When You Dig a
Hole For Yourself
You Have to Throw
the Dirt on Someone
I heard the overwhelming roar behind me drifting across the
football field from the stands on the opposing side. I didn’t
even have to turn around from the concession stand line to
know it wasn’t good news for my alma mater. I craned my neck
around just in time to see the white jersey of a Jefferson Blue
Raider streak across the goal line with his arms lifted in exultation.
He was soon mobbed by his teammates.
I blew out a sigh and shook my head in disgust. After holding
a narrow 3-0 lead into halftime against their heavily favored
opponents, the Ponderosa Bears had given up a 73-yard touchdown
pass on the first play of the second half to blow that lead.
This wasn’t just another football game. It was the Bronze Bell
Classic, a rivalry between the first two high schools in Kingston
that had over its 45-year history taken on mythical proportions.
The winner claimed the Bronze Bell, a huge trophy that had
been made out of the bell that hung in the old tower of the original
high school, and city bragging rights for a year.
Nothing was more important to the seniors than to win the
bell in their last year, and the alumni wanted it almost as badly.
Sequoia had held the Bronze Bell for the last six years; a humiliating
string that I had hoped would end tonight. The first half
had looked promising, but I knew how easily momentum could
switch on a play like that.
As I started to turn back toward the concession stand my eye
caught a familiar form hunched over the railing looking out on
the field. It was hard to tell from this angle, especially since he
was dressed in an oversized coat and a sock hat, like everyone
else trying to stay warm. Then his face turned to look at the
scoreboard, and I saw him in profile. “Of all places,” I thought.
I gave up my place in line to see what he was doing. I walked
up behind him and grabbed him by the shoulders. “What are
you doing here?” I had wondered if this was some kind of
set-up, but when he looked over his shoulder to see who had
grabbed him he looked genuinely surprised. A smile burst
across his face as he turned and embraced me. “Jake, it’s so
good to see you. I hoped you’d be here.”
“Somehow I didn’t peg you for a football fan,” I replied nodding
toward the field.
“I’m not really, but I understand you can’t be in Kingston
tonight and not take in the spectacle. I’ve never seen anything
like this… fireworks to start the game and such a frenzied
“It’s a passionate rivalry. It was even written up in Sports
Illustrated a few years ago. They bring out all the bells and whistles
for this one. What brings you to town?”
“I’m visiting a few people and planned to meet one of them here. How is Andrea doing?”
“She has not had one wheeze since you prayed for her last month. I am so grateful.”
“That’s great. Are you doing better as well?”
“I’m getting by. I can’t say everything is wonderful, but I
really took to heart what you said last time, John. I’ve asked
God to help me see how much he loves me even when things
aren’t easy. Financially things are still really tight, but I’ve seen
God provide for us in some interesting ways.”
“I’m still working on real estate, though it has been slow. In
the meantime, people have hired me to do some painting or
landscape work they haven’t had time to get to. A couple of
people have even given me some sizable gifts to help us get by.
I didn’t want to take them, but they said God had put it on their
heart. Each time we really needed what they offered.”
“Isn’t he amazing?”
“He cuts it pretty close to the wire, if you ask me. I also sold
my first commercial building a few weeks ago. When escrow
closes that will be a big help.”
“Just remember he’s not worried about tomorrow because
he has already worked that out. He’s inviting you to live with
him in the joy of the moment, responding to what he puts right
before you. The freedom to simply follow him that way will
transform so many areas of your life. He loves you, Jake, and he
wants you to live in the security of that, without having to figure
“I’m beginning to get a glimpse of it. I’ve been reading
Romans 8 over and over trying to figure out what Paul meant.
It seems that Paul drew his confidence in God’s love
from what he accomplished on the cross.
Because of what he knew about that .. .. he never seemed to doubt God’s love again,
no matter how brutal things got for him.
I have always seen the cross as a matter of justice, not love, at least from God’s eyes.
I know Jesus loved us enough to die for us,
but wasn’t it God who put him through all of that?
If he would treat his own son that way when he was innocent, how does that prove his love for me?”
“You’re making a common mistake. Too many people see
the cross only as an act of divine justice.
To satisfy his need for justice, God imposed the ultimate punishment on his Son,
thus satisfying his wrath and allowing us to go unpunished.
That may be good news for us, but what does it say about God?”
“That’s what’s always troubled me. I understood how the
cross showed me how much Jesus loved me, but it certainly
didn’t endear me to God.”
