“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)
Raj showed up out of the blue. I ran into him in the church parking lot as he was on his daily walk around the neighborhood. After exchanging pleasantries, he told me he’d been wanting to speak to the pastor, and he proceeded to tell me his story. Raj has a PhD in physics and taught for years at a local university. Now in retirement, he and his wife are committed Hindus deeply involved in the local temple. A week later he showed up again with his two young granddaughters in tow, and they shyly recited for me sections of the Vedas—the Hindu Scriptures—by heart. I still don’t know why he wanted to talk that morning. Raj explained how we can attain enlightenment through our own meditative efforts, overcoming earthly vices and escaping the cycle of reincarnation as we become one with God. After twenty minutes of this monologue, the most I was able to muster in response was something along the lines of, “Right, but what if we’re NOT actually capable of that?” He seemed nonplussed and continued merrily along his way. We cross paths regularly on our walks around the neighborhood, and I pray for him.
Sam lives down the street from the church with his sister and brother-in-law. I thought the campaign signs adorning his front lawn told me all I needed to know about this gentleman, but I was wrong. One hot summer afternoon I found Sam wandering the empty lot adjacent to the church, in search of a dart he had shot from a blowgun in the direction of our parking lot. I made a mental note to avoid that side of the property for the foreseeable future. Sam is in his 70’s. He’s a lapsed Catholic and a Reiki Master who teaches metaphysics & parapsychology courses. He’s also a Shaman with roots in Peru, and he’s now into Wicca. Since we’ve been holding outdoor worship services, he and his family listen from their porch on Sunday mornings. He graciously offered us the use of his patio umbrellas. One morning he walked over while the musicians were warming up. I was worried we were being too loud, but he asked us to turn the volume up. My wife and I pass his house on our nightly walks through the neighborhood. Occasionally he shouts something to us from the back porch, half of which is drowned out by the sounds of our dogs barking madly at one another. Words and interactions are frustratingly few and far between, and it’s tough to see how the Holy Spirit could work anything out of such fallow ground.
Zane is an intelligent young man in his early twenties who lives nearby. He appeared randomly at the church one evening. His cousin had just committed suicide, and he was at a loss; hurting and confused and looking for answers. Raised in a secular home, his longing for something transcendent had drawn him to our church. We spoke on the patio in the parsonage backyard. I took him to the Psalms. We prayed. He called a couple of times afterward to check-in. I loaned him a copy of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” which he’s now 2/3 of the way through. After listening to a sermon of mine, he took issue with my assertion that we should mourn rather than celebrate religious diversity. After all, all roads lead to the top of the mountain. He has informed me on numerous occasions of his ardent interest in Judaism. Zane finally showed up at church this past Sunday for a worship service, which he’d been promising to do for months. The next day he headed across the country to begin classes at a progressive liberal arts college. He allowed me to pray with him before he left. Hopefully we’ll keep in touch.
The stories of Raj, Sam, and Zane are increasingly common today. In our secularized age, the religious landscape has shifted dramatically under our feet. Even a basic Judeo-Christian ethos can no longer be assumed, and this is disorienting. As Christians working in the midst of the harvest fields, it can seem like we’re cultivating in soil that is rockier than ever. At times it is discouraging and bewildering, and we often wonder whether the same farming implements that faithfully tilled the ground in generations past still have the same relevance today.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed throughout all of human history: The human heart. Its diagnosis is the same: Dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Deceitful, desperately sick, and unknowable (Jeremiah 17:9). Futile and foolish (Romans 1:21). Unrighteous (Romans 3:10). In bondage, far from home, captive, and in desperate need of rescue (Romans 7:23-24).
And the remedy for this spiritual malady is the same as it’s always been: The Gospel, “because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). What Raj, Sam, and Zane need to hear is the same message that you and I need to hear, daily: The death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is sufficient to cover our sins and to make us right with God. Period. The “it is finished” nature of the Gospel is an urgently needed antidote to all of the religious ladder-climbing, bootstraps theology, and endless treadmills which populate today’s religious landscape, draining us of spiritual sweat but giving nothing in return. In contrast, Jesus Christ freely gives everything but demands nothing. The Gospel is gift, pure and simple. It is backwards. It is upside down. It is foolish. And as long as people are sinners, it is as relevant as ever.
The thing about gifts, though, is that they’re meant to be shared. And for those of us prone to wander—lost sheep and prodigals all—only the good news of the Gospel can call us back Home. It is for proclaiming. It is for sharing. And it is for boldly passing around in all of its aromatic, undiluted virility, in the hopes that as many as possible will be drawn to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
The Word of the Gospel always comes to us—as much wiser men have said—on the lips of another. We are those lips. We are those mouths. We are those proclaimers. It is through us that Raj, Sam, & Zane will hear the Gospel.
So, brothers and sisters: Preach! Take a sip and pass that good ol’ Gospel around. After all, news like this is too good not to share.
NOTE: Actual names of individuals have been changed.