in the Park
A thousand times in the weeks that followed I replayed the
events of that morning in my mind—reconstructing the man’s
words and my thoughts. The thought that he reminded me
of John the Apostle had been a passing fancy, except that he
seemed to acknowledge it with his penetrating wink.
But how could John still be alive after 2000 years? Could it
have been a miraculous appearance as when Moses and Elijah
were transfigured in Jesus’ presence? Even if he were, could he
have read my mind or disappeared so easily from view?
I even went back and re-read Jesus’ puzzling words to Peter
about John’s future. He had just warned Peter that the day
would come when men would lead Peter to his death because
of his friendship with Christ.
Disturbed by the thought, and and asked about his future. Jesus’ answer shocked everyone.
“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?
You must follow me.”
John wrote that Jesus’ words had started a rumor among
the other disciples that John would not die. But he went on to
say that was not exactly what Jesus had said. He had only said
“what if…?” Obviously the larger lesson of Jesus’ words was for
Peter to follow the path the Lord laid out for him and without
comparing himself to others.
A worthy lesson, no doubt, but
did Jesus mean anything more by that illustration?
I second-guessed everything about that morning. It didn’t
help that when I told the story to my wife and one other close
friend they hummed the theme music from the Twilight Zone
and laughed it off. Their refusal to take me seriously made me
far less certain of what had actually happened that day. What I
could not deny, however, was that whoever that man was, his
words had shaken me to the core of my Christianity.
I had never heard anyone talk about Jesus the way he did
and he had provoked an insatiable hunger within me to find
out more about this Jesus I thought I knew. Over the next few
weeks I read all of the Gospels again—this time looking beyond
the lessons Jesus taught to see just what kind of person he was.
I realized that although I had been a Christian for over two
decades, I had no concept of who Jesus was as a person and
no idea how I could change that. The harder I tried the more
frustrated I became. I threw myself headlong into my ministry,
hoping to bury the hunger and the questions that the stranger
Four and a half months after that initial encounter things
were about to get even stranger. I had set apart the morning
to study for an infrequent opportunity to teach in our Sunday
morning services, but a series of crises prevented me from ever
opening my books. First, the volunteer sound tech had a chance
to go out of town and would not be there on Sunday. Could I
find a replacement? Someone else stopped by who wanted to
complain about how unfriendly our church was. She had been
attending for two years and had not once been invited out by
Then Ben and Marsha Hopkins came by to tell me they
wouldn’t be at home group that night. This was the third
time in a row they were going to miss, not a good example for
someone who was my assistant leader. When I pressed them,
they finally told me that they weren’t happy with the church
and were considering leaving. I tried to talk them out of it. I’d
invested countless hours getting them ready to lead a home
group on their own—how could they leave now? “Our children
are enjoying a youth group at another church closer to our home
and we’ve been uncomfortable for some time with how impersonal
this church has become.” When they first came here they
were almost ready for a divorce. I had spent hours with them
helping them rekindle their marriage. Now just as they were
getting to a place where they could give something back they
were running off to greener pastures.
Then finally to top it all off the pastor called right after lunch
to cancel a meeting he had asked me to schedule with two of
our elders who were having some concerns about our building
program. He said he just didn’t feel like dealing with it today.
It had taken three weeks for me to arrange that meeting. I was
furious and had to get out for some fresh air.
My office door betrayed my frustration to the rest of the
office as it slammed shut harder than I intended. It startled my
secretary and drew looks down the hallway. I motioned back to
the door exasperated, as if it had made all that noise on its own.
As I looked back my eyes fixed on the ever-familiar sign:
“Jake Colsen, Associate Pastor.”
I still remember the first day I walked through that door,
surprised that the nameplate was already in place and awed
with the responsibility it placed on my shoulders. I had never
planned to enter full-time ministry but the day I walked through
that door I felt all my dreams had finally been fulfilled. Four
years later those dreams proved as elusive as ever.
The son of working class parents, I had grown up in church.
