I heard the overwhelming roar behind me drifting across the football field from the stands on the opposing side.  I didn’t even have to turn around from the concession stand line to know it wasn’t good news for my alma mater.  I craned my neck around just in time to see an orange jersey of a Sequoia Trojans player streak across the goal line with his arms lifted in exultation.  He was soon mobbed by his teammates.

I blew out a sigh and shook my head in disgust.  After holding a narrow 3-0 lead into halftime against their heavily favored opponents, the Ponderosa Bears had given up a 70-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to blow that lead.  This wasn’t just another football game.  It was the Bronze Bell Classic, a rivalry between the first two high schools in Kingston that had over its 45-year history taken on mythical proportions.  The winner claimed the Bronze Bell, a huge trophy that had been made out of the bell that hung in the old tower of the original high school and bragging rights for a year.

Nothing was more important to the seniors than to win the bell in their last year, and the alumni wanted it almost as badly.  Sequoia had held the Bronze Bell for the last six years; a humiliating string that I had hoped would end tonight.  The first half had looked promising, but I knew how easily momentum could switch on a play like that.

As I started to turn back toward the concession stand my eye caught a familiar form hunched over the railing looking out on the field.  It was hard to tell from this angle, especially since he was dressed in an oversized coat and a sock hat, like everyone else trying to stay warm.  Then his face turned to look at the scoreboard, and I saw him in profile.  Of all places, I thought.  What’s he doing here?

I gave up my place in line to go find out.  I walked up behind him and grabbed him by the shoulders.  “What are you doing here?”  I had wondered if this was some kind of set-up, but when he looked over his shoulder to see who had grabbed him he looked genuinely surprised.  A smile burst across his face as he turned and embraced me.  “Jake, it’s so good to see you.  I hoped you’d be here.”

“Somehow I didn’t peg you for a football fan,” I replied nodding toward the field.

“I’m not really, but I understand you can’t be in Kingston tonight and not take in the spectacle.  I’ve never seen anything like this… fireworks to start the game and such a frenzied crowd!”

“It’s a passionate rivalry.  It was even written up in Sports Illustrated a few years ago.  They bring out all the bells and whistles for this one.  What brings you to town?”

“I’m visiting a few people and planned to meet one of them here.  How is Andrea doing?”

“She’s not had one tinge of asthma since you prayed for her last month.  I am so grateful.” 

“That’s great.  Are you doing better as well?”

“I’m getting by.  I can’t say everything is wonderful, but I really took to heart what you said last time, John.  I’ve asked God to help me see how much he loves me even when things aren’t easy.  Financially things are still really tight, but I’ve seen God provide for us in some interesting ways.”

“Like what?”

“I’m still working on real estate, though it has been slow. In the meantime, people have hired me to do some painting or landscape work they haven’t had time to get to.  A couple of people even came by and gave me some sizeable gifts to help us get by.  I didn’t want to take them, but they said God had put it on their heart.  Each time we really needed what they offered.”

“Isn’t he amazing?”

“He cuts it pretty close to the wire, if you ask me.  I also sold my first commercial building a few weeks ago. When escrow closes that will be a big help.”

“Just remember he’s not worried about tomorrow because he has already worked that out.  He’s inviting you to live with him in the joy of the moment, responding to what he puts right before you.  The freedom to simply follow him that way will transform so many areas of your life.  He loves you, Jake, and he wants you to live in the security of that, without having to figure everything out.”

 “I’m beginning to get a glimpse of it.  I’ve been reading Romans 8 over and over trying to figure out what Paul was trying to say.  It seems Paul drew his confidence in God’s love from what he accomplished on the cross.  Because of what he knew about that he never seemed to doubt God’s love again, no matter how brutal things got for him.  I have always seen the cross as a matter of justice not love, at least from God’s eyes.  I know Jesus loved us enough to die for us, but wasn’t it God who put him through all of that?  If he would treat his own that way when he was innocent, how does that prove his love for me?”

“You’re making a common mistake.  Too many people see the cross only as an act of divine justice.  To satisfy his justice, God exercised the ultimate punishment on his Son, thus satisfying his wrath and allowing us to go unpunished.  That may be good news for us, but what does it say about God?”

“That’s what’s always troubled me.   I understood how the cross showed me how much Jesus loved me, but it certainly didn’t endear me to God.”

