My brief time with John in the park turned out to be more frustrating than helpful. Though I left that day excited about new possibilities and sailed through the rest of the day with none of the stress that had overwhelmed me earlier, the excitement quickly faded.
I had a hard time remembering all he’d said and thought of a hundred questions I wish I had asked him. The fact that our time was so short and he was unwilling to make any other arrangements made me angry. Who was he anyway? Was he playing some kind of cruel joke on me? Perhaps he was some kind of madman stalking me.
But he didn't act mad. I had felt completely comfortable talking with him. It reminded me of the conversations I used to have with my dad before he passed away five years ago in a car accident. Strangely, I felt a similar affection for John, whoever he was. He had fueled my hunger to know Jesus better and that had not diminished in the months that passed, though my efforts to feed that hunger had failed miserably.
After that encounter I set aside forty-five minutes each morning before the rest of the family even woke up to read the Bible and pray. Though I had been faithful to do it every day, I couldn't tell any difference at all. The same stresses of work and home had quickly crept back in. None of my prayers seemed to have any impact even on those things I prayed about most diligently. I was discouraged, but nonetheless remained persistent.
I had hoped by now I would have crossed paths with John again, but it hadn't happened. For a few weeks I caught myself looking for him everywhere. I didn't go to a store, eat at a restaurant or even drive down the street without scanning every person to see if he was there. Occasionally I'd spot someone similar enough in build or gait to actually make my heart skip a beat. But as I got closer my hopes were dashed time and time again. I even drove out of my way a few times to check the bench at the park.
Imagine my surprise five months later when I saw his familiar face where I least expected to find itpeering through the diamond shaped window of one of our sanctuary doors. It was Sunday morning during our largest worship service, and I was walking back up the center aisle with my best whatever-would-they-do-without-me face, having just eliminated an annoying hum from our state-of-the-art sound system. All I had done was jiggle a few wires plugged in beneath the stage, but that had done the trick and we agreed to take a more careful look at it later.
I could feel people’s eyes watching me walk up the aisle, even though the pastor was praying at the time. I kept my head down until I got near my row then I took one quick look up the aisle. There he was. There was no mistaking those eyes, and my heart almost stopped as I recognized him.
Walking past my vacant seat I slid out through the other half of the double doors. He stood there with a frown on his face, and I remember thinking how awkward and out of place he looked in our building. I don’t know why he hit me that way. It wasn’t his dress. He was wearing a polo shirt and a pair of Dockers, more than appropriate for our informal California services. We had others with similar beard and longer hair looking like a holdover from the hippie days. He just somehow looked out of place.
"John, what are you doing here?" I whispered.
He turned toward me slowly, smiled to acknowledge my presence and turned back to look inside. After a few moments he finally spoke: "I thought I’d see if you had a few moments to talk?"
"Where have you been? I’ve looked for you everywhere?" He just kept staring through the window. "I’d love to talk, but now is not a good time. Our biggest service is going on in there."
He didn’t turn away from the window this time, "Yes, I noticed." Inside I could hear the congregation standing up as the worship team began to play the introduction to the next song.
"How about later? After service?"
"I’m just passing through and thought I’d see how you were doing. Are you finding some answers to your questions?"
"I don’t know. I’m doing everything I know to do. My devotional life is really coming around, better than it has ever been."
His silence told me I hadn’t answered the question. I thought I might wait him out, but it got so awkward I couldn’t help speaking again. "Oh… Well… How can I say this? I guess not. In fact, it seems like the harder I try the further he seems to get from me."
"Good." John nodded still staring into the sanctuary. "Then you’ve learned something valuable, haven’t you?"
"What?" I thought he’d misunderstood me. "I said it wasn’t working. I’ve really been trying hard and yet I still feel pretty empty inside."
"I understood." John replied turning towards me again. "Do you want to know why? Come, I’ll show you."
With that he turned and motioned his head for me to follow and started toward the hallway that lead to our education wing. As he walked away from me, I glanced back in the sanctuary. I can’t follow him now. I am supposed to be in that service. What if the sound system acts up again? What if...
He was turning the corner now. I’d lost him that way once before, hadn’t I? With no time to think it through, I took one more glance back into the sanctuary then dashed across the foyer to find him.
