My beloved father, Hesketh Johnson, who has been a Christian for 70 years and a pastor for about as long, asked me the other day what I think it means to be “saved”. I answered quickly, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”. Feeling it was too simplistic an answer, I follow ed up with “… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9, ESV) My dad is asking everyone the same question these days, I think he wants to know what each of his loved ones believe so that he can have peace in these later years.
Sometimes believing isn’t so easy.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my answer and what it means – to me – to be a Christian. It’s such a complex term in “world-speak” and even more convoluted in “church-speak”. There are so many versions, so many descriptions, so many interpretations. As soon as I give what I think is a simple, clear answer, the guillotine comes smashing down. I’ve been going through a lot of beheadings—or at least some good sound thrashings—lately from a variety of sources and it’s disturbing. Even more distressing—heartbreaking, actually—is the vitriol with which some defend their theology. Before I go any further, let me be clear — I’m a novice, a layman’s layman at best, I ask my dad about almost everything that requires genuine Biblical knowledge and understanding.
I shared a simple post the other day by my pastor from our church’s Facebook page (Suntree Grace Brethren), which read simply, “Galatians 6” and featured a beautiful, contemplative photo. I accompanied it with a comment:
My awesome Pastor Jason Brown keeps reminding me that the Gospel is Jesus + Nothing. I can’t do enough laundry or serve enough homeless people to worm my way in. Nor can I mess up enough to get squeezed out. It’s not about me. Sometimes I get tripped up and forget that I don’t have to do anything but believe. He did all the work.
Apparently, some Christians took offense to my comment, most of them saying that “believing” isn’t enough and offering examples as pedantic as “you can believe in chocolate ice-cream but that doesn’t mean you get to eat it.” And others who reminded me that the Bible says, “… do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10, ESV) It’s not enough to simply believe, to follow is proof of faith. (Damn, I think I do a lot more stumbling than following.)
But I believe that the Gospel is Jesus + Nothing (as Pastor Jason says, “no additives, no preservatives”). So, if I truly believe in the Lord Jesus—all of Him—it should be sufficient, if for no other reason than He said so. Yet I know the story doesn’t end there. Believing in my heart changes me, and even though believing is sufficient to save me, it’s only the beginning. Yet, unless I begin with Chapter One, I really don’t have a story at all. And realistically, some of us never even get to Chapter Two, we get stuck in a long, wearisome beginning, fighting and grinding our way to the foot of the cross, to honestly and completely believe. It can take a monumental effort to look up when you’re lying face down, but it can be just as difficult when you’re living on point and there is no evident need for a “saviour”. Just try talking to someone who’s living large about their need for something they can’t get with a little sweat or dead presidents. It’s a lot more challenging than talking with someone who knows they are broke, broken, and still breaking.
The simplicity of Jesus + Nothing and the complexity of Larry.
I met Larry at The Daily Bread, a social services organization in Melbourne, when he came in for a hot meal, a shower and clean clothes. Larry has intense blue eyes (even when mellowed by red), a full cover of tattoos, he’s in need of a dentist, and weighs about 120 pounds carrying two 6-packs. Larry also has a laugh more contagious than the flu, and despite a 6th grade education, says some of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. His is an incongruous life that captured my heart at every turn.
One day Larry and I were talking about life on the streets, where we’ve come from and what seems to derail us. I spoke more candidly to Larry than I have to anyone in my life. I don’t know why, maybe because I knew he wouldn’t judge, that he would understand. Yet, when he asked me what I wanted most in life I couldn’t come up with an answer, and in the prolonged silence he offered his own. “I’d like to find a God-fearing woman who f–kin’ loves me”, he said without hesitation. “Someone I could pray with, who’d go to church with me, who I could really love”. Odd, I thought, coming from a 34-year old drifter who conspicuously finds comfort drinking, smoking flakka, or preferably, when he can afford it, a toke of weed. “I just want someone who will love me and who loves the Lord. I could change my life if I could find her, but I’ll never find her. F–k, look at me.” Strange, but even though I knew what he meant, I saw a thoughtful, introspective person who had nothing weighing him down, who didn’t care what anyone thought of him and was more honest than anyone I knew—including myself.
Rapping it up.
One day I gave Larry some work around the house to earn a few ducats. By the time I returned the rented tools and bought dinner, it was raining and late. I’d have to drive him over the bridge to a park in Melbourne where he would spend the night under a pavilion to stay dry (if he could find one), and then pick him up in the morning to finish the work. I thought about it for a long time before asking if he’d like to take a shower and stay inside for the night. He did, and we sat around listening to music and talking for a while. I learned that Larry grew up in foster homes in Algiers, Louisiana, and he could build almost anything—that’s what he did for work in New Orleans before he flowed south. But basically, Larry said, he was a poet. Without hesitation he catapulted into a dark, passionate rap with imagery so bold and heartbreaking that I had to blink back tears. Into the heavy silence he launched salvo after salvo, rhyming words that seemed to have no connection until they spilled from his mouth in a cadence that climbed and crashed like the world he was describing. It all tumbled out from memory, the experiences so engraved on his heart that pieces of paper would only be in the way. It was golden–a once-in-a-lifetime experience–and I wouldn’t have traded being right there, in that place, at that time, for anything. That kind of karma could only happen when the stars are perfectly aligned. And I know there is only One who can do that, because He made them.
“I’m not running away, I’m just escaping.”
Larry chose not to sleep in a “real” bed and opted for the couch that night. I got up early the next morning and found him gone. Concerned, I searched the beaches, the park under the bridge, The Daily Bread, the park by the library where he slept under the stars and found companionship in a random girl two nights before. About three o’clock that afternoon I searched again. At eight-thirty that evening I made the rounds one more time before the sun was gone and found him making his way to the park. “I don’t understand, Larry. You had a place to shower, TV, food, and today you would get paid for the work you did. Why did you run away without saying anything?” “I can’t live like that”, Larry explained after apologizing for the worry (he had no phone, he reminded me). “That’s why I left home in the first place; I had a house with three bedrooms and a yard, but I have to be free. I rather be on the f–kin’ street.” Say what? I didn’t get it— at all. But what I did get—and envied—was Larry; his ability to be himself, to expose his thoughts and feelings as blatantly as the tattoo on his neck. Larry was exactly who he said he was, no more, no less (although I know he is much more in God’s eyes—and apparently mine—than in his own.)
Not all is well that ends . . . well, maybe it’s just the beginning.
The next day Larry was going to make his way back to New Orleans. It would take a while walking and thumbing rides, but he was ready to move on. I bought Larry a bus ticket and drove him to Orlando to catch the 7 pm express, stopping to get him a phone on the way. He had lined up some work in Nola and was eager to get there, but he’d need a phone to communicate with his family, work, and, more importantly, me. I wanted to know how he was doing once he made it back; I wasn’t expecting too much, I just needed to hear that he was alive and hadn’t lost hope. I wanted to be able to tell him that he was loved and his life mattered to me.
When I said good-bye at the bus depot, Larry was wearing a T-shirt that read “Spooning leads to Forking” and two crosses around his neck. I looked at him for a minute thinking about all the contradictions that made up this man who had once given his life to the Lord, who still believes, who’s struggling to get past Chapter One, yet who embodies such creativity and pain that it’s almost immobilizing. I thought about how God sees both Larry and me—broken yet beautiful. And I thought about how grateful I am to know that the Gospel is Jesus + Absolutely Nothing.
God loves the drunkard’s cry
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah.
— Sarah Hart and Chapin Hartford, Better than a Hallelujah