Even through the tempestuous teen-age years of the early 70’s
I never strayed far from my spiritual roots. Graduating from
college in 1979 with a business degree I ended up handling
commercial real estate in Kingston, California, a sprawling
metropolis in the fertile farmland of Central California.
The economy had exploded in the 80’s and early 90’s and I had built
a lucrative practice and a stellar reputation.
My wife and I had helped found the congregation I now
worked for. Fifteen years earlier a few families and some college
students, disillusioned by the power games being played
in the traditional church we attended, decided we’d do better
starting a new one.
We met in homes for a while, treasuring
the fellowship we had together, but soon rented a building
and hung out our shingle for the community. In the early days
growth had been slow, but in the last 10 years we’d grown to
over 2000 members, constructed our own building and had a
full complement of pastoral staff.
How flattered I was when the pastor invited me to join that
staff to oversee the business affairs and to help with pastoral
care. I was 39 at the time, very comfortable in my profession
and raising two young children. The adult Sunday school class I
taught was one of the most popular on the schedule and I’d just
completed two terms on the church board.
He told me how much I was needed. That I could free him
from responsibilities he wasn’t gifted to meet. Even though I
was making more than enough money in real estate, I knew it
was just money—the god of mammon, as I’d heard it preached.
Was I wasting my life on my own pleasures? What did my life
really count for? I rarely had time for the things I thought most
important and took the job hoping I could finally put that nagging
guilt to rest.
And it did for a while. For the first year or two I was caught
up in the importance of being on staff at a growing church and
actually having time to pray and study the Bible. Soon, however,
the workload became oppressive. I not only worked full
days but was out five and six nights a week. I didn’t even have
time to dabble in real estate on the side as I had planned to help
offset my lower paycheck.
When my frustration peaked, I often sought solace in a long
walk. I told my secretary I’d be out for a while and left the
ministry complex headed for a park two blocks away. It had
often been my refuge and sometimes prayer closet, though I
hadn’t been out there much in the oppressively hot months of
the Central Valley summer.
Today it was in the lower 80’s—a sign that summer would eventually pass and the cooler days of
autumn were approaching.
Turning the corner, however, I was surprised to see the
park filled with children until I remembered that my wife had
said it was going to be a minimum school day for our kids.
Disappointed, I scanned the park to see if there were any quiet
corners I could stake out.
That’s when I noticed him—a lone figure on one of the benches across the park.
Even from this distance he looked like the stranger I’d seen in San Luis Obispo.
My heart skipped a beat. I had often prayed that God would
give me an opportunity to talk to that man, but had given up
any hope of that. The thought of him brought back incredible
memories of that morning and the hunger it had tapped in my
heart. I was almost certain it couldn’t be him, but I thought I’d
at least take a closer look while I was here.
As I approached him, he appeared to be the right height, but
that was tough to judge with him sitting down. The build and
beard looked similar, but he had on sunglasses and a baseball
cap that made it hard to be certain. He seemed to be staring off
in the distance, unaware of my approach.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and my heart was pounding wildly.
What if this is him?
What should I do?
As I walked past him, his head turned and I immediately
averted my eyes. It can’t be him. I couldn’t decide.
I didn’t have any idea what to say and had dawdled about as long as I
could without saying something to him, so I moved on down
the sidewalk. I was ten yards past when I had enough courage
to pause briefly and pretend to overlook the park as an excuse
to let my eyes run back to the man on the bench.
It certainly looked like him.
His head started to turn and I turned away again feeling
awkward. Before I knew it I was walking away from him again.
Fifty yards up was another empty bench. I meandered to it and
sat down, able now to look back. The man was just getting up
from the bench and started off in the opposite direction.
What do I do?
I guess it’s now or never.
I jumped up from the bench and started after him, catching up a few feet with every step.
Finally I was close enough that I either had to pass him by again or speak.
“Excuse me, Sir!”
The words popped out of my lips before I knew for sure they were coming.
He stopped and turned towards me. “Yes.”
One syllable was a lousy sample, but the voice sounded close.
“This may sound funny, but you look like somebody I saw
a few months ago on the coast in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Any chance it was you?” His sunglasses stared back expressionless.