“But that’s not how God views the cross, Jake. His wrath wasn’t the punishment sin deserves, but the antidote for sin’s power.  The purpose of the cross as Paul wrote of it, was for God to make his Son to become sin itself, so that he could condemn sin there and purge it from the race.  His plan was not just to provide a way to forgive sin, but to destroy it forever so that we might live free.”

“How could God put him through all of that?”

“Don’t think God was only a distant spectator that day.  He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  This is something they did together.  This was not a sacrifice which God required in order to love us, but a sacrifice which God himself provided for what we needed.  As Paul saw it someone leapt in front of a stampeding horse and pushed us to safety.   He was crushed by the weight of our sin so that we could be rescued from it.  It’s an incredible story.”

“And one I want to understand better,” I responded.  “I think I’m only beginning to discover how the church has led me astray.”

“Really?”  I’d heard John pose that question many times, and usually it was with his eyes popped wide open and a chuckle in his voice.  “I don’t think the church leads people astray.  Those leading religious institutions might, but let's not confuse that with the church as God sees her.”

His use of terms confused me briefly, but I pressed on.  “A few days after we last talked I got in touch with Ben Hopkins.  He used to be my assistant in a home group I led before I got railroaded out of City Center.  He’s discovered something called house church and has found a lot of information about it on the Internet.  He and I are going to start one this weekend.”

“You are?” He seemed markedly less excited about this than I thought he would.

“Yes.  Isn’t that where it all began?  The early believers met in each other’s homes. They didn’t build huge organizations. They didn’t have a clergy to run everything.  They simply shared community as brothers and sisters together. That’s what I’ve been looking for since I became a believer.  I’ve always thought our view of church seemed to present more problems than it solved.  

“This is the only answer I’ve ever heard that got me this excited.  It seems there are thousands of people all around the world who have given up on our traditional congregations and are trying to rediscover life like the early church experienced it.  Many are calling it a last-day move of God to purify his church.”

“And that will happen just by meeting in a home, will it?”

His seeming cynicism surprised me.  “You don’t think so?”

“Don’t get me wrong, Jake.  Finding more relational ways to share life with other believers is a marvelous direction to head.  But just moving the meeting into a home will not accomplish all that you hope for.”

“We know that.  We’ve got a group of five families who want to start a house church together and really work at community.  We’re having our first meeting Sunday night?  Would you like to come?”

“I would love to see what you are doing, but I doubt I’ll be in town that long, Jake.”

Just then I saw a familiar face come out of the crowd walking towards me.  Scanning crowds near me had become a habit since I left City Center.  So many lies had been spread about me that I was tired of facing them.  Now one of the worst perpetrators of that rumor mill was going to pass by me.  Bob was a member of the church council and we had been in an accountability group together for a long time.  Just when I thought he wouldn’t see me, our eyes met.  Trying to be civil I extended my hand, “Bob, how are you doing?”

He scowled, turned away and soon melted back into the crowd.  I felt like an idiot with my hand extended and my face flushed with shame as I realized John had seen it all.  “I hate that," I said turning around to face the field.  John turned too, putting one leg up on the bottom bar of the railing and perching his elbows on the top bar. 

 “Ever since we left City Center I get the same thing. People who used to be close friends turn away as if they don’t even know me.  Bob and I were close.  I got him through a tough time with his wife a few months ago and now he can’t even acknowledge  me.”  I shook my head in disgust.  “And that’s not even the worst of it.”

“It’s not?”

“I feel sick when people I thought were my friends turn away pretending not to see me.  But that’s at least more honest than those who stab me in the back then rush up to me in public with hugs and smiles pretending nothing ever happened.  I ran into my old pastor the other day at a wedding.  He ran up and hugged me, pretended we were the best of friends, all the while looking around to make sure others were noticing how loving he was.  I wanted to push him away, but I knew how unloving I would have looked.” 

“It’s incredibly sad, isn’t it?”

“Sad?  I’d say it’s downright contemptible!”

“Is that what you’re feeling from him?”

“I wasn’t talking about his contempt, I was talking about mine!” 

“I am too, Jake.   Other people’s contempt can’t touch you if you’re not playing their game.”

“What game are you talking about?”  Just then screams from across the way drew my eyes to the field just in time to see the football falling out of the air after another long pass into the arms of another dreaded Trojan.  The receiver raced untouched to the end zone. 

“We’re going to throw this thing away again.”  I muttered angrily.  Now I would suffer another year of humiliation for my alma mater’s defeat. 

