GOD IS BIGGER THAN THAT
A few days ago I received word that my good friend Chris Hodson had died. Chris was one of those invincible kind of men, six-four, over 300 pounds, strong and tough. In earlier years, he played rugby, rowed on crew, and wrestled in college on major teams. On the back fields as kids, we played pickup tackle football. It usually took six or seven of us to bring him down. He would plod on – he always plodded, even when running down a bus or train, with his shoes slapping the pavement with great WHAMs – and make extra yards as we tore and gnashed at his legs and arms. We couldn’t get around his torso, that was plain.
In the swimming pool, we coursed about in little blue plastic boats and he played Moby Dick. Of course, Chris became the invincible Moby. We speared him with paddles, slapped at his head with the flat end of the paddle. He just took it and sank us all anyway.
I don’t remember ever indulging in any boy game – king of the mountain, kill the man with the ball, apple fights – where it didn’t end up all of us against him. I don’t really know why it became that way with our clan. He simply inspired that kind of response. We could never defeat him individually, so naturally all of us united against him, thinking we could fell him. Never did he fall once. And he loved it, egging us all on with taunts like, “Can’t take me down. Can’t hurt me.” Bam! An apple in the mouth. “Oh, that tasted good. Throw another treat.”
Not that he was some hard-nosed, street-fighter. Certainly one of the gentlest men I ever knew for his size and strength, I remember once at the poker table, he spotted a downed fly on the pile of money. Someone called for a slap, but Chris moved quickly to grab the fly, get up from the table, take it to the door, and release it into the wild. “A fly deserves to live too,” was all he would say. You could always count on him to defend you, be on your side, or share his lunch when you were hungry.
In his later years, and I having become a Christian at the age of twenty-one, I tried hard to convert him. We argued, I explained this and that, he had many questions, but always I could never get him to cross the line of real faith. I considered him a seeker, though, always admitting that while he claimed he was an atheist, his questions and respectful listening showed me he had his doubts. And he respected my faith, too, to the uttermost. When he cussed with a “God-damn” or a “Jesus Christ,” he always stopped in middle of sentence and turned to me: “Sorry, Mark. Excuse my French.”
In our late fifties, Chris, our poker buddies from high school and college, and some others, began having reunions at one of the guys’ summer home on Lake Erie, north of Syracuse, New York. We fished, ate heartily, drank like fish (all except me), smoked cigars on the deck, exchanged jokes and stories, argued politics, and played poker, poker, poker. For four days, we reveled, and it was always a highlight of my summer. After the first year, I began taking my eleven-year old son, Gardner, and he loved it too, especially the fishing and poker. Chris, a giant next to him, became a friend and fellow jokester. He laughed at Gardner’s impressions of Gollum, Igor, Mickey Mouse, and Arnold Schwarzeneggar. Gardner responded the same way to Chris’ everlasting jibes and witticisms.
Our third year, I went determined to share the gospel with all of them. I had gone the previous two years with the same goal, but I deferred to God to let it come up naturally. I didn’t want to force things on them. I figured in due time someone would begin asking questions.
The first two years, the subject never came up. I patiently looked for an opportunity, but it never appeared and it seemed God said to me, “Just be patient.”
Then the third year, the second evening I walked out onto the deck with a cigar in my left hand and a Fresca in my right. We had enjoyed some shrimp and raw oysters earlier, and were now awaiting a dinner of steak, shrimp, and fresh salmon, caught on the lake that afternoon. I could tell the group felt mellow with the sun beginning to set before us across the lake, and the air cool and crisp. I sat down and suddenly I was into it with Chris and a few others. The questions flew. I answered from the Bible, memory, and all my knowledge. At one point, no one seemed to understand what God could be like in relation to people like us and I told the story of the prodigal son.
It registered, and I could tell they were impressed that the Bible had such a story and that it meant to picture a God the Jews had never thought of. But then Chris, as he had been saying all along, began to hit me with some of the more important personal questions I’d never heard from him before.
“So what about drinking beer and the Bible?” he asked.
I almost laughed. I knew it was important to him, but it seemed a little comical in view of the world condition at the time with the presidential election coming up and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I said, “Well, you know Jesus was accused quite often of being a glutton and a drunkard. He liked to eat and drink, clearly.”
“A drunkard?” Chris asked.
“I don’t think Jesus actually got roaring drunk, as that would be against scripture, but his enemies may have exaggerated it a little because they hated him so. And Jesus did turn water into wine in his first public miracle at a wedding in the city of Cana. It’s in John 2. The wine was so good, when the servants brought it in and had the head-waiter taste it, he exclaimed that at a party you always served the best wine first, but in this case they’d saved the best for last. And in other places, while drunkenness was always frowned on, there are passages that indicate getting a little high wasn’t out of the question. Wine made your eyes shine, according to Proverbs, and ‘making merry’ using wine wasn’t necessarily a sin.”
Chris seemed stunned and added, “That’s the truth?”
“Yes.” I laughed. “Chris, I’m sitting with you guys and I’ve had a few beers while here. I assure you as Christians go, I’m one of the fanatical ones. God hasn’t incinerated me yet for it. Sure, drunkenness is condemned in places, but there have been times in my life as a Christian that circumstances got me so stressed, I went out and bought a bottle of rum or vodka and proceeded to relieve the stress by getting quite loaded. I felt some guilt about it always, but it seemed to me God understood how a person could get to that point. In fact, when Noah, after the Flood in the Ark for almost a year, got to dry land, one of the first things he did was plant a vineyard. Next, he whipped up a batch of wine and got so drunk, he went walking around naked and collapsed in his tent, passed out. God never censures him for that. Why? Perhaps because God knew after what Noah had been through, he needed that kind of release. I just don’t think God condemns such drinking, unless it’s such a habit that you’re ruining your life.”