If I could just see his eyes, I’d know for sure.
“As a matter of fact I was over there a few months ago, but only for a few days. Did we meet?”
“No, but someone who looked like you broke into an argument
some people were having in the downtown district.”
“It could have been me,” he answered shrugging his shoulders.
“This was an argument about religion. And if you’re the same
man you stepped into the debate and spoke about Jesus and
how much he really loved people. Does this make any sense?”
“It does. I talk to people all of the time, especially those who
are seeking spiritual things.”
“My name is Jake Colsen.” I stuck out my hand to shake his.
I’m John,” he responded, offering his hand as well.
The next breath didn’t come easily nor the next few words.
I felt like I’d lost my breath to a stomach punch.
“Are you the same man who spoke to those people?
It was a Saturday morning. Did you see me there?”
“I don’t specifically recall your being there, but it sounds like
the kind of conversation I often find myself in.”
“Could we talk for a moment?”
I asked as I glanced at my watch realizing
I had only 30 minutes before an appointment back at the
office. I motioned toward the bench not far away.
“I’d be delighted.”
We walked over and sat down, both of us gazing out over the park.
“This is going to sound strange,” I finally began, “but I have
been praying for the chance to meet you. Your words really
touched me that day. You spoke about Jesus as if you had been
with him personally. At one point I even wondered if you were John the Apostle.”
He chuckled. “That would make me a bit old, wouldn’t it?”
“I know this sounds crazy, but as I had that thought you stopped in mid-sentence,
turned toward me and nodded as if you were agreeing with me.
I tried to chase you down as you left the group, but I seemed to have lost you in the crowd.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be then. At least we’re here now.
What did you want to talk about?”
“Am I what?”
“Are you John?”
“John, the disciple of Jesus?”
He smiled obviously amused at the prospect. “Well you already know my name is John,
and I do claim to be a disciple of his.”
“But are you the John?”
“Why is that so important to you?”
“If you are, I’ve got some things I want to ask you.”
“And if I’m not?”
I didn’t know what to say.
I had been deeply affected by his words whoever he was. He seemed to know some things about
Jesus that had certainly escaped me.
“I’d want to talk to you anyway, I guess.”
“Your words in San Luis Obispo moved me deeply.
You seem to know Jesus in a way I’d only hoped to.
I’m a pastor, on staff at a church in town—City Center Fellowship.
Ever hear of it?”
“No, I don’t think so!” he shook his head.
His answer offended me a little. Why wouldn’t he know about us? “Do you live around here?”
“No. Actually this is the first time I have been to Kingston.”
What brings you here?”
“Maybe your prayers,” he said laughing. “I’m not really sure.”
“Listen I’ve got to go in a few minutes. Could we meet again
“I don’t know. I really don’t have the freedom to commit to
an appointment. If we need to get together again, I’m sure we
will. This meeting happened without a schedule.”
“Could you come over for dinner tonight?
We could talk then.”
“No, I’m sorry. I already have something tonight.
What’s going on?”
Where to start?
I had so much to ask but only 20 minutes left before I had to rush back to the office,
and even then I’d be late.
“I am really frustrated.
It seems like everyone I’ve talked to lately is running on empty—
even Christians I’ve known for decades.
I met with one of our elders yesterday, who I’ve always thought to be a rock.
Jim’s pretty disillusioned with it all these days. He told me he often wonders if God is even real or if this
whole Christianity thing is just a crock.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I tried to encourage him. I told him we couldn’t live by sight but by faith;
that he’s done a lot of wonderful things for God and he’ll honor that someday.
We just have to be faithful and not trust our feelings.”
“So you told him he didn’t have the right to his feelings, or his questions?”
“No, that’s not what I said.”
“Are you sure?”
The question was gentle, not accusing.
Taken back, I replayed what I had said to him.
“Understand something, Jake, this life in Jesus is a real thing.
It’s not a game.
When people sense something’s wrong, you know what I’ve discovered? … Something usually is.”
“And I told him to ignore it,” words spoken more to myself than to John. I shook my head at the realization.