“But that’s not how God views the cross, Jake.
His wrath wasn’t an expression of the punishment sin deserves;
it was the antidote for sin and shame. The purpose of the cross as, Paul
wrote of it, was for God to make his Son to become sin itself so
that he could condemn sin in the likeness of human flesh and
purge it from the race.
His plan was not just to provide a way to forgive sin, but to destroy it so that we might live free.”
“How could God put him through all of that?”
“Don’t think God was only a distant spectator that day. He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
This is something they did together. This was not some sacrifice God
required in order to be able to love us, but a sacrifice God
himself provided for what we needed.
He leapt in front of a stampeding horse and pushed us to safety.
He was crushed by the weight of our sin so that we could be rescued from it. It’s an incredible story.”
“And one I want to understand better,” I responded.
“I think I’m only beginning to discover how the church has led me astray.”
I’d heard John pose that question many times, and usually it was with his eyes popped wide open and a chuckle in
his voice. “I don’t think the church leads people astray. Those leading some religious institutions might, but let’s not confuse that with the church as God sees her.”
His use of terms confused me briefly, but I pressed on. “A few days after we last talked I got in touch with Ben Hopkins.
He used to be my assistant in a home group I led before I got
railroaded out of City Center. He’s discovered something
called house church and has found a lot of information about it
on the Internet. He and I are going to start one this weekend.”
He seemed markedly less excited about this than I thought he would.
“Yes. Isn’t that where it all began? The early believers met
in each other’s homes. They didn’t build huge organizations.
They didn’t have a professional clergy to run everything.
They simply shared community as brothers and sisters together.
That’s what I’ve been looking for since I became a believer.
I’ve always thought our view of church seemed to present more
problems than it solved.
“This is the only answer I’ve ever heard that made me this
excited. It seems there are thousands of people all around the
world who have given up on our traditional congregations and
are trying to rediscover life like the early church experienced it.
Many are calling it a last-day move of God to purify his church.”
“And that will happen just by meeting in a home, will it?”
His seeming cynicism surprised me. “You don’t think so?” I asked.
“Don’t get me wrong, Jake. Finding more relational ways to
share life with other believers is a marvelous direction to head.
But just moving the meeting into a home will not accomplish all
that you hope for.”
“We know that. We’ve got a group of five families who want
to start a house church together and really work at community.
We’re having our first meeting Sunday night.
Would you like to come?”
“I would love to see what you are doing, but I won’t be in
town that long, Jake.”
Just then I saw a familiar face come out of the crowd walking
towards me. Scanning crowds near me had become a habit
since I left City Center. So many lies had been spread about
me that I was tired of facing them. Now one of the worst perpetrators
of that rumor mill was headed right at me.
Bob was a member of the church council and we had been in an accountability
group together for a long time. Just when I thought he
wouldn’t see me, our eyes met. Trying to be civil I extended my
hand, “Bob, how are you doing?”
He scowled, turned away and soon melted back into the
crowd. I felt like an idiot with my hand extended and my face
flushed with shame as I realized John had seen it all. “I hate
that,” I said turning around to face the field. John turned too,
putting one leg up on the bottom bar of the railing and perching
his elbows on the top bar.
“Ever since we left City Center I get the same thing. People
who used to be close friends turn away as if they don’t even
know me. Bob and I were close. I got him through a tough
time with his wife a couple of years ago and now he can’t even
acknowledge me.” I shook my head in disgust. “And that’s not
even the worst of it.”
“I feel sick when people I thought were my friends turn away
pretending not to see me. But that’s at least more honest than
those who stab me in the back then rush up to me in public
with hugs and smiles pretending nothing ever happened. I ran
into my old pastor the other day at a wedding. He ran up and
hugged me, pretended we were the best of friends, all the while
looking around to make sure others were noticing how loving
he was. I wanted to push him away, but I knew how unloving I
would have looked.”
“It’s incredibly sad, isn’t it?”
I’d say it’s downright contemptible!”
“Is that what you’re feeling from him?”
“I wasn’t talking about his contempt, I was talking about mine!”
“I am too, Jake. Other people’s contempt can’t touch you if
you’re not playing their game.”
“What game are you talking about?” At that moment screams
from across the way drew my eyes to the field just in time to
see the football falling out of the air after another long pass and
into the arms of another dreaded Blue Raider. The receiver
raced untouched to the end zone.
