They’re too religious and too intense, and always with too many people. So when I saw on my schedule a pastors/staff retreat for a church in Nashville, I reached for Prozac and booze. Well, that’s not true. I don’t drink and haven’t had to take anti-depressants yet. I did, however, think about both.
Man, did God surprise me. The church was Midtown Fellowship, and we met at a large and quite beautiful home on a lake near Nashville. I spent Monday with the nine pastors at Midtown and then Tuesday and Wednesday with the rest of the staff. They were some of the most affirming, joyful, engaged, free and committed Christians I’ve been with in a long time. Not only that. They got grace big and had been reading my book, Three Free Sins. They were so free that I felt like a Pharisee.
As I drove away from the lake that last day, Jesus said, “You’re welcome. That was for you.” It really was. And I’m a bit less cynical than I was before the retreat.
Other than Jesus, when I started the long drive home, something else happened. The two women in my car started fighting over the directions.
Okay, that didn’t come out right. Let me explain.
After I got lost in Philadelphia a number of years ago and almost died, George (Key Life’s president) insisted I get a GPS. (I’ve been lost in every city in America and several times in some of them.) So I got a Garmin. (Those things are miracles to me…almost greater than the virgin birth.) I used that Garmin for the next few years. Frankly, the woman on the Garmin giving out directions sounded like an angry schoolteacher perpetually irritated with me, but she did get me to the places I needed to go, so I put up with her attitude.
Then I got a smartphone with a GPS (Google) app on it. The woman on my smartphone was a lot nicer than the one on my Garmin who I fired. I enjoyed traveling with the woman on the smartphone who liked me, spoke softly, and never shouted, “Recalculating…you dummy!” I was happy. And then the smartphone store offered me another free GPS app, Scout, with a woman even nicer than the Google one.
Okay, now back to my story. When I drove away from the lake (it was in the middle of nowhere), my Google app (the GPS I usually use) wouldn’t work. So I went to the woman on Scout for directions. As I got closer to Nashville, the Google GPS started working. I was quite pleased until I got to downtown Chattanooga in the middle of drive time when the two women started giving me different directions, each insisting I was going the wrong way when I followed the other’s instructions.
I finally pulled over and turned off my phone. If anybody saw me sitting in the car laughing they would have thought I was a crazy. When I turned my phone back on, I loaded just one of the direction women and, with one person giving me directions, got home safely at about one in the morning. (I wouldn’t do this for anybody but Jesus.)
Speaking of Jesus, one time Jesus was talking about money and how it can become an idol. As a part of what he was teaching, Jesus said something that is true in a lot of areas, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…” (Matthew 6:24). I don’t know if I hated the woman I turned off on my smartphone…but I certainly wasn’t that happy with her either.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the voices that come at me 24/7. Most of them are con artists, fear mongers and manipulators trying to sell me something I don’t need, make me into something I don’t want to become, join a cause I don’t believe in, and/or get me to do something I don’t want to do. And there are a lot of “religious” voices too. They tell me to be ashamed, repent and eat dirt, and maybe then God will forgive me. And even if he doesn’t, he might hold off the lightning bolts. There are thousands of messages about who God is, what he wants, and how I should live for him. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to separate the lies from the truth. That’s one of the reasons I love the Bible. When I go there, I always get the truth and meet the One who is the truth. It’s why the Bible is so refreshing.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the voices that come at me 24/7.
I love my missionary friends, Tom and Mona Sloan. Tom is a broadcaster and pastor in San Cristobal, Mexico, who gets grace big and it costs him big. While I was writing to you, I got an email from Tom. He wrote, “Good Morning Steve, I need help.” Tom told me that it was harder and harder to be as nice and kind as he knew he ought to be because his irritation with “religion” kept getting in the way. I, of course, told him, “Learn to fake it…especially if you want to keep your job.”
Let me quote some things Tom wrote. He described a broadcast he had recently aired, quoted and commented on a lot of Scripture about the Gospel, and then wrote:
“What are we saying when we observe rules, laws and commands of men? We are saying—Christ, I don’t need you. I can please you with my religion. We have come to believe that God instituted religion as a means of pleasing him, but Christ is the only means by which we can please him. I’m a skeptic about what man says that God says because man says one thing about my sin, but God says another. Man says that I must be faithful to God so he can bless me, but God has already blessed me with every blessing in Christ Jesus…
“I’m a skeptic, because man doesn’t possess the ability to present the Father as Christ presented him.
“I’m skeptical about the complexities of modern theology. It confuses me. If a religious system condemns me then I have to be good to gain God’s favor or somehow deal with a God who is mad at me, I’m in trouble. Thus, everything Christ said about the Father was a theological scandal…and such good news.”
Bob Dylan, during his “Christian phase,” recorded a song, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He wrote and sang, “You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride / You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side / You may be workin’ in a barbershop… / You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Dylan’s right. We do have to serve somebody…to pick the voices we listen to.
I got a critical letter recently telling me I needed to repent. The man who wrote the letter suggested that I read some books, and he included a mini-bibliography of very famous and straight Christian authors who don’t like people like me. I read his letter and thought about getting out the books he suggested. Frankly, I was depressed and had just about decided to go into vinyl repair when Jesus came.
Anna used to quietly say to our daughters when they were little, consumed too much sugar and were bouncing off the walls, “Shhhhh, girls! Look at me! Look at me! Listen.”
Jesus said that to me then, “Steve, look at me. Listen to me.” That’s when I remembered the people with whom he hung out—the sick, the needy, the drunks, the prostitutes, the broken and the sinful—and I figured I had found my kind of people.
“Shhhhh,” Jesus said. “Listen to me! There is no greater love than when someone lays his life down for his friend and you’re my friend. Look at me! My yoke is easy and my burden is light and I’ll give you rest for your soul. Only sick people need a doctor. I’m a physician, not for the righteous, but for sinners like you. Listen to me!”
So I burned that letter and decided to listen to Jesus. I’ve learned to listen to only one person when I’m driving…and Jesus about everything else.
He told me to remind you that you should too.