Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bigger and Grander

...Leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:28-29)

In the film Harvey, Jimmy Stewart's eccentric character Elwood P. Dowd is best friends with the title character – a six-foot, three-inch tall white rabbit that few people but him believe is real. While the film drops hints throughout, most people who “meet” Harvey assume that Elwood is alcoholic, insane, or both.

The plot of the movie has to do with Elwood's family attempting to commit him to a mental institution because they can't live with his “delusions” about Harvey any longer. But throughout all of his sister's and niece's attempts to commit him, Elwood remains kind, pleasant, and unperturbed - “Every day's a beautiful day” is one of his first lines in the film. In contrast to most of the other characters, he seems truly and genuinely happy. Despite his “delusion” he is, ironically, the most admirable and enviable character in the film.

And the reason for that is obvious: Jimmy has a center and a purpose to his life. He explains it in an alley outside a bar, where he tells two workers from the mental institution about the way he and Harvey spend their days:

“Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars and - have a drink or two - play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people - they turn toward mine - and they smile. And they're saying, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fellow.' Harvey and I – warm ourselves in all these golden moments. Uh - we've entered as strangers -- soon we have friends . And they come over and they - they sit with us, and they drink with us, and they talk to us. And they tell about the big terrible things they've done – and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes and their regrets, their loves and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.
And then - I introduce them to Harvey. And he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And - and when they leave, they leave impressed.”

Harvey is Elwood P. Dowd's center and purpose. And, as people get to know Elwood, they get to know Harvey – and Harvey becomes their center and purpose as well. It's not that Elwood proves Harvey's existence and answers all their questions or fixes all their problems. It's that Harvey makes their questions and problems seem small by comparison.

Something similar seems to have happened to a woman in the town of Sychar a couple of millennia ago. It was an ordinary place – a literal “local watering hole” – the town well. Had it been today, she might very well have been coming into a pub for a quick lunchtime drink.

She had probably been to that well at least once every day, but today there was a stranger sitting there. He asked her for a drink, and a conversation ensued about “living water” that satisfies forever, and that even comes pouring out of the person who drinks it like a spring of life. She finds that he knows her, knows her problems and failings, knows that she's not loved or valued by the people closest to her. And by the time the conversation ends, she knows him – she knows who he is, and that he's bigger and grander than all her hopes and regrets, all her loves and hates.

And when she leaves him, she's not just impressed. She talks about him to anyone who will listen, and a remarkable thing happens:

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42)

Just as Jesus promised, once she knew him, a spring of that living water gushed out of her and inundated her town.

It strikes me that, in the film, if people didn't care to be with Elwood, or if he didn't have time for them, then there's a good chance they would have missed meeting Harvey. That's just the way Harvey chose to do things. It's the way Jesus often does them, too. Usually, people seem to meet Jesus when they meet someone who knows him. And they find that this person listens, and honestly cares, and they enjoy being with him or her. And that's when they meet the other person who's been there at the table all along. Jesus. And that's when things change.

If I'm honest, I don't think I've ever changed anyone with my wit or intelligence or piety or Bible knowledge. Every time I've tried that, in fact, it's ended up a disaster. Truthfully, I've given up changing people. If I can be like Elwood P. Dowd – a “nice fellow” who takes the time to be with people and hear them and introduce them to the Savior who's bigger and grander than either of us – well, I think my life will have been well spent.

Late in the film Dr. Chumley, who's in charge of the sanitarium to which Elwood is to be committed, meets with Elwood alone in his office. He's had an afternoon of his own with Harvey, and it's changed him. He says:

“Mr. Dowd, what kind of a man are you? Where do you come from...And where on the face of this tired old earth did you find a thing like - like him?
Yes - it's true - the things you told me tonight. I know it now.”

Sometimes I wonder, as we in the church try to force people to behave in a certain way, to change, to be more like – God forbid – us; I wonder if we believe it's true. That Jesus is real, and alive, and that he's bigger and grander than all the things we carry around with us. Living water only comes flowing out of us after we've gotten to know Jesus ourselves. Until we believe in him, in his power, as completely and winsomely as Elwood believed in Harvey, our efforts to introduce others to him will come up dry and empty.

So get to know him – not about him, get to know him. Spend some time with him. Take him with you when you're out. Make time for the people you meet along the way, and then somewhere along the line introduce them to Jesus.

I'm sure some interesting things will happen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Old Spice Evangelism

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

Did you happen to buy any Old Spice Body Wash this week? If you did, you might have Portland, Oregon, ad agency Weiden + Kennedy to thank.