“That’s the game, right there!  Your worth as a person is tied up in what fifty high school kids do or don’t do out on that field.  You’re in the game and that’s why you feel so horrible when people don’t know how to respond to you.”

“What are you talking about, John?  That’s just a football game.  I’m talking about real flesh and blood people here.”

“So am I.  Tying your worth to fifty people out there or a lie someone tells about you is pretty much the same thing.”

As the Trojans scored their extra point, I knew the game was slipping away.  “Besides, this isn’t a fair game anyway.”

“It’s not?”

“No.  That quarterback launching all the touchdowns should have been playing for us.  He used to be in the Ponderosa District, but transferred to Sequoia when he started high school.  He’s probably the best athlete this town has ever seen.  Rumor has it there were a lot of underhanded dealings with the coach at Sequoia to get him to go along with it.  He said he could get him a scholarship at a major college program after graduation.”

“You know this?” 

“Everyone knows it, John. They even say he’s got a drug problem now and the school buries it so he can keep playing for them. They’ll probably be Valley champs this year.”

“You’re talking about Craig Hansen, right?”

“You know him?”

“I know his dad pretty well.  He’s the man I was having breakfast with when I met you at the coffee shop almost a year ago.  I don’t think you have your facts straight at all.  Craig’s a great kid and I can assure you he’s not taking drugs.”

“He still abandoned us.”

“You don’t have any idea what happened, do you?  During his eighth-grade year, Craig’s mother died and his dad’s business failed.  They couldn’t hold on to their home anymore and had to move in with his dad’s sister and her family.  There was no way they could drive him across town to play with his old teammates.  It killed Craig.  Even now he has few friends on the team.  They love his arm, but he’s lonely because few people have an interest in him.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“But that’s the truth.  I’ve walked with his dad through the whole thing.”

“Why didn’t he tell anyone?  He just disappeared and showed up playing for our hated rival.”

“He was too embarrassed to try to explain it even to his classmates.  His problem is not so unlike yours.”

“What do you mean?”

“He too knows what it is to have former friends turn away from him when he sees them at a mall.”

“Touché!”  I shook my head as I smiled back at John.  I never see him sneaking up on me until it’s too late.  “I’m doing the same thing to Craig others are doing to me.”

“Well, that’s only part of it, Jake.  You’re caught in the same approval game.  That’s how this culture works.  Do what they want and they shower you with affirmation.  Cross them and they’ll crucify your reputation, with or without the facts.” 

“I am so sorry for Craig.  I never knew.”  

“And I’m sorry for you, Jake.  Religious systems have to play the approval game to work.”

“Is that why I could go from ‘rising star’ one moment, to condemned outcast the next?”

“Exactly,” John said.  “And why you could go back to ‘rising star’ tomorrow if you went back, and admitted it was all your fault.   They would celebrate your return as quickly as they showed you out the door.  All that matters is that you stay in their game.”

We both stared out over the football field, but I had long ago lost track of the game.  Then it dawned on me.  “So even though I’m not there I’m still playing it, aren’t I?”

“Oh, yes,” John smiled, “It’s a lot easier for you to get out of the system than it is to get the system out of you.  You can play it from inside and out.  The approval you felt then came from the same source as the shame you feel now.  That’s why it hurts so much when you hear the rumors or watch old friends turn away embarrassed.  Truth be told, some of those people still really care about you.  They just don’t know how to show it after you no longer play on their team.  They’re not bad people, Jake, just brothers and sisters lost in something that is not as godly as they think it is.”

“My daughter, Andrea, told me that last week at school she overheard two teachers talking.  They didn’t know she was on the other side of the bathroom door when they passed by.  She heard my name so she stopped to listen. She recognized one voice coming from an elder at City Center who teaches at her school.  He told his colleague that I had really harmed the church and that he’d heard I had a drinking problem.”

“How did she handle that?”

“I asked her what she thought, and her answer surprised me.  ‘Well, Dad,’ she said, ‘When you dig a hole for yourself, I guess you have to throw the dirt on someone.’  Then she dashed off to play.”

John laughed as hard as I’d ever seen him laugh.  “I love it!  It’s amazing how easily children see through the game.  Who you are doesn’t change in her mind because of what others say.  She’s not playing.”

“But why can’t those other people see how this game is so destructive?   They are being lied to!”

