Friday, December 07, 2007

Powerful Theology Case Study In a WalMart Parking Lot

Want to welcome Lois E Lane to the sidebar. Go check out her blog and take her Christmas music quiz.

Happened across this story last night...

Woman, 92, makes robber cry
Woman, 92, makes robber cry

If you didn't bother to hit the link, this 92 year old woman was accosted by a man in a WalMart parking lot. The man asked for money at gunpoint, but after refusing to give him the money three times, the woman said something very unexpected in return:

"You know as quick as you kill me, I'll go to Heaven, and you'll go to Hell."

The unexpected response opened up the opportunity for a conversation and the two sat in the woman's car to talk. The woman encouraged the man to ask Jesus for forgiveness and then encouraged him to pray. The robber apparently began to cry on the spot, and after thanking the woman (who in turn gave him all the money she had... ten dollars) gave her kiss before exiting her car.

A couple of things that really struck me about this.

1) The Woman Believes In God's Justice: For years evangelists have used the prospect of Hell to scare people into making an intellectual commitment to Jesus Christ. This tactic, which finds its roots in this country during the first Great Awakening in the early 19th century, has over time become so overused, that now there is a backlash out there not only among the irreligious, but also among committed Christians against the notion that Hell exists at all. Belief in Hell then for a good many years has been on the wane, mainly because the concept of it has been so misunderstood. In trying to scare people into making commitments, evangelists have compromised the deeper meaning of the concept: God is a just God.

Back in the eighties and nineties, one of my favorite comics was Sam Kinison. Kinison was mainly known for screaming punchlines, talking about the pain of relationships, and being somewhat blasphemous (hey, I wasn't always a pastor). So blasphemous, in fact, that one year my pastor confiscated a cassette tape (loaned to me by Unc, who then had to go to the pastors office the next week to retrieve it) of Kinison's routines we were listening one day at church camp. And that pastor was actually a pretty laid back guy.

Anyhow, what most people didn't know was that Kinison grew up the son of a traveling pentecostal evangelist, and in the early days of his act, supported himself by preaching revivals in and around Los Angeles area. Kinison, who had heard from an early age that when a person asks Jesus into their heart once, they are saved forever, never feared cosmic retribution for the things he said in his act, or the life he lived (quite fast, ending tragically in a car accident just as he was beginning to recover from a cocaine and alcohol addiction that almost killed him) because he never stopped believing in the irrevocable grace of Jesus Christ he had heard preached hundreds of times. Kinison had asked for forgiveness, and that's all there was do.

But existence of Hell has a deeper meaning than just inspiring a person to take Jesus' "Get Out of Hell Free" card. When Jesus talks about Hell, he makes it clear that living out, or not living out, God's justice in this world matters to God. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear that the "goats" are cast into Hell because they don't extend to those in need, including those who are criminals in this world, real world assistance and comfort. In his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Rich Man, who denies Lazarus' pleas for assistance in this life, ends up after he dies in Hell while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. Jesus makes it clear that rich man got his reward while on earth, while now Lazarus gets his in the afterlife, and that the prophets have been attaching the concept of justice to the compassion showed in this life for centuries, only to be ignored. Jesus rides the Pharisees, who he describes as the "Sons of Hell" because their actions don't match up with their teachings. They condemn those who don't follow their actions to an eternity of Hell, yet they don't do the same for themselves.

By making the point that non-Christians who haven't asked either in a physical moment of time for Christ's forgiveness and intellectually assented that they're acceptance of him as the only path to God will go to Hell, evangelists have compromised the deeper meaning that Jesus emphasizes which is God caring about the way we live our lives, and treat others, right now. This is the point the woman in the car makes with the robber, and it so effects (maybe because he grew up in the church and strayed OR maybe he was convicted by the Holy Spirit OR maybe he was shocked a the woman's apparent lack of fear of him and instead her concern for his welfare OR all the above OR maybe something else) him, that he stops what he's doing to listen, and then take inventory of his life.

How does God feel about a man robbing an old woman of her money by threatening to shoot her if she doesn't hand it over? This gets the man's attention, and it should. If anything is worthy of eternal condemnation, this is it.

One of the problems with secular humanism is that doing good is predicated solely on the idea that one should do so because it's in one's own best interest (Enlightened Self-Interest). We live in a world with 6 billion other people. It would be safe to assume that a person could make the deduction that "cutting a corner" here or there really won't matter all that much given the size and scope of this world. It's no coincidence that while white collar crime in this country costs us millions and millions of dollar while injuring thousands of people, that the courts tend to adjudicate these cases with much more lenient sentences than violent crimes. We reason that insurance or the government or a family or a charity will make the difference for those who have been rooked. But what's the consequence culturally and globally in billions of people cutting corners, or turning blind eyes to doing the right thing?

But a Christianity without some kind of sense that God's justice matters, while maybe solving the problem of good people who aren't Christians getting damned for not saying the "Jesus Prayer", threatens to neuter the power of Jesus' teaching by marginalizing the consequences of our actions. After all, if all just shakes out in the wash in the end, what's the real point of sharing the message of the Gospel?

Hell is supposed to convict us that what we do, matters.

2) The Woman Emphasizes A Personal Relationship With Jesus As the Answer To The Man's Problems: One of the more poignant moments in the news story is when the woman said that Jesus was in the car with them because he goes with her everywhere she goes, and the man (somewhat confused), begins looking around the car. If I've had any failing as a preacher and pastor, it's that I've put much more emphasis on the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Jesus ministry, and less on the need for a personal relationship with Him. I suppose this is because understanding what having "a personal relationship with Jesus" is a much more difficult thing to describe than instructions on how to fulfill his teaching and ministry.