Rounding the corner I almost knocked over a young family coming the other way. I apologized for bumping into them, but they didn’t seem to acknowledge it. Their faces melted with embarrassment.
"The one time we’re late," the wife sighed, "and look who has to catch usone of the pastors! Honest, we never come late." Over her shoulder I saw John had stopped to wait for me leaning against the wall and watching our exchange. His eyebrows were arched upward and the smirk on his face looked like a playful, "Caught you!"
Suddenly I felt like the church police. I had made a major announcement two Sunday’s ago about how important it is to be on time so we don’t disrupt other worshippers by coming in late. I felt John’s ears zeroing in on our conversation.
"We had a flat tire on the way," the husband offered.
"You’re lucky. I’m not giving out tardy slips today." I laughed hoping to smooth over their awkwardness and mine. "I’m just glad you made it. Welcome." I hugged them both and walked with them back to the sanctuary doors. As I pulled them open an usher turned to help them find a seat.
I dashed across the lobby and turned up the hallway to the education wing. There he was standing in front of our Sunday school bulletin board, his eyes arching over the top of it following the three-inch letters that read: I WAS GLAD WHEN THEY SAID TO ME, LET US GO TO THE HOUSE OF THE LORD.
"What’s that mean?" He asked, drawing an imaginary rainbow with his index pointed at the words.
"That we should enjoy being in God’s presence." My voice involuntarily turned up at the end making my answer sound more like a question.
"Good answer. Why is it here?"
"That’s our mission statement for Christian education." I answered trying to appear nonchalant, but I knew he was driving at something. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
"We are trying to provide an atmosphere where the kids really enjoy coming to their classes."
"And ‘the house of the Lord’, would that be this building?" He pointed down both ends of the hallway.
Oops. I didn’t like where this was going. After a pause, I responded, "Well, of course we all know it means something greater than this." I was desperate for a right answer here, but I had the uneasy feeling that I didn’t have one in my arsenal.
"But what do people think who read this?"
"They probably take it to mean coming to our church."
"Is that what you want them to think?" I decided if I didn’t answer we would move on. But he again let the silence hang longer than I could bear.
"I guess we do."
"Don’t you realize that the most powerful thing about this gospel is that it liberates us from the concept that God dwells in any building. For a people steeped in the rites of temple worship this was either great or terrible news. His followers thought it was great. No longer did they have to think of God as cloaked in the recesses of the temple, available only to special people at select times."
I detected sadness in his voice and stood silent a moment.
"So then, Jake, if it isn’t this building, where is God’s house?"
"We are." I shook my head at how stupid that sign looked to me now. I wonder if John knew it had been my idea to begin with. I certainly was not going to tell him.
"Then how can anyone go to themselves?" He sighed with frustration. "Do you remember what Stephen said right before they picked up stones to kill him" ‘The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.’ That’s when they turned on him. It reminded them of Jesus’ challenge to destroy the temple and he would rebuild it in three days. People can get very touchy about their buildings, especially if they think God dwells in them."
I didn’t say anything, just nodded my head in agreement.
"And are they glad when they come?"
It took me a moment to figure out what he meant. "We hope so. We go to an awful lot of work."
"It certainly looks that way." John’s eyes were roving all over the bulletin board where announcements about training seminars, staff meetings, class activities and request forms for supplies spilled over the edges.
"A quality program takes a lot of work."
"Undoubtedly. And not a little bit of guilt, either." I followed his eyes to the center of our teacher-recruitment poster. It was a full color depiction of a teenager in punk garb on an urban street at night. In big letters down the left side it read. "If only someone would have taken the time to teach him about Jesus. Volunteer today."
"Guilt? We’re not trying to make anyone feel guilty, just giving them facts."
He shook his head and started walking down the hall. I glanced back up the hall toward the sanctuary, knowing that’s where I should be. But quickly decided I’d better stay with John who had already turned down another hallway.
As I rounded the corner I could hear the strains of children singing,
We’re all in our places, with bright shining faces
John was peeking through the partially opened door. Rows of first graders sat facing the teacher in their miniature chairs. As the song ended, there was lots of squirming, poking and laughter. One boy dressed in a bright blue sweater vest turned around to stick out his tongue at one of the girls. When he did he caught sight of us looking at him and immediately turned back around and pretended to pay attention.