Weiden + Kennedy is the agency behind Old Spice Guy, who's been on TV since the Super Bowl. Old Spice Guy, in real life named Isaiah Mustaffa, is the chiseled, baritone-voiced, shirtless, towel-clad guy who walks confidently across your screen, striding from one manly situation to another, while telling women (and men, implicitly) that their men could smell like him – and be as masculine as him – if they were to invest in Old Spice Body Wash.

I say he speaks to women, because that's exactly why he was created in the first place. Old Spice Guy was born when Proctor and Gamble, the parent company of Old Spice, did some customer surveys that indicated that women actually buy the large majority of male body wash, and that they buy it because they want their men to smell a certain way. So Weiden + Kennedy developed a character who appeals to both male and female sensibilities – he can “bake you a gourmet cake in a kitchen he built for you with his own hands.” Men think he's cool, and women think he's sexy, and both genders appreciate the humor. Everybody wins, and Old Spice sells a lot of body wash.

But Weiden + Kennedy weren't happy with that. And so they took their targeted advertising to a new, never-seen-before level.

This week, Old Spice Guy popped up in a few Web videos. Then the company invited customers to contact Old Spice Guy. You sent a message to him through social networking sites or email, and within a few minutes there would be a new video of Old Spice Guy responding to you, personally. He gave relationship advice, proposed on behalf of one guy, told a Blackhawks fan what he'd do on a day with the Stanley Cup, and answered a question about sharks. Celebrities got in on the act – he responded to four tweets by actress Alyssa Milano, and he gave Demi Moore a “special video response” – meaning that in essence Proctor and Gamble has celebrity spokespeople selling their product for free. And, of course, those videos were posted and re-posted online, widening the reach of the ad campaign that much more.

Analysts are touting the ingenius way the ads target such specific demographics – and especially specific people. By developing an appealing character and refusing to take the one-size-fits-all approach that a lot of marketing uses, the developers of this campaign are using the relatively new technology of social networking to get their message across in a powerful way.

It's not really a new idea, though.

Paul used the idea in proclaiming the good news of Jesus. “I have become all things to all people,” he wrote to one of the churches he planted, “so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul didn't insist on standing on a street corner – or in a church building – shouting the same “authorized” sermon over and over. He thought about his audience: who he was trying to convince, what their concerns were, where they were already in regard to religion and morality, how their native culture would affect the way they heard him. Paul didn't mass-market the gospel. He didn't even pick one particular demographic and get really good at converting people who fit in that category. He came to people and groups individually, and tried in his interactions with them to gain the best hearing for the good news of Jesus that he possibly could. He could quote from the Old Testament, and he could quote Greek poets. He could address the struggles and questions of people who were coming to Jesus from Judaism, and he could also engage with folks who were coming out of paganism.

He learned the approach, I guess, from Jesus, who never crossed paths with someone who was sick or lame or demon-possessed...or dead...and left them as they were. He learned from Jesus, who could eat with Pharisees and tax collectors alike, and who could make a difference in the lives of Roman centurions, Jewish synagogue leaders, and raving, homeless maniacs. Jesus became all things to all people on the way to a cross, where he would give us the one thing all of us need. But before people could trust him as their Savior, they heard his voice and felt his touch as their friend.

The problem with that approach is that it seems slower, and less efficient, and it takes a whole lot more thought and effort. Is that why the church has largely abandoned the methods that Jesus and Paul used? Is it that we want to proclaim the gospel to more people, more efficiently? Or is it that we really don't care enough about people without Jesus to do the work of getting to know who they are and how we can best communicate the gospel to them?

So we conduct our worship services in buildings full of believers, and call it evangelistic if we offer an invitation or altar call. We worry that people won't come to church anymore. We wonder if even our children will follow the Lord.

Maybe we need to be more like Paul, and Jesus before him. Before people believe our message about the Savior, maybe they need to hear our voices and feel our touch as their friends. Maybe we need to speak less and listen more: to what's on their minds, what they're worried about, what they believe, what they doubt, what they love, what they hate, and where they come from. Then we'll know a little better who they are, and maybe figure out how to talk about Jesus in a way they can hear.

And if you're worried about how we'll communicate that way to all the people who need to hear the gospel, well, take a look at the number of people viewing those Old Spice videos. Most in the hundreds of thousands, already, in just a day. Some over a million views already. You and I won't be able to reach even a fraction of the people who need Jesus. But we won't have to. Because when you hear an appealing message presented in a way that resonates with you, you want to tell others about it, don't you? And they will too, if we speak to them.

Smells like evangelism, doesn't it?

