‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4
There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.
He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.
I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’
I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.
The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’
For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.
He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.
In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.
If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.
Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.
When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.
When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’
And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.
And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’
My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.
As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’
You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.
There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.
Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.
Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.
When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.
Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.
The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.
That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’
I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’
They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’
I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’
And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.
I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.
I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.
One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’
Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.
And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.
Eventually, Chad returned home. I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.
There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.
Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.
He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.
In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think?
Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.
One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.
The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’
Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him. ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.
Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.
I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’
Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’
By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.
And I had no idea why.
I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.
And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old.
I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really.
I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for.
I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’
The frankness of what he’d said winded him.
A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’
I’ve known other people. I know some here.
People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.
I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.
But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.
I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.
But there is something different about them.
They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.
I’ve known people like that. I know some here.
When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.
What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.