“Do you think you helped him?”
“I don’t know. I gave him a lot of encouragement, he seemed to be better.”
John didn’t speak, letting me think it through.
“You’re right, I didn’t help him at all. I guess I just blamed him.”
“Do you think he’ll come back to you next time he has those thoughts?”
I just shook my head, regretting just about everything I’d told Jim that morning. I’ll have to call him back and try again.
“But what about you, Jake.
Is it working for you?”
“Is what working?”
Are you experiencing God’s life to the degree you desire it?”
“I get frustrated from time to time, just like today.
But overall …
I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than what I’m doing right now.”
John’s head didn’t move.
“I mean, I miss the money, and the free time I had, but this is far more worthwhile.
We’re making a big impact on this city.”
Again he sat silently.
I didn’t know what else to say, but before I knew it tears began to well up in my eyes
and I found myself gasping for breath.
Suddenly I felt incredibly alone.
John’s head finally turned my way. “I’m not talking about what you’re doing.
Are you filled with the love of Jesus like you were the first day you believed in him?”
The words worked their way down into my soul
and I felt my insides melting like a pat of butter in a hot pan.
I couldn’t seem to get it out, my voice jerking with small intakes of air.
When it finally came out it did so with a long guttural sigh. “That hasn’t worked in years.
It seems like the more I do for God the further he gets away from me.”
“Or, perhaps the further you get from him.”
Whoever he was he certainly looked at everything from a different angle.
“Do you know why you feel so empty?”
“I haven’t really thought about it, John. I’ve been busy and
it seems like he’s using me to touch people. I just figured this
is the way it was supposed to be. I don’t let myself think about
it too much. It’s too discouraging.
I mean I have a lot to be thankful for, a loving and understanding wife,
a nice home
and I’m serving God with everything I have.
But it’s hollow in here.”
I punched my fist against my chest as my eyes moistened even more.
“Jim scared you didn’t he?”
“Huh?” For the second time, I was thrown off track.
“Maybe you feel just as empty as he does … but won’t slow down enough to admit it.”
“I would never have thought of that,
but I do remember how uncomfortable I felt when he was talking.
He was asking questions
I didn’t want to answer.”
“You know what this whole thing is about, Jake?” John asked as he sat back on the bench,
crossed his arms over his chest and looked out across the playground.
“It’s about life—God’s real life filling your own.
He moves in so that you will no longer entertain any doubts about his reality.
It’s the kind of relationship that Adam tasted when he walked in the garden with God
and heard his great plan to have a people through whom
He could demonstrate his reality to the world
in more ways than you could ever imagine.
It is the kind of life Jesus lived that was more than sufficient to meet every need he faced,
from feeding multitudes with a little boy’s lunch
to healing a sick woman who touched the hem of his robe.
This life is not some philosophical thought
you can conjure up through meditation or some kind of theological
abstraction to be debated.
It is fullness.
It is freedom.
It is joy and peace no matter what happens—even if your doctor
uses the ‘C’ word when he gives you the results of your MRI.
This is the kind of life that he came to share with everyone who
will give up trying to control their own lives and embrace His plan.
“It’s certainly not what so many have come to believe,
like working hard, building big ministries or new buildings.
It’s about life that you can see, taste and touch; something you can
frolic in every day that you live. I know my words fail to describe
it adequately, but you know what I’m talking about.
You’ve had moments like that, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Yes I have, but they were always so fleeting.
I remember how much it was like that in the early days, but I’m a long ways from that now. What’s wrong with me?
How can I be a Christian for so long, be so active in the church, and still not get it? How did I lose touch with that life?
I certainly was not trying to.”
“I’ve watched it happen over and over again,” John replied.
“It is epidemic today.
Somehow our spiritual experience makes the wrong things important and we end up distracted from his true life.
It happened in the early church too.
Do you remember what happened in Ephesus and what Jesus said to them in his Revelation letter?
Their theology was impeccable.
They knew the truth so well they could spot error like a fly in a bowl of soup at a hundred paces.