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Riding the Bull

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:25-31)

How big a risk would you be willing to take? Depends on the stakes, doesn't it? Depends on the payoff. Depends on what it might cost you. Even the most cautious of us has a threshold of risk that we're willing to accept.

This week, I took the risk of “riding the bull.” Not an actual bull, you understand. (That's a little past my acceptable threshold of risk.) It's something you do in whitewater rafting – the term for sitting on the very front edge of the raft as you go through the rapids. It leaves you vulnerable, easily thrown from the raft. It's a risk, in other words.

Before you get the impression that I'm a daredevil, understand that Ben, our guide, gave me the idea. He told me it would be OK. It was a relatively safe stretch of rapids, he told me. He told me how to do it. He had made a couple of hundred runs down that stretch of river. Even though I didn't know him before our raft trip I knew that it would look bad for him if he lost a customer. And since I trusted Ben, I was willing to give it a try.

I also trusted the other people in my raft. Besides Ben, there was my wife, my son, my parents, and my sister. I figured it was a safe bet that there was no one in that raft who wanted me lost in the Ocoee River. I knew they'd help pull me in. I knew I wasn't alone, and it made the risk more acceptable.

And then I had the safety gear on: the helmet and the life vest. If my noggin bounced off a rock, the helmet would protect me. If I went into the drink, the vest would keep me afloat. I was as protected as I could possibly be.

So I gave it a shot. I climbed up on the edge of the raft and dared the river to knock me off.

And, as seems obvious in hindsight, the river obliged.

But after a few moments of shooting down the rapids on my back, the people I put my trust in came through. Everybody in my raft rowed, and the vest and helmet kept me afloat and protected, and Ben grabbed the shoulder straps on my vest and hauled me into the boat. I was wet, a little tired, but none the worse for wear. And now I have a great story to tell.

That's the thing about risk. It's, well, risky.

Of course, it's also part of life. When you quit a job for what seems like a better opportunity, there's always a risk that new opportunity won't work out, or won't be what you thought it was going to be. When you take over a difficult project, there's a chance that you'll succeed and impress everyone. There's also the risk you'll fall all over yourself and wind up looking incompetent. But sometimes you have to take risks, don't you? Think of all the amazing discoveries and inventions that never would have happened if someone hadn't taken the risk and ridden the bull.

And sometimes responsibility demands that you take a risk. It's risky to warn someone you love about the self-destructive behavior they're engaging in. They may not take it well, but you have to take the risk, don't you? It's risky to speak out when you see someone being taken advantage of. But the moral imperative is too strong to let it go unchallenged. It's risky to share your faith with someone who doesn't believe in Jesus, isn't it? But the grace of God is too compelling to stay safe and silent.

Peter was willing to ride the bull. On a windy night out on the Sea of Galilee, he paused from trying to get the little boat he and the other disciples were sharing to shore. He looked up to see Jesus, walking across the choppy water toward the boat. And the only thing he could think was that he wanted to do that, too. “Tell me to come to you on the water,” he asked Jesus. And Jesus told him to come.

A risk, for sure. Logically, you'd expect that if he left the relative safety of the boat to step into the waves, he'd drop like a stone. But Jesus told him to come, and therein lies the lesson. If Jesus tells you to take a risk, you can take it. If you can hear the call of God in the risk you're considering, then step up and ride the bull. Step out onto the water. However foolish the risk may seem, it's no risk if God calls you to it.

That's the thing, isn't it? How do you know? Short of a voice from Heaven, how can you tell whether a risk is God's will or your own vanity or ambition? For one thing, if it's God's will it won't contradict what you know that Scripture says. For another, if you think it's God's will it's probable that at least some of God's people will agree with you.

Another indication requires some honest self-evaluation; if it's God's will for you to take a risk in your life, it might not be something that you would have come up with on your own. It might even be against your own natural inclinations and outside of your areas of strength. Always, if you think God might be calling you to take a risk in your life, you should spend some time in prayer and some time in conversation with the church.

Peter, you recall, was fine as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. When he started seeing the risks, started dwelling on how scary what he was doing was, that's when he started to sink. That's the way to take a risk, then: keep your eyes on Jesus. Trust him, and know that he'll extend a hand to pull you up. If Jesus calls us to a risk, after all, he'll be there to rescue us if we get in trouble.

Follow the Lord when he calls you to take a risk, and you'll have a great story to tell.

Sure, it seems safer to stay in the boat. But when the Lord calls, you have ride the bull.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 2, 2010


But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

His coming has been long anticipated. Millions have placed their hope in him. In hard times, they look at the signs and wonder, “Could this be the time?” They talk about his arrival with a mixture of impatience, joy, and expectation that you can see in their eyes and hear in their voices. The hope of his coming gives them reason to live, reason to struggle through the darkness and pain, reason to believe.