“We’re going to throw this thing away again.” I muttered
angrily. “Another year of humiliation.” I shook my head.
“That’s the game, right there! Your worth as a person is tied
up in what fifty high school kids do or don’t do out on that
field. You’re in the game and that’s why you feel so horrible
when people don’t know how to respond to you.”
“What are you talking about, John? That’s just a football
game. I’m talking about real flesh and blood people here.”
“So am I.
Tying your worth to fifty people out there or a lie someone tells about you is pretty much the same thing.”
As the Blue Raiders scored their extra point, I knew the game was slipping away. “Besides, this isn’t a fair game anyway.”
“No. That quarterback launching all the touchdowns should
have been playing for us. He used to be in the Ponderosa
District, but transferred to Jefferson when he started high
school. He’s probably the best athlete this town has ever seen.
Rumor has it there were a lot of underhanded dealings with the
coach at Jefferson to get him to go along with it. He promised
he could get him a scholarship at a major college program after
“You know this?”
“Everyone knows it, John. They even say he’s got a drug
problem now and the school buries it so he can keep playing for
them. They’ll probably be Valley champs this year.”
“You’re talking about Craig Hansen, right?”
“You know him?”
“I know his dad pretty well. He’s the man I was having breakfast
with when I met you at the coffee shop almost a year ago.
I don’t think you have your facts straight at all. Craig’s a great kid
and I can assure you he’s not taking drugs.”
“He still abandoned us.” I scowled.
“You don’t have any idea what happened, do you?
During his eighth-grade year,
Craig’s mother died and his dad’s business failed.
They couldn’t hold on to their home anymore and had to move in with his dad’s sister and her family.
There was no way they could drive him across town to play with his old teammates. It killed Craig.
Even now he has few friends on the team. They love his arm,
but he’s lonely because few people have any interest in him.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“But that’s the truth.
I’ve walked with his dad through the whole thing.”
“Why didn’t he tell anyone? He just disappeared and showed up playing for our hated rival.”
“He was too embarrassed to try to explain it even to his classmates.
His problem is not unlike yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“He too knows what it is to have former friends turn away from him when he sees them at a mall.”
I shook my head as I smiled back at John. I never see him sneaking up on me until it’s too late.
“I’m doing the same thing to Craig others are doing to me.”
“Well, that’s only part of it, Jake. You’re caught in the same approval game. That’s how this culture works. Do what they
want and they shower you with affirmation. Cross them and they’ll crucify your reputation, with or without the facts.”
“I feel so bad for Craig now. I never knew.”
“And I’m sorry for you, Jake. Religious systems, too, have to play the approval game to work.”
“Is that why I could go from ‘rising star’ one moment, to condemned outcast the next?”
“Exactly,” John said. “And why you could go back to ‘rising
star’ tomorrow if you return, and admitted it was all your fault.
They would celebrate your return as quickly as they shoved you
out the door. All that matters is that you stay in the game and play by the rules.”
We both stared out over the football field, but I had long ago
lost track of the game. Then it dawned on me. “So even though
I’m not there I’m still playing that game, aren’t I?”
“Oh, yes,” John smiled, “It’s a lot easier for you to get out of
the system than it is to get the system out of you. You can play it
from inside and out. The approval you felt then , came from the same source as the shame you feel now.
That’s why it hurts so much when you hear the rumors or watch old friends turn away
embarrassed. Truth be told, some of those people still really
care about you. They just don’t know how to show it now that
you no longer play on their team. They’re not bad people, Jake,
just brothers and sisters lost in something that is not as godly as they think it is.”
“My daughter, Andrea, told me that last week at school she
overheard two teachers talking. They didn’t know she was
on the other side of the bathroom door when they passed by.
She heard my name so she stopped to listen. She recognized
one voice coming from an elder at City Center who teaches at
her school. He told his colleague that I had really harmed the
church and that he’d heard I had a drinking problem.”
“How did she handle that?”
“I asked her what she thought, and her answer surprised me.
‘Well, Dad,’ she said,
‘When you dig a hole for yourself …
I guessyou have to throw the dirt on someone….
Then she dashed off
John laughed as hard as I’d ever seen him laugh. “I love it!
It’s amazing how easily children see through the game. Who
you are doesn’t change in her mind because of what others say.
She’s not playing.”
“But why can’t we see how this game is so destructive?
Others are being lied to!”