They were not afraid to confront those who put themselves forward in ministry to find out
who was telling the truth and who was fabricating a message just to build a name for themselves.
Their endurance in times of suffering was second to none in all Christendom.
Suffering seemed to make them stronger the longer they faced it
and they never complained when assailed by others.
But for all that …
was Jesus pleased with them?”
I had recently taught that passage, so I knew what John was talking about.
“No, he chided them for having left their first love.”
Amazing isn’t it?
What they lacked created such a vacuum that any good they might have accomplished was swallowed up by it.
They had left the ravishing love they had for Jesus in the beginning. Without it their service was meaningless.
You can get so busy working for him that you lose sight of knowing him.
Too little of it was motivated by their love for him or his lovefor them.
That made everything else they did not just worthless, but destructive actually.”
“That’s me!” I said. “You are talking about me.”
“It’s an old story, Jake. It’s been rerun a million times under a million different names.
Do you remember the day the love of Jesus first captured your heart?”
The memories came flooding back.
“Yes. I was in junior high school, only twelve or thirteen at the time,
but I knew something was up.
My parents were in the other room with thirty or so other people praying.
They’d been at it for four hours with no sign of letting up. What’s more they were enjoying it.
It was the same thing every Friday night.
They couldn’t wait to get together and pray.
Sometimes they sang, sometimes they laughed and sometimes they even cried.
They rarely broke up before 11:00 and often went far longer.
“This was quite a change for my parents, who, like us, had grown up in church.
We were third generation Baptist on my father’s side and Presbyterian on my mother’s.
My parents had settled in as active members of the Baptist church—attending regularly
and serving on a multitude of committees. But they never seemed to enjoy church.
Some mornings we could even talk them out of going.
“But this was different. We couldn’t drag them away with a
tow truck. They had moved from being mere church attendees, to people passionate about their walk with God.
In the process, God was changing their lives. Old habits fell away,
God’s presence was stronger than their needs and they were reading the Bible at every opportunity.
I remember them praying about everything. They were joyful, free and alive in their faith for the first time.
It made us kids hungry for it as well. They prayed for us and that’s the first time I remember knowing the life of God.
I even remember hearing God’s voice for the first time.”
“What happened to that?”
“For a few years it grew, and they wanted their church to embrace it as well.
But suspicions abounded and accusations flew. When the dust settled some months later it was clear that
they were no longer welcome at the church.
Many of them resigned their membership, but it didn’t dampen their zeal.
They just saw it as persecution.
“Since they were no longer welcome at their church, they decided to start a new one together.
The first gathering brought more than 80 people crammed into a small house.
The atmosphere was electric. They decided to get organized, rent a building and hire a pastor.”
Then for the first time I saw it so clearly.
“And it slowly died.” I muttered, astonished at the realization.
“They were so distracted by all the work that they soon lost that joy of simply loving Jesus.”
“Strange isn’t it, that forming something into what they
thought was a church could do …
what persecution couldn’t?
There is nothing the Father desires for you more than that you fall squarely in the lap of his love
and never move from that place for the rest of your life.
God’s plan from the days of creation to the day of the Second Coming was designed to bring people
into the relationship of love that the Father, Son and Spirit have
shared for eternity.
He wants nothing less—and nothing else!
“This is no distant God who sent his Son with a list of rules to follow or rituals to practice.
His mission was to invite us into his love—into a relationship with his Father that he described as friendship.
But what do we do?
We are so quickly captured by a work-driven religious culture that thrives on guilt, conformity and manipulation
that it devours the very love it seeks to sustain.
“In Ephesus it was ferreting out false teachers.
In Galatia it was getting everyone to observe the Old Testament rituals.
Today it’s to get people to cooperate with the church program.
It doesn’t matter what leads people away from God’s life.
Anything will do, as long as it preoccupies them enough to serve as an adequate substitute for the real thing.
It’s easier to see the problem when the standard is circumcision in Ephesus
than when it is Sunday morning attendance in Kingston.
But both can lead to the same place—bored and disillusioned believers,
no longer embracing Father’s life.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’m not even sure I agreed with him.
