Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How Good News Becomes Bad News

Earlier this week, our family went to the end-of-the-season celebration for Upward Basketball here in Decatur, Alabama. None of my children had ever played organized basketball before, and it was a great season. Normally, because we're so busy in the fall and spring, we skip winter sports to give our kids a break, but I urged Elizabeth to sign our kids up for basketball because I wanted them at least to know how to play. I never played in a basketball league, and, when I got to college intramurals, I was lost. On the whole, we loved the Upward experience. The rules are a little funky, but the refs used excellent judgment in how to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game without blowing a whistle every fifteen seconds because of travelling, a double-dribble, a reach-in foul, or any of the other dozen reasons a normal basketball game would be stopped. The coaches were fabulous and supportive without exception. Sure, the halftime devotions were tedious at times, but so are my sermons. We only practiced once a week, and games were only on Saturdays, which gave it a relatively relaxed feel. There was a great spirit of sportspersonship (is that a word?) amidst players and parents. I thoroughly enjoyed every part of it, but, after this week's celebration, I'm not sure I'll ever let my kids play Upward again.

In Decatur, the Upward league is hosted by First Baptist Church. Elizabeth had described this as an "awards banquet," but I think she made up the "banquet" part because I never saw any food. Then again, we left early (at 7:15pm), so I might have missed it. The highlight of the night was the entertainer. Matt Fore is a "comedy magician" from Johnson City, Tennessee, and he put on an incredible show. Not only were the magic tricks compelling, but he also made it funny for children and adults. Halfway through the night, I thought to myself, "This guy might work for one of our church functions. He's really good. I'm really enjoying this." Towards the end, he began to weave in some devotions. I prefer magic for its entertainment rather than evangelistic value, but I get it. This is Upward. This is First Baptist. Still, I was enjoying myself. But, right at the end, Mr. Fore shifted into a direct, unabashed religious appeal, and I became nervous.

He started to speak to the children and adults in the room with heightened focus: "Whether you're five or fifty or ninety, I have something to tell you." That's the kind of preacher's line that sets preachers like me on edge. When it comes to God, I have some important theological principles about which I am uncompromising (e.g. truly unconditional love, salvation by grace alone, the universality of sin). In that moment, everything and everyone else in the room dropped into the background, and I zeroed in on Mr. Fore, waiting to see what he would say next. And then he said the most amazing, beautiful, hopeful thing I have ever heard an evangelist like him say: "I want all of you to know that God is not mad at you. No matter what you have said or thought or done, God is not mad at you for any of it. God put all of his 'mad' on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ so that he would never be mad at you." A small tear formed in my eye. I had misjudged Mr. Fore. I had allowed my prejudice about the circumstances to limit my ability to anticipate the grace of his message. I asked God to forgive me. And I believe that he did. But that wasn't the end of the evening.

Mr. Fore wasn't finished. Had he stopped there, I think I would have gone up to him to shake his hand and thank him for his wonderful grace-filled words. But he didn't stop there. Instead, he asked all of us to close our eyes and, if we had never given our lives to Jesus before, to say this prayer with him: "Dear God, thank you for Jesus. I confess to you that I am a sinner. I ask for your forgiveness. I want to follow Jesus. I give my whole life to him. In Jesus' name. Amen." Then, Mr. Fore said his goodbye and gave the microphone to someone else, who then asked the coaches to pass out note cards to all the players. The kids were asked to put their names on the front of the cards and then check on the back of the card which box was right for them. They were choices like: "I am not sure I am a Christian," and "I gave my life to Jesus tonight." All of the cards were to be collected, and a few would be drawn out of a bucket for door prizes.

I was furious. I looked at Elizabeth and whispered, "We will NOT turn in any bleeping cards. Let's go--right now!" Only I didn't say "bleeping." I've had a couple of days to think about that night, and I've decided that the part that makes me the angriest is that, in the span five minutes, these proclaimers of the gospel, whose mission and ministry I share, went from the limitless love of God (grace) to the strings-attached it's-up-to-you anti-gospel (law) that undermines everything I stand for. And, to top it off, they were perverting the gospel TO MY CHILDREN! And they were offering prizes to those who participated in that perversion, and my children are not mature enough to see the problem with selling the truth of the gospel for a cheap door prize. 

I believe in Jesus. I believe in giving one's life to him. I believe in confessing my sins, saying that I am sorry to God, and asking Jesus to enter my heart. But I do not believe in holding up the mere utterance of those words as the recipe for being a Christian. That makes salvation a work for us to do instead of a work for God to do, and that's contrary to the gospel of grace. I believe that we should say to our children and to adults and to the whole world that God loves each and every one of you no matter what. Whether you say the right words or do the right thing or give your life to him or believe in Jesus or not, God loves you just the same. That's grace. That's the gospel. Believing that--trusting that the gospel is true and that God's love can save us from condemnation, death, and hell--is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and we can't simply up and decide to believe it. And saying a "magic" prayer isn't going to make it happen either.

In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus searching for answers, searching for the truth. And Jesus tells him that, if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again. Nicodemus asks incredulously whether he is supposed to climb back into his mother's womb and be born a second time, and Jesus does a face-palm and says, "No, silly man, you can't rebirth yourself. You must be born by water and Spirit." Babies don't bring themselves into this world, and Christians don't create their own rebirth. It happens to them. God makes it happen. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. As the next verse reminds us, that is God's act of salvation not condemnation. The whole world is saved through Jesus. Thanks be to God that God's love is bigger than the choices we make, the prayers we say, or the cards we fill out. May God fill the world with the truth of the gospel, and may it begin within the church.

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