The example of the woman in the car gives a beautiful illustration of what a lifetime of a personal relationship looks like. Jesus isn't a concept or philosophy to her. He's always present, always listening. For her this presence has inspired a lifetime of service and devotion meant to please her Master. Daily Bible reading, prayer, and (I suspect) communal worship and study at a local church for her are a means of an ongoing conversation not just about what she should or shouldn't do, but an ongoing reassurance that Jesus will draw as close to her in order to bring comfort and strength. She obviously has a deep, abiding faith, which has inspired a confidence in the Lord of creation. While she doesn't want to die, she is unafraid to do the right thing (telling the robber that he can forgiven and find peace in Jesus) because she doesn't believe in the finality of death. God isn't some dispassionate all-powerful force in the universe that looks down upon us with great indifference, nor is He an angry judge looking to punish her because in light of his perfect will, she just don't measure up. It's through this relationship that the Lord, through his son Jesus, is a teacher, master, and friend who wants to restore everyone. To give them strength in times of trial, and lead to them others who will help them in their life.

Jesus promises us peace, but very little peace is generally found in this world of ours. Drug and alcohol addiction vainly chases away a sense of failure, fear, or anger. Prescription medication, which is exploding in popularity, is designed to re-calibrate the chemicals in the mind so as to chase off depression or anxiety. Kids are loaded up with planned activities so as to keep them away from those elements out there that seek to destroy them (and us, as parents). A few of us out there try eating our way to nirvana, only to suffer the consequences of such a lifestyle. Wealth becomes addictive as a means of trying to chase away the fear of having nothing, while also becoming fool's gold for those who begin to believe that through it all their problems would be solved. Given all this, and more, the goodness of God has never been more highly questioned. A person only needs to hear one story about a young mother torturing her two-year old daughter to death or a young man killing people in a mall after living a troubled life lost in the system to wonder where in the world is a good God in the midst of this.

The woman in the car knows that God wants to express this goodness in a very personal, and profound way. A way that if you live your life in its midst, will be life-altering, and even world-altering. Let us never forget that a profound lesson of Jesus is that while ultimately the world will be restored, it will be the powerful love of God that will initiate, sustain the vision of, and complete this.... and this will occur one person at a time as we experience in real ways His comfort and peace. A comfort and peace that will as real as we allow it to be in terms of the time and energy we put into our relationship with Him.

3) The Woman Gives The Robber the Money Anyway: As the woman speaks from the heart, it becomes apparent to her that words aren't enough. The love and grace of God are real. Thus the fear the robber has of not being able to get what he needs, or wants, that drives him to target someone weak, doesn't possess the woman who most likely is living on a limited income herself. While does she does admonish him not spend the money on "whiskey", she gives all she has to a person who doesn't know what its like to feel like your needs will always be taken care of.

Reminds of the story of Jesus hanging around the Temple watching people put money into the offering box and telling those with him that the largest gift of the day weren't the huge sums given by rich fat cats, but rather the two coins given by the widow cause it's all she has to give away.

Why'd she do it? What do you think.

Jesus doesn't really say, but I've a guess. At some point in every life, you either have to let go of all the artifice, the trinkets and rituals, which you've crafted to keep yourself sane. Whether your hope comes out of material things (which can disappear or end up never being enough to satisfy), other people (who grow and change, and probably don't deserve the kind of pressure and significance you've placed on them), your talent (which erodes as we do), or maybe sense of your own earthly significance (which, while you might end up remembered in some book or folklore, will become more apparent after you are dead and gone.... the world just keeps on turning), sooner or later life will throw enough curves to force you take stock of whatever it is that's been keeping you going.

I suspect that it's the wise person who, on the other side of this moment of truth, discovers that blessings of all kinds in this world make life rich, but can't give it basic meaning.

The fat cats give cause they like the notoriety and respect it brings them in the community, which chases away the demons of their true worth at least for another day. But those demons no longer torment the woman. She has learned the lesson that in a fallen world that's not perfect, that despite the loss of her husband and the economic uncertainty this has brought, that her significance in God's eyes has neither diminished or changed. His love for her unconditional, and thus she no longer vainly tries to fill her life with conditional kinds of things.

I'm sure for the woman in the car, her advanced age had something to do with her apparent lack of fear. After all, 93 years is a lot of years for anybody to live, and time has a way of bringing into perspective that which seemed to matter (but didn't really) when we were less seasoned or wise. But blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen with their own eyes, which I think is what she's trying to say to the man robbing her. You don't need to let time teach you this lesson. That's a much harder road to take, as any of us who have done so can attest.

Instead, trust in mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love, and beginning living a life where you strive to do the right thing with the living God who is alive and with us.

Philosophically, Jesus is right about us. We are sinful, selfish people who will only begin moving this world in a new and better direction by living lives of righteousness. But that alone will not sustain a life. It is only in the direct presence of his deep abiding love which sometimes we feel directly, or through the love he expresses through the blessing of family and friend indirectly, that we will find peace of knowing that God, no matter how things appear, is for us, not against.

And he will not leave us alone.... even as a thug points a gun at us in the parking lot of a WalMart. How marvelous this woman knew this, and how humbling it is to know that she is unashamed to tell others about what she has found.


Aaron said...

Excellent post, Bryan.

Lois E. Lane said...

Hi Bryan! Glad to be here :) And what a lovely story. Everything she said to this man was so simple and so refreshingly old-school.

Tina Dietsch said...


What a fabulous post! Can you say "pulitzer"?

Your oldest son looks like your complete "mini-me". Crazy!!!

Blessed Advent stillness to you!!!
(I am obsessed with exclaimation points!!!!)