What follows is a story that I recently shared with my congregation. It tells of a teenage boy at a crossroads. I hope you enjoy it. It is based upon a real person and real events.
There was a teenage boy who worked at a pizza shop, mostly as a dishwasher. He didn’t have one of those fancy automated washing machines you see in restaurants these days. No. He washed hundreds of greasy, smelly pizza pans by hand every night.
The teen had gone to church for years and considered himself a pretty good kid. He knew that he was better than most people, anyway. He followed the rules set before him and did the “right” things the church said he should.
Through a series of highly organized religious events, the teenager found himself as part of a group of men who were to lead a Spiritual Retreat for other men. During this Retreat, each of the leaders would share the stories of their lives before and after they gave their lives to Jesus.
There was just one problem: even though the teen had been going to church for years, he had never made an effort to give his life over. To be honest, he had never really thought about it. Wasn’t going to church, being in the youth group, and following the rules good enough?
The other leaders said the teen couldn’t lead others to convert if he hadn’t converted himself. One of them even used the term “born again.” OH GOD!
Bleh! Conversion. Born again…. Only those religious, holy rolling, bible thumping, CRAZIES talked like that. And the teen was certainly no “Jesus freak.”
Besides, from what he knew of the process, being “born again” might mean a difficult conversation with his girlfriend about their extra-curricular activities. No. Being “good” was good enough.
He knew enough Bible verses to beat down most resistance. He felt like he had himself pretty put together. He knew what was good for people, so he’d just keep doing that.
But how was he going to get through this Spiritual Retreat? What did it even mean to be “spiritual” anyway? Come to think of it, had he even ever HAD an actual conversation with Jesus before? Maybe. Accidentally. Like in a moment of distress or something. But never….on purpose. Maybe he should start with that. Yeah. He would just have a little chat with Jesus. People did it all the time. How hard could that be?
“Why does Jesus ask so many questions??,” the teen thought to himself a few weeks later, frustrated as he scrubbed another pan in elbow-deep grease water. That first conversation Jesus had been easy. Kind of a “getting to know you” thing. Nothing too deep. It tricked the teen into thinking they’d all be that easy.
But, then, Jesus stopped just listening and started asking questions.
“Why do you hate Catholic people so much?”
“Why do you tease that homeless man you pass on the way to school every day. His name is Jimmy by the way.”
“Why do you use your girlfriend for your good rather than for hers? She only thinks she’s worth what you use her for.”
“Why don’t you forgive your father for not being a very good husband to your mother? He was so focused on his own pleasure that he didn’t have time to worry about her. I wish he had talked to me first. She is such a beautiful soul.”
“Why don’t you forgive your mother for caring more about herself than about you? She always held out hope that your father would come back to her, that he would remember the passion he once had for her. But he died…and so did that hope. You can’t imagine how much pain she went through. I could have helped carry that with her. But those bottles seemed more real to her than I did. You really should give her a break.”
“You think you know what’s best for people. But you never ever bothered to wonder what God thinks is best for people. Why don’t you let me show you? Why won’t you follow me?
And there it was. The question. “Why won’t you follow me?”
Why couldn’t Jesus just mind his own business? The teen HAD thought he was good enough. Good enough for himself, at least. So what if some people didn’t deserve better treatment. They got what they deserved.
Then a thought occurred to the teen. What did HE deserve? Just because he messed up a bit and maybe didn’t treat everyone the best didn’t mean he deserved to be treated badly. No. Well. Who knows? Maybe he did deserve that?
If he treated others based on their behavior and intentions, then shouldn’t he be treated based upon his? Maybe. It made sense. But that’s not how he was being treated.
The youth group loved him and supported him even though he was pretty snarky with them all the time. There was this teacher, Mr. Sekerak, at school who spent so much time with him. That teacher always told the teen how good he could be if he wanted to be.
And the other men at the Spiritual Retreat. They seemed pushy but maybe they just wanted the teen to be intentional about his relationship with Jesus. Maybe they just wanted him to know for sure that he cared about the things that God cares about.
Jesus and his questions. They got him all messed up inside. But those questions weren’t mean. Those questions weren’t accusational. Those questions made him consider other people.
If these questions were any indication, then following Jesus was probably mostly about how the teen’s actions impacted other people.
“I can’t do all of that by myself!!” He slammed a pizza pan into the dirty water, splashing it all over. The emotional outburst earned him a sidelong glare from his boss who was slicing a pizza only feet away.
There was no audible voice, but the teen clear felt the response: “I know you can’t. You don’t have to.”
The teen sighed as tears welled up in his eyes. As one slid down his cheek and plopped into the greasy dish water, the tear drove away the soap and grime in that one spot and caused a small ripple in the sink that eventually went right to the edges.
With that, he closed his eyes and said, “I don’t know what to do anymore. Just show me. I’ll do whatever you say.”
There was no tingle. There was no rush of calm or excitement. But, when the teen opened his eyes, the world seemed a little brighter, somewhat clearer.
This was just the first of many times that the teen, now a man, now your pastor, experienced a conversion, an intentional rebirth in the Spirit.