“They don’t want to see it Jake. Religious systems prey on people’s insecurity.
They haven’t learned how to live in Father’s
love, to follow his voice and depend on him.
Consequently they can’t do anything that might upset their place in the game,
or they’ll feel lost.
Do you remember our walk through your
Sunday school program a year or so ago? We hardwire people to their approval needs
at a very young age and try to exploit it their whole life long.”
“And part of that training includes marginalizing those that
don’t go along.” I let out a deep sigh. “I’ve certainly done that
to others. I had no idea how it felt from this side.”
“Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as
you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When
you’re not, people tend to treat you like damaged goods. Now
you know what that’s like from the other side and one of the big
things Jesus is doing in you now is to free you from the game, so
that you can live deeply in him rather than worrying about what
everyone else thinks about you.”
“I’ve been tortured by that my whole life.”
“And as long as you need other people to understand you
and to approve of what you’re doing, you are owned by anyone
willing to lie about you.”
“Am I just supposed to take it?”
“You’ll learn how best to handle it, but right now just know
that your need to convince others how right you are is your need. It’s not God’s.
Did you ever notice how little attention
Jesus paid to his public relations? Even when people didn’t
understand at all and accused him of horrific things, he never
rose to his own defense and he never let it deter him from what
he knew Father had asked him to do.”
“He wouldn’t play the game.”
“That’s exactly right, Jake, and he’s helping you to stop
playing it too. As he does, you won’t believe how you’ll be able
to help others find the same freedom.”
“Well, I’m done with it! I’m not playing the game anymore.”
John chuckled again. “How I wish it was that easy. You
already knew they were wrong, but it still bothered you. How
are you just going to stop? Actually, this is going to be a bit of
a process. Even the pain of feeling rejected is part of it. He is
using what’s going on around you to help you learn how to care
more what Father thinks of you than what anyone else does.”
“That’s why I’m excited about our new house church. We can deal with real issues like this.”
I expected him to encourage me to go for it. Instead he just
looked at me as if I hadn’t heard a word he’d said.
It took me a moment to sort out why and then it dawned on me. “Is this that game, too?”
“It doesn’t have to be,” John answered, “but it could be, the way you’re going about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“If this is another place for you to find your identity and to
bury your shame by thinking you’ve got a better way to do it
than anyone else, then you’re sating the same thirst, just from
a different fountain. That’s what I hear when you call it a great
move of God. You’re still talking like you’re a competitor with
other brothers and sisters. You can’t love what you’re competing
against and if you’re keeping score you can be sure you’re competing.”
“So we shouldn’t do it?”
“I didn’t say that, Jake. What I hope you’ll do is simply let
God connect you with those brothers and sisters he wants you
to walk with for now. Think less about ‘starting’ something
than just learning to share your life in God with others on a
similar journey. Don’t feed off your need to be more right than
others, then you’ll know more clearly what he is doing in you.”
At that moment someone grabbed me from behind in a
bear hug around my waist. My heart sank as I wondered who it
might be until I heard her words. “I wondered what happened
to you.” It was my wife, Laurie. “Where’s the popcorn and soda?”
I gave her a hug and realized the game was almost over.
“I ran into someone and just got lost in the conversation. Here,
let me introduce you. This is John, the one I’ve been telling you
“You’re kidding,” she said, leaning around me and sticking
out her hand to shake John’s.
He took it and smiled. “It’s a real pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Well you don’t look 2,000 years old,” Laurie said, to my embarrassment, as she sized him up with a smirk on her face.
In my recent conversations with John our friendship had overshadowed my preoccupation with whether or not he might somehow be the Apostle John.
I started to butt in, but John beat me to it. “Looks can be
deceiving,” he smiled back with a wink. “I’d love to talk some
more, but I’ve got to meet up with some people before the game
ends. I hope we’ll have time to talk further, Laurie.”
“Oh no you don’t, I’ve got a lot I want to ask you.” Laurie said.
“Another time, I trust,” he said as the crowd across the
way erupted again. I looked up to see a Blue Raider score yet
another touchdown. A quick glance at the scoreboard showed
we were behind 24-10 with only a minute remaining.
“Don’t you hate that quarterback?” Laurie said, shaking her head.
“Not anymore,” I said.
Laurie looked at me surprised. “Who is in there?” she said probing my eyes.
By the time we turned around to talk to John again he was gone.
We both looked through the crowd to see which way he went,
but we couldn’t spot him.