We couldn’t see the teacher from our vantage point, but could hear her pleading voice shouting from our right.
"Let’s say our memory verse," she shouted. "Come on! Settle down or there will be no snack later." Apparently that was the threat they were waiting for because the room began to quiet.
"Who knows their memory verse?" Hands shot up throughout the classroom. Let’s say it together. "I was glad when they said to me," the staccato voices never changed pitch. "‘Let us go to the house of the Lord,’ Psalm 122:1." Most voices had faded out for the reference except for one girl who wanted every one to know she knew it.
"And what does it mean?" the teacher shouted above the rising noise.
"Two hands shot up, one of them the same girl who had repeated the reference so loudly. "Sherri, tell us!"
"That’s my girl," I whispered to John.
The girl stood up. "It means that we should enjoy coming to church, because this is where God lives."
"That’s right," the teacher said as I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
I shrugged my shoulders when John turned to smile playfully at me. Then he soundlessly mouthed two words: "It’s working." The look on his face pulled the plug on my embarrassment. He made it so clear that he wasn’t here to shame me.
When we both turned back to the window the teacher was passing out stars for children to stick up on the chart on the wall. We used them for things like attendance, memory verse, and if the children brought their Bibles. The class was in chaos as kids were getting their stars, dodging each other while finding their name on the chart and then licking their stickers in place.
When the class got back to their seats, the teacher went to the chart and pointed down a few of the rows. "Look at all the stars Bobby’s has. Sherri is doing well, too, as are Liz and Kelly. Don’t forget the five top Superstars will get a special prize at the end of the quarter. So, let’s work hard. Make sure you come every week, bring your Bible and work on your memory verse."
"Making a list and checking it twice?" John sang softly. It took me a minute to realize that was a Santa Claus song, not one of ours. "Seen enough?" he asked turning towards me.
"What? Oh, me. I’m just watching you. I already know what goes on in there."
"I’m not sure you do." John turned away from the window and walked a little further down the hall, stopping finally alongside the water fountain. His right arm crossed his chest with his left elbow resting on it, his left hand massaging his down-turned forehead.
"Jake, did you see that boy sitting next to your daughter in the shorts and light yellow T-shirt?"
"No, not specifically."
"Well, I’m not surprised. There wasn’t much to look at really. He wasn’t making any noise, just sitting there with his head down and his arms folded."
"Oh, I know who you’re talking about. That must be Benji."
"Benji. Did you notice that he didn’t know one word of the memory verse and he didn’t even go up to get the star he earned just for coming today?"
"No, I didn’t."
"How do you think all that made him feel?"
"I hope it made him want to do better; to bring his Bible, come more often to memorize his verse. That’s how we motivate the kids. Everyone does it."
"But how is he ever going to compete against… Sherri, was it? Are his parents as supportive as you are?"
"He only has his mom and has never seen his dad. She’s a hard worker and loves him a lot, but you know how tough single parenting can be. I can’t even imagine it myself."
"Do you think Benji will go away encouraged?"
"That’s what we’re hoping." I thought of Benji sitting there with a distant look I'd seen so many times. "But I guess we’d have to say it hasn’t worked yet. But it works for most of the other kids. We have one of the most successful children’s ministries in the city."
"Is it your point that Sherri’s feelings of accomplishment are worth Benji’s shame?"
I tried to answer his question, but couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound incredibly stupid.
"Did you go to Sunday school, Jake, when you were young?"
"I did. My parents literally raised us at church. I even won a Bible for memorizing 153 Bible verses in one, three-month contest."
John’s eyes popped open. "Really? And what drove you to that?"
"The winner got a brand new Bible."
"And I suppose you probably didn’t even need one."
I paused a moment, remembering that my parents had bought me a Bible shortly before that. I cocked my head and squinted my eyes at him bewilderedly as if to say, how-did-you-know?
"The ones who usually win don’t need the prize."
"I did have another Bible, but this was special. I won it"
"A hundred and fifty three? That’s a lot of verses."
"Memorizing has always come easy for me. I just read a verse over a couple of times and I’ve got it. It really wasn’t hard. Most verses I memorized in the morning before church."