Even Chris laughed this time. Then he said, “What about poker?”
Now we were getting to the nitty and gritty. I said, “While Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, the thing that really enraged his enemies was that he hung out with sinners, tax-collectors – to a Jew the worst of the worst, as well as prostitutes, and all the riffraff. They couldn’t figure it out, but Jesus said to them, ‘I haven’t come to call the really good people, but the bad ones. They’re the ones that need me.’ So,” I continued, “I don’t know what games they played – poker hadn’t been invented yet – but they gambled and probably engaged in all kinds of betting and so on. Maybe they played Go Fish for money, since so many of them were fishermen.”
That got a rise out of Chris. ” We don’t know that Jesus himself partook, but he was there with them, and probably observed them without judgment and maybe even cheered them on. These were the people considered the lowest of the low and they were Jesus’ friends. Were they friends with Jesus because he came to their parties and promptly began preaching against their behavior, calling out this one and that one as going to hell? No, they were friends because in a sense Jesus was one them: real; tolerant; caring; understanding; loving.
“Who knows? Jesus was a man of the people and the ones that most hated him were the super-religious types. In fact, they were the ones who demanded that Jesus be crucified. Even today it’s some of the super-religious types who condemn all the things you’re talking about, but I don’t see it. They’re just social ways of having fun. If you want to know what God hates, what kinds of sins he despises, look at the Ten Commandments. It’s taking his name in vain, worshiping false Gods, treating your parents with disrespect, and killing, adultery, lying, stealing, and coveting. In the New Testament, Jesus was asked what the primary commandment was. He didn’t say, ‘Don’t dance, smoke, drink, or chew.’ No, he said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and might,’ and a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Chris sat there puffing on his cigar, his eyes riveted to mine. I couldn’t tell what he must be thinking, but I knew the interest level at that moment was greater than I’d ever seen before.
There was a silence and then Chris asked, as if toting out the biggest dilemma of all, “What about cigars?”
I smiled, realizing that these were the kinds of issues he seemed to really wrestle with in relation to Christianity.
I lifted my hand and took a dramatic puff on my own cigar. Then I said, “Chris, I’m smoking one right now. Not that I do this often, mostly only here, but I honestly don’t think it would have been beyond Jesus to smoke the occasional stogie when hanging out with the people. I mean, I could easily see him visiting here and sitting down with us, enjoying everything the way we are, without resorting to harsh preaching. In fact, the only people Jesus ever got nasty with were the Pharisees, the ones who played at being faithful by keeping all kinds of rules, mostly tiny little tidbits that gave them control over the people, but who were hypocrites because they left aside the most important ones of love and charity. Jesus really let them have in several places in the Gospels. As for the bad guys, the prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, and hard-living types, all Jesus ever said were things like, ‘I forgive you. Go and sin no more.’ These things you’re talking about just aren’t big issues with God.”
Chris sat there quite solemn. Then suddenly a big smile broke on his lips and he said, “Littleton, I think I like your brand of Christianity.”
We talked on, me telling everyone how to take a step of faith and believe. We talked about heaven, and Chris, whose wife had died of cancer in the early years of their marriage, reacted strongly when I said that he would see her again there, forever, if he came to faith in Christ. Even though everyone admitted they just weren’t ready to take a step of faith, even Chris, I saw then that they were more open to it than at any time in the past.
When Chris died, I wept, thinking dreaded things about what might have happened to him. A friend wrote me that unbelievers just don’t understand the heart-break we Christians feel when someone we love goes into a Christless eternity. But Chris had made his decision and perhaps even then was experiencing the remorse of life without God.
I wept all the more until that night when something happened. God gave me a little glimpse of something new. A vision? I don’t know. It was brief, just a look. But I saw Chris in his house the day of his death, sitting in his easy chair, reading the paper. In those last minutes, maybe even seconds, God visited Chris, reminding him of those words two years before on the deck. Chris sat there stunned. Then he said, “Poker? Beer? Cigars? Seeing my wife in heaven? What else is there? What the heck? I believe.”
And then God took him.
Does that seem preposterous, a joke, a lie? I believe God does things like that. Jesus did with the thief on the cross. Why wouldn’t he do it with others who have delayed faith for whatever reasons and now stand on the brink of eternity? Why couldn’t God bring to mind some salient truth that leads the person at that moment to the truth?
I don’t think people who believe they can delay faith so they can “sin it up” until their final moments, supposing that they can finally believe then, will cut much ice with God. But with those who are sincerely deluded, I think God might break through in their last moments and turn them into believers.
I believe God works like that in the world. He is bigger than those who say he could do nothing for people like my friend Chris. He is bigger than having us believe people who have never made a profession of faith in this world couldn’t have made one in the last private seconds of their lives. God is a God of grace. That means he’s a God of gifts. What greater gift could he give to my friend Chris for whom I’d prayed for many years as well as many others, for whom I had a great love and who had loved me back. Why shouldn’t I believe that God might have come to him like that in his last moments? Do I have to go on for the rest of my life thinking that my friend Chris was in hell because I wasn’t able to elicit those words from him, “Yes, I believe”?
God is bigger than our limited horizons that think God can’t do miracles even into the last moments of a person’s life. For me today, anyone who dies without faith is someone I can entrust to God for his final decisions about that person. God is capable of moving on anyone even in their last seconds of life.
That’s the kind of God we have, one who gives hope not despair, who gives life not condemnation, and who cares infinitely more than any of us ever will about those who are lost. In a word, he is much bigger than our knee-jerk thoughts about faith, theology, and him.