How could church attendance be like circumcision?
“Let me ask you a question, Jake. How many ceiling tiles are there over your sanctuary?”
I didn’t even have to think. “There are 312 complete ones and 98 partials.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I count them when I get bored.”
“You must get bored a lot.
Do you know how many others have become bored too?
I met a guy once who even added up the hymn numbers on the tote board to see if they ever totaled 666.
Don’t you think people sharing God’s life together wouldn’t be so good at such things?
Might it be a sign that something is wrong?”
Well, he might be right.
“What was your last thought as you arrived last Sunday morning?”
That required a bit more thought. “I was reviewing my notes, trying to think of an illustration I hadn’t nailed down yet.”
“Yes but what did you say to yourself as you parked your car at the building?”
It took me a moment to fish it out of memory. “‘I’ll be glad when this is over and I can get back home.’”
I chuckled at the thought. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t, but it doesn’t surprise me.
You know how many people think that way, even those paid to be there, like you?
The routine eventually withers the life, no matter how good it is.”
“So Jim’s disillusionment is a good thing?” I asked incredulously.
“As is yours.
When you realize that the routine you’ve stumbled into is not substantially contributing
to your desire to know God better,
some incredible things can happen.
Sitting through the same program week after week wears thin.
Aren’t you tired of finding yourself year after year falling to the same temptations,
praying the same unanswered prayers and seeing no evidence that you are growing to discern God’s voice
with any greater clarity?”
“Yes, I am.”
Even I was surprised at how fast the answer had come from my lips and the frustration that came with them.
“So why do we do it?”
“The answer to that, Jake, will tell you more about yourself than it will about the church.
For now, let yourself be honest about your own boredom and disillusionment.
The Father has never given up his desire to share the friendship with him that you had when you were thirteen.”
“There have been other times since.” “Of course, but they did not endure long, did they?
If they had you wouldn’t have needed to cover-up people like Jim and
bolster his spirit with soothing but empty platitudes.
People like him shouldn’t be silenced as those who lack faith.
Rather we applaud them for their courage to treat their spiritual life as something real.
If the truth be told, Jim’s honesty demonstrates more faith than your discomfort with it.”
“What do I do, John? I want the life that you speak of.”
“It won’t take much from you, Jake. Just be real with Father
and resist the urges to crawl back into your shell and silently
endure lifelessness. Your struggle stems from the call of God’s
Spirit to your own.
Ask him to forgive you for substituting anything for the power of his love and invite him to show you how
your diligent efforts at good works for him may be obscuring his love for you.
Let God do the rest. He will draw you to himself.”
I looked at my watch and knew I had to leave. “I’m sorry, I
have to run. It’s been a long time, John, but I’m going to give it a try!”
“Good. Won’t it be a joy again to wake up confident about being loved by God every day,
without having to earn it by any act of righteousness on your part? That is the secret to first love.
Don’t try to earn it. Know that you are accepted and loved, not for what you can do for God,
or somehow hoping that you will be worthy of his acceptance,
but because his greatest desire is to have you as one of his children.
Jesus came to remove any obstacle that would prevent that from happening.”
I stood up to leave and grabbed for John’s hand. He squeezed mine and held it a moment.
“This is not difficult, Jake. In this kingdom you really do get what you seek.
That is the point of the whole thing. If you are looking for a relationship with God you will find it.”
“Then why don’t I have it?
I thought that’s what I had been seeking all along.”
“No doubt, it might have been at first. But this works the other way around as well.
If you look at what you’ve ended up with, then you’ll know what you’ve really been seeking!”
He let go of my hand.
His words ended with such finality and I was so pressed to get back for my appointment that I simply nodded.
I had no idea at the time what he meant.
“I hope I get to see you again.”
“Oh, I think you will… in good time.”
I thanked him, waved good-bye and now late for my appointment took off running across the park.
It has always amazed me that the greatest journeys of our lives always begin so simply
that we don’t even know we’ve embarked on one until we’re well down the road looking back.
So it would be for me.