"How many verses did the second place person memorize?"
"About 35 if I remember right. I really blew them away."
"And you’re thinking all of this is a healthy demonstration of spiritual fervor?"
Well, now that you question it…, I thought, but remained silent.
"Tell me, did you win any other awards?"
"When I was around 10, I received a gold-plated pin for three years of consecutive Sunday school attendance. The pastor gave it to me one Sunday morning in front of the whole church. You should have heard the applause. I will never forget how special that moment felt."
"It gave you something to live for, didn’t it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Isn’t that what you’ve been seeking every since, that feeling of being special?"
It was as if a veil had just been lifted off my eyes. Most of my decisions had been made craving others recognition and honor. I loved people’s approval and often fantasized about it. If the truth be told that was probably the strongest draw in leaving my real estate job and taking a position in ministry, where I could be up front, well-known and appreciated. "Did that one moment cause all of that?"
"Of course not. It was a lot of moments like that, exposing and nourishing a desire you already had way down here." He pointed to my belly. "Who doesn’t want to be liked and appreciated? It’s an easy thing to use when you’re trying to motivate people to do good things. The larger question is, did all that memorization and attendance help you know Father better"
"What’s easier for you to do, pursue relationship with the Father or your own sense of personal success? That’s the real test. It seems to me you wouldn’t be so desperate if it had really taught you how to know Father’s love. Instead, you’re so busy seeking everyone’s approval, including his, and you don’t realize you already have his approval."
"What do you mean? How could I have his approval when I’m still struggling so."
"Because you are struggling for the wrong thing. You think that you can earn Father’s approval, and that trap is one of the most diabolical. We’re approved not by anything we can do, but by what he did for us on the cross. Honestly, Jake, there’s not one thing you can do to make him love you any more today; and there’s not one thing you can do to make him love you any less either. He just loves you.
"It is your security in that love that will change you, not your struggle to try and earn it."
My eyes began to moisten with tears. He had unlocked something I’d never considered before.
"So all my efforts are in vain?"
"If they are directed at trying to get him to love you more, yes they are. If you never counseled another person or taught another class, Jake, he would love you no less."
I didn’t believe him. My mind reeled with the implications of his last statement. That’s why so many of my efforts had come up empty. I was still trying to earn what had already been given. Instead of living in that reality, I was trying to create my own.
After a few moments, John pushed away from the wall and started walking further down the hallway and I took up position alongside him.
"You know that morning you got the attendance pin? If that pastor would have really loved you, do you know what he would have said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we want to introduce a young man who has just completed a three-year span of never missing a Sunday school class. We want to pray for him because that means his family’s priorities are so askew that for the last three years they never took a vacation together. It means he probably came here when he was sick and should have been home resting. It means that winning a gold-plated trinket like this one and your approval is more important to him than being your brother. And not one day of his attendance will draw him any closer to God."
"That might have been a little rude." I countered.
"And a set-up, certainly, Jake. But if he had, perhaps you wouldn’t pursue the approval which does far more to distract you from God than it does open you up to him."
"What you’re saying, then, is that using approval to reward Sherri is not only hurtful to Benji, but harmful to Sherri as well?"
He put his index finger as if to tap an imaginary button between us. "Bingo! Do you know that more than 90% of children who grow up in Sunday school leave the church when they leave their parents’ home?"
"I have heard that. We blame that on the public schools that disaffect children from their faith?"
John raised his eyes incredulously. "Really? That’s convenient."
"Well, we’re doing our part." I said defensively.
"In more ways than you see so far, I guess."
"So you’re saying everything I learned bad about God I learned in Sunday school." I could hear the mockery and frustration in my own voice.
"Well, not quite. I didn’t say it was all bad."
"How could it be? We teach the kids about God and his Word, and how to be good Christians?" My voice faded out as it dawned on me that learning about God and what it means to be a good Christian was not the same as learning to walk with him.
"What I want you to see is that laced through the wonderful things you have here is a system of religious obligation that distorts it all. Until you see that, you’ll never know what it means to walk with Father."
"He’s done too much to free you from it to reward it. Certainly everything else in your life might, but not relationship with him. It’s not based on what we do, but what he’s done."
