowed up by it. They had left the ravishing love they had for Jesus in the beginning. Without it their service was meaningless. You can get so busy working for him that you lose sight of knowing him. Not one bit of it was motivated in their love for him or his for them. That made everything else they did not just worthless, but destructive actually."
"That’s me! I said. You are talking about me."
"It’s an old story, Jake. It’s been rerun a million times under a million different names. Do you remember the day the love of Jesus first captured your heart?"
The memories came flooding back. "Yes. I was in junior high school, only twelve or thirteen at the time, but I knew something was up. My parents were in the other room with thirty or so other people praying. They’d been at it for four hours with no sign of letting up. What’s more they were having fun. It was the same thing every Friday night. They couldn’t wait to get together and pray. Sometimes they sang, sometimes they laughed and sometimes they even cried. They rarely broke up before 11:00 and often went far longer."
"This was quite a change for my parents, who like us had grown up in church. We were third generation Baptist on my father’s side and Presbyterian on my mother’s. My parents had settled in as active members of the Baptist churchattending regularly and serving on a multitude of committees. But they never seemed to enjoy church. Some mornings we could even talk them out of going.
"But this was different. We couldn’t drag them away with a tow truck. They had moved from being church attendees, to people passionate about their walk with God. In the process, God was changing their lives. Old habits fell away, God’s presence was stronger than their needs and they were reading the Bible at every opportunity. I remember them praying about everything. They were joyful, free and alive in their faith for the first time. It made us kids hungry for it as well. They prayed for us and that’s the first time I remember touching the life of God. I even remember hearing God’s voice for the first time."
"What happened to that?"
"For a few years it grew, and they wanted their church to embrace it as well. But suspicions abounded and accusations flew. When the dust settled some months later it was clear that they were no longer welcome at the church. Many of them resigned their membership, but it didn’t dampen their zeal. They just saw it as persecution.
"Since they were no longer welcome at their church, they decided to start a new one together. The first gathering brought more than 80 people crammed into a small house. The atmosphere was electric. They decided to get organized, rent a building and hire a pastor."
Then for the first time I saw it so clearly. "And it slowly died. They were so distracted by all the work that they soon lost that joy of simply loving Jesus."
"Strange isn’t it, that forming something into what they thought was a church could do what persecution couldn’t? There is nothing the Father desires for you more than that you fall squarely in the lap of his love and never move from that place for the rest of your life. God’s plan of redemption from the days of creation to the day of the Second Coming was designed to bring people into the relationship of love that the Father, Son and Spirit have shared for eternity. He wants nothing lessor nothing else!
"This is no distant God who sent his Son with a list of rules to follow or rituals to practice. His mission was to invite us into his loveinto a relationship with his Father that he described as friendship. But what do we do? We are so quickly captured by a work-driven religious culture that devours the very love it thinks it sustains.
"In Ephesus it was ferreting out false teachers. In Galatia it was getting everyone to observe the Old Testament rituals. Today it’s to get them to cooperate with the church program. It doesn’t matter what leads people away from God’s life, just so it preoccupies them enough to act like an adequate substitute for it. It’s easier to see the problem when the standard is circumcision in Ephesus than when it is Sunday morning attendance in Kingston. But both can lead to the same placebored and disillusioned believers, no longer embracing Father’s life."
I didn’t know what to say. I’m not even sure I agreed with him. How could church attendance be like circumcision?
"Let me ask you a question, Jake. How many ceiling tiles are there over your sanctuary?"
I didn’t even have to think. "312, complete ones; 98 partials."
"And how do you know that?"
"I count them when I get bored."
"You must get bored a lot. Do you know how many others have, too? I met a guy once who even added up the hymn numbers on the tote board to see if they ever totaled 666. Don’t you think people sharing God’s life together wouldn’t be so good at such things? Might it be a sign that something is wrong?"
Well, he might be right.
"What was your last thought as you arrived last Sunday morning?"
That required a bit more thought. "I was reviewing my notes, trying to think of an illustration I hadn’t nailed down yet."
"Yes but what did you say to yourself as you parked your car at the building?"
It took me a moment to fish it out of memory. "‘I’ll be glad when this is over and I can get back home.’" I chuckled at the thought. "How did you know?"
"I didn’t, but it doesn’t surprise me. You know how many people think that way, even those paid to be there like you? The routine eventually withers the life, no matter how good it is."
"So Jim’s disillusionment is a good thing?" I asked incredulously.
"As is yours. When you realize that the routine you’ve stumbled into is not substantially contributing to your desire to know God better, some incredible things can happen. Sitting through the same program week after week wears thin. Aren’t you tired of finding yourself year after year falling to the same temptations, praying the same unanswered prayers and seeing no evidence that you are growing to discern God’s voice with any greater clarity?"
"Yes, I do." Even I was surprised at how fast the answer had come from my lips and the frustration that came with them. "So why do we do it?"
"The answer to that, Jake, will tell you more about yourself than it will about the church. For now, let yourself be honest about your own boredom and disillusionment. This Father has never given up his desire to share the friendship with him that you did when you were thirteen."
"There have been other times since."
"Of course, but they did not endure long, did they? If they had you wouldn’t have needed to cover-up people like Jim and bolster his spirit with soothing though empty platitudes. People like him shouldn’t be silenced as those who lack faith. Rather applaud them for their courage to treat their spiritual life as something real. If the truth be told, Jim’s honesty demonstrates more faith than your discomfort with it."
"What do I do, John? I want the life that you speak of."
"It won’t take much from you, Jake. Just be real with Father and resist the urges to crawl back into your shell and silently endure lifelessness. Your struggle stems from the call of God’s spirit to your own. Ask him to forgive you for substituting anything for the power of his love and invite him to show you how your diligent efforts at good works for him may be obscuring his love for you. Let God do the rest. He will draw you to himself."
I looked at my watch and knew I had to leave. "I’m sorry, I have to run. It’s been a long time, John, but I’m going to give it a try!"
"Good. Won’t it be a joy again to wake up loved by God every day, without having to earn it by any act of righteousness on your part? That is the secret to first love. Don’t try to earn it. Know that you are accepted and loved, not for what you can do for God, but because he chose you in Christ by his incredible mercy."
I stood up to leave and grabbed for John’s hand. He squeezed mine and held it a moment. "This is not difficult, Jake. In this kingdom you really do get what you seek. That is the point of the whole thing. If you are looking for a relationship with God you will find it."
"Then why don’t I have it? I thought that’s what I had been seeking all along."
"No doubt, it might have been at first. But this works the other way around as well. If you look at what you’ve ended up with, then you’ll know what you’ve really been seeking!" He let go of my hand.
His words ended with such finality and I was so pressed to get back for my appointment that I simply nodded. I had no idea at the time what he meant.
"I hope I get to see you again."
"Oh, I think you will… in good time."
I thanked him, waved good-bye and now late for my appointment took off running across the park. It has always amazed me that the greatest journeys of our lives always begin so simply, that we don’t even know we’ve embarked on one until we’re well down the road looking back. So it would be for me.