“If only LeBron James comes to Chicago,” they say, “the Bulls will be great again.”

I'd explain that LeBron James is a basketball player, but you probably already know that. You probably also already know that his contract with his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, expired at 12:01 AM on July 1st. That's when all the excitement and hype really started. But it's been building for a long time, particularly here in Chicago, where our NBA team, the Bulls, has a chance of signing him. When the Cavaliers played here last season, Bulls fans brought signs begging LeBron to come to Chicago. It's all over sports radio in the city. Everyone's asking each other, “Do you think LeBron will sign with the Bulls?” One of our newspapers even has a daily feature tracking LeBron's meetings with other teams, and speculating on what the Bulls will say and promise when they get the chance to meet with him Saturday.

Short of offering Oprah as his personal shopper or cutting off the head of the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center and replacing it with his, it sounds like pretty much anything is on the table.

I bet they'd even let him pitch for the Cubs. Couldn't hurt.

Still, nothing has beaten New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for sheer hysteria. The Knicks would like to employ LeBron as well, and Bloomberg recently made a video in which he urged LeBron to come to the Big Apple in (literally) biblical language: “As the good book says, 'Lead us to the Promised Land.' And that's a quote from the King James Version.”

King James. Get it?

As a sports fan, I understand. I do. As a (transplanted) Bulls fan, I even hope he comes to Chicago. I'm buying into the hype, reading the newspaper, listening to sports radio in the car. But, then again – oh, come on! LeBron James is not Moses, come to lead us out of the wilderness. He's an entertainer, blessed with enough talent to amazing things with a basketball. Inside of a decade, all the news will be focused on his retirement. Fans of whatever team he's playing with at that time will have to look elsewhere for their hope. An NBA championship or two or three. More money in ticket sales and concessions and merchandising pumped into the team, the league, the city for a little while. But, as is always the case with human beings, in the end his coming to whatever city he winds up choosing will matter very little in the long run. Sooner or later things will go back to normal and the hype will be a memory, until it's forgotten: supplanted by other hopes, other hype.

Because we need hope, don't we? We need to believe that there's a reason to believe. We want to know that there's hope that things won't always be as bad as they are. Or that they'll always be as good as they are right now. We want to believe that there's a time or place where disease and death don't have the last word. We want to believe in a time or place where the love we know sometimes, but never for long enough, won't be taken away. We want to believe in a time or place where our sins don't alienate us from the people around us and make us look in a mirror with guilt and loathing. Where people who live by threat and violence and deceit and manipulation – and their victims - get justice. Where the good and the innocent don't pay for their innocence with their lives.

What we hope for is that Jesus will come. We've just forgotten – or maybe we've never known – why.

Paul thinks of the church as a colony of heaven. While our physical location is here, in this world, among its people and customs and values, he says our true homeland is there, in heaven, where God and Jesus are. He doesn't mean, of course, that heaven is just another geographical location; he's more interested in making a point about where our allegiance, faith, and ultimately our hope are. We belong to God's kingdom. Our citizenship is with him. The customs we follow are the customs of our king, and the law to which we're subject is his law. And all the hope we have of being rescued from all the things that threaten us is in him: that he's good and powerful and faithful to his people who trust in him.

And so “we eagerly await a Savior from [heaven], our Lord Jesus Christ.” As believers in Jesus, our hope narrows down from abstract dreams like resurrection, forgiveness, justice, and the absence of death and sin and fear to something far more concrete. Someone, in fact. Like sports fans in my city today, we look forward to someone's arrival. And his arrival will mean that all those things we long and dream and hope for are being made real. The dead will rise to greet him, alive again forever. Those who trust in strength and power and force and manipulation will be overthrown. It will be the end of alienated families, barren and broken marriages, crumbling neighborhoods, and bloody battlefields. It will be the end of disease, poverty, famine, and drought.

The one we wait for, Jesus, will bring everything under his control when he comes. Even those things that seem so out of control now. Even us – he'll transform the people we are now, with our out-of-control wants and chaotic hearts, into the people God always intended for us to be. We'll be a lot like Jesus, in fact.

So we have hope, always, because our hope doesn't lie in our circumstances improving or a disease going into remission or even a basketball player coming to our city. It's in Jesus – that the One who suffered and died for us will come one day to make us brand-new, along with the rest of creation. We stand firm in that hope.

Whether What's-His-Name shows up or not.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.