"So I’ve been trying too hard, is that what you’re saying? Is that why my efforts aren’t working?" Something didn’t sound right. ‘My efforts.’ Was that it? But don’t we have to do our part? I looked back at John.
"Not exactly," said John with a slight chuckle under his breath. "But you are getting close. It’s that you’re trying to earn a relationship you’ll never earn. Men and women might give you acclaim for memorizing Scriptures or attending enough services, but they are never going to be enough to earn a relationship. Besides, you’re pursuing them not because you want to know God, but because you want people to think that you’re spiritual. And you know what, that is what you’re getting out of it."
"So that’s what Jesus meant when he said the Pharisees were doing things to be seen by others and they were getting their reward. They got what they were looking for. So am I. But it’s not what I really want."
"Good. Can’t you see that the trail you’re on doesn’t go where you’ve been told it goes? It will make you a good Christian in the eyes of others, but it will not let you know him." John didn’t seem to be walking any place in particular. Aimlessly we strolled past classrooms and occasionally a person rushing through the hallways. I was so engaged in our discussion that I hadn’t noticed the strange looks people gave us. I would pay for that later.
"So I can become an incredible Christian as far as everyone around me is concerned, and miss the real heart of it?"
"Isn’t that where you are? Look at this massive program here. Look at these buildings, the needs of the children, and the demands of the machinery. What does it need to exist?"
"Obviously it needs people and money and an aura of spirituality, I guess."
"And that’s what it rewards doesn’t it? How do you stay a member in good standing here?"
"Consistent attendance, giving and not living in obvious sin."
"What do you mean?"
"Well I don’t know about this place, but mostly there are some sins that aren’t allowed at allusually immorality or teaching something the leaders don’t like. Others aren’t even recognized, such as gossip, arrogance or guilt. Sometimes these are even rewarded, because we can use those to get people to act the way we want them to."
Even our sense of sin was selective. I could see it now. I knew people who could exploit the system for their own gain, even if it hurt others. I’d done it myself. We were playing a game of religion for our own sense of success.
"Isn’t it interesting how a group of people who get together regularly will eventually develop an esprit de corps, even down to how people dress, talk, what reactions they allow and what songs they like to sing. Isn’t it pretty clear here what being a good Christian is, and isn’t a big part of that not to make any waves or ask questions that make people uncomfortable?"
He got that right.
"One of the most significant lessons Jesus taught his disciples was to stop looking for God’s life in the regimen of rituals and responsibilities. He came not to refurbish their religion, but to offer them a relationship. Were all those healings on the Sabbath, or the recording of them just a coincidence that he found more sick people then? Of course not! He wanted his disciples to know that the rules and tradition of men always get in the way of the power and life of his Father.
"And it can be pretty captivating, too, because we all do what we do thinking it pleases God. No prison is as strong as religious obligation. It takes us captive even while we’re patting ourselves on the back. I walked past a synagogue yesterday and the rabbi came outside and asked if I could come in and turn some lights on for him. Someone had forgotten to do it the day before, and he couldn’t do it himself without breaking the Sabbath."
"That’s pretty silly isn’t it?"
"To you it might be, and so would some of yours seem to him?"
"Some of mine? I don’t do anything like that about the Sabbath."
"Of course not, but what if you missed Sunday morning services for a month--just stayed home; or gave your tithe to the poor instead of putting it in the offering plate."
"Those are the same thing?"
"Yes, but I do those things not because I think they’re law, but because I am free to."
"The rabbi would say no different. But if you were honest you’d see that you do them because you believe they make you more acceptable to God and make him more favorably disposed to you. If you didn’t do them, you’d feel guilty."
At the time I didn’t understand all the implications of his words, but I knew he was right. When our church stopped having Sunday night services a few years back, I sat home every Sunday night feeling weird. I had been to church virtually every Sunday night of my life and it took me two years before I could sit home without feeling guilty, or scheduling some kind of fellowship time with people in the church so I’d feel productive.
"That’s why you can never relax, Jake. Even on your day off, I bet you have a hard time just doing nothing. You feel guilty that you’re wasting time that could be used for God somehow."
As his words were soaking in, another song drifted up the hallway from one of the classes.
Oh be careful little eyes what you see.