“They don’t want to see it Jake. Religious systems prey on people’s insecurity.  They haven’t learned how to live in Father’s love, follow his voice and depend on him.  Consequently they can’t do anything that might upset their place in the game, or they’ll feel lost.   Remember our walk through your Sunday school program a year or so ago?  We wire people to their approval needs at a very young age and try to exploit it their whole life long.”

“And part of that training is to marginalize those that don’t go along.”  I let out a deep sigh.  “I’ve certainly done that to others.  I had no idea how it felt from this side.”

 “Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends.  When you’re not, people have to treat you like damaged goods.  Now you know what that’s like from the other side and one of the big things Jesus is doing in you now is to free you from the game, so that you can live deeply in him rather than worrying about what everyone else thinks about you.”

“I’ve been tortured by that my whole life.”

“And as long as you need other people to understand you and approve of what you’re doing, you will be the victim of anyone willing to lie about you.”

“Am I just supposed to take it?”

“You’ll learn how best to handle it, but right now you need to know that your need to convince others how right you are is your need.  It’s not God’s.  Did you ever notice how little attention Jesus paid to his public relations?  Even when people didn’t understand at all and accused him of horrific things, he never rose to his own defense and he never let it deter him from what he knew Father had asked him to do.”

“He wouldn’t play the game.”

“That’s exactly right, Jake, and he’s helping you to stop playing it too.  As he does you won’t believe how you’ll be able to help others find the same freedom.”

“Well, I’m done with it!  I’m not playing the game anymore.”

John chuckled again.  “How I wish it was that easy.  You already knew they were wrong, but it still bothered you.  How are you just going to stop?  Actually, this is going to be a bit of a process. Even the pain of feeling rejected is part of it.  He is using what’s going on around you to help you learn how to care more what Father thinks of you than what anyone else does.”

“That’s why I’m excited about our new house church. We can deal with real issues like this.”

I expected him to encourage me to go for it instead he just looked at me as if I hadn’t heard a word he’d said.

It took me a moment to sort out why and then it dawned on me.  “Is this that game, too?” 

“It doesn’t have to be,” John answered, “but it could be the way you’re going about it."

“What do you mean?”

“If this is another place for you to find your identity and to bury your shame by thinking you’ve got a better way to do it than anyone else, then you’re sating the same thirst, just from a different fountain.  That’s what I hear when you call it a great move of God.  You’re still talking like you’re a competitor with other brothers and sisters.  You can’t love what you’re competing against and if you’re keeping score you can be sure you’re competing.”

“So we shouldn’t do it?”

“I didn’t say that, Jake.  What I hope you’ll do is simply let God connect you with those brothers and sisters he wants you to walk with for now.  Think less about ‘starting’ something, than just learning to share your life in God with others on a similar journey.  Don’t feed off your need to be more right than others, then you’ll know more clearly what he is doing in you.”

At that moment someone grabbed me from behind in a bear hug around my waist.  My heart sank as I wondered who it might be until I heard her words.  “I wondered what happened to you.”  It was my wife, Laurie.  “Where’s the popcorn and soda?”

I gave her a hug and realized the game was almost over. “I ran into someone and just got lost in the conversation.  Here, let me introduce you.  This is John, the one I’ve been telling you about.”

“You’re kidding,” she said, leaning around me and sticking out her hand to shake John’s. 

He took it and smiled.  “It’s a real pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Well you don’t look 2,000 years old,” Laurie said to my embarrassment as she sized him up with a smirk on her face.  In my recent conversations with John our friendship had overshadowed my past guessing game when I wondered if he might be the Apostle John. 

I started to butt in, but John beat me to it.  “Looks can be deceiving,” he smiled back with a wink.   “I’d love to talk some more, but I’ve got to meet up with some people before the game ends.  I hope we’ll have time to talk further, Laurie.” 

“Oh no you don’t, I’ve got a lot I want to ask you.” 

“Another time, I trust,” he said as the crowd across the way erupted again.  I looked up to see a Trojan score yet another touchdown. A quick glance at the scoreboard showed we were behind 24-10 with only a minute remaining. 

“Don’t you hate that quarterback?” Laurie said shaking her head.

“Not anymore," I said.  Laurie looked at me surprised.  “Who is in there?” she said probing my eyes.

By the time we turned around to talk to John he was gone.  We both looked through the crowd to see which way he went, but couldn’t find him.