"There’s the worst of it," John said shaking his head in obvious pain. "I hate hearing little kids sing that song."
For a moment I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. The song was familiar. I had sung it since I was a child and had taught it to my own children because acting it out helped them enjoy it. Besides I hoped that knowing God would see everything would help them make right choices. "Are you saying there’s something wrong with that song?" I finally asked.
"You tell me."
"I don’t know. It talks about Father’s love for us and his desire to keep us from doing evil."
"But what does he become in that song?"
"I don’t know what you’re driving at?"
"It takes wonderful words like ‘Father’ and ‘love’ and turns God into some kind of divine policeman, waiting behind the billboard with his radar gun. Who wants to grow close to a Father like that? We can’t love what we fear. You can’t foster a relationship with someone who is always checking your performance to make sure it’s adequate enough to merit his friendship. The more you focus on your own needs and failures, the more distant Father will seem to you. Guilt does that. It shoves us away from God in our time of need, instead of allowing us to run to him, presenting our greatest failures and questions so that we might receive his mercy and grace. Now we’ve invoked God and his punishment to shore up our sense of what it means to be a good Christian.
"Do you see a Father here who understands our bent toward sin, who knows how weak we are, whose love wants to meet us in our sinfulness and transform us to be his children, not based on our efforts but his?"
"I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that."
"Oh yes you have. Every time you sang it you thought of things your eyes had seen and your ears heard that God would disapprove of. It made you feel bad, but feeling bad didn’t make you do any better. So intellectually you are still thinking of Father’s love, but intuitively you are being distanced from him. That’s the worst thing that religion does. Who is going to draw near to God if he’s always trying to catch people at their worst moments, or always punishing them for their failures? We’re too weak for a God like that. We will never be able to do enough to earn his love, and one slip-up and God’s right there looking down from above, ready to heap some calamity on us for failing to live up to his expectations. We use guilt to conform people’s behavior, never realizing the same guilt will keep them far from God."
We had come back to the foyer again. John stopped walking and leaned back against the wall. He looked up at me, and I spoke. "No wonder we’re always checking up on people, encouraging them to do the right thing, and rarely do we spend time helping people understand what it is to relate to a Father who knows everything about them and loves them completely."
"Yes. That’s what Jesus’ dying meant. That’s why it was both so powerful and so threatening to a culture bred in religious obligation. If you were sick of it, and realized that it alone couldn’t open the doors to relationship your heart cried out for, it was the greatest news of all. If, however, you made your living or earned your status in the system the cross was a scandal. Now we can be loved without doing one thing to earn it."
"But won’t people misuse that to justify their own sin?"
"Of course, but just because people abuse something doesn’t make it wrong. If they want to live to themselves, it doesn’t matter that they claim some kind of false grace. But to people who really want to know God, he’s the only one that can open the door. Our efforts will never be enough."
"That’s why my last few months have been so fruitless, because I was trying to earn it?"
"Exactly. Relationship with him is his gift, freely given. The point of the cross was that he could do for us what we could never do ourselves. The key is not found in how much you love him, but how much he loves you. It begins in him. Learn that and your relationship will begin to grow."
"Then most of what we’re doing here is incredibly misdirected. What would happen if we stopped it all?"
We’d come back out now by the sanctuary and the closing song filled the foyer as the ushers threw the doors open ready for the people to exit. Had I been gone that long?
"That really isn’t the issue, is it Jake? I’m talking about your relationship to the Living God, not fixing this institution. Sure it would make for a drastic change. Instead of putting on a show, we would gather to celebrate his work in the lives of his people. Instead of figuring out how we can get people to act more ‘Christian,’ we would help people get to know Jesus better and let him change them from the inside. It would revolutionize the life of the church and the lives of its people. But it doesn’t begin there," he motioned toward the sanctuary doors, "but here," as he tapped himself on the chest.
One of the ushers looked over and saw me. "Jake, there you are. Pastor was asking for you during the service. The sound system kept acting up and he wanted your help."
"Oh crud!" I moaned. "I’ve got to go," I said to John as I dashed through the doors just a step ahead of the flowing river of humanity. I didn’t know what happened to John after that, but I knew there had to be some changes in my own life, and to that Sunday school bulletin board.