The Gospel did it to me again today. I’ve been reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. (Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read it yet and plan to, I’d click this post away right now.) Several of my Christian friends recommended Unbroken to me, so I assumed it was a “Christian book.” But halfway in, I decided it wasn’t. It is an amazing story told with sharp journalistic acumen, but I couldn’t find a Christian subtext in it anywhere. Not that I minded. A good story is a good story.
But as I read chapter after relentless chapter with titles like “Missing at Sea” and “Sharks and Bullets” and “Hunted,” I got bone-weary of Louis Zamperini’s tragic life. When would the pathos end? Once he got safely home to country and family, it only continued. How could it not, considering what the man had endured at the hands of his Japanese captors during World War II? I felt that surely this seemingly indestructible man was going to self-destruct in the end.
Then I turned to page 904 and got chills.
The middle section begins, “In the second week of September 1949, an angular man climbed down from a transcontinental train and stepped into Los Angeles,” and there it was, tucked away at the end of the paragraph: “His name was Billy Graham.” No, the arrival of Billy Graham on page 904 did not give me chills. But I knew what his appearance on the page had to mean. It meant the Gospel was about to do what only it can do. It meant things were finally looking up for Louis Zamperini.
This, by the way, is a real-life story.
In my world “real” is a cheap word. My favorite mascara is called “They’re real,” for heaven’s sake. Real food as opposed to the fast kind, real coffee (decaf is fake, right?) real stories of real celebrities on TV, these things have so diminished the word that I have a hard time distinguishing what is absolutely, truthfully, undeniably real from what isn’t. And so I forget how real the Gospel is. How it alters this flimsy reality we call life. How, when it shows up, it’s as if Mount Fuji just toppled right over into the Sea of Japan.
We spent a long weekend this summer in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where we lived over twenty years ago. On Sunday we showed up like regular ole visitors at the church where my husband pastored for five years. Denny Marconi met us at the door. He grabbed Bill and said, “I still remember the night you introduced me to Jesus, Bill. My life has never been the same.”
If someone says, “my life has never been the same” twenty years after what changed that life, you believe them. But we asked around about Denny. It’s true.
Then, after the service, Bill stood in the aisle and got a bear hug from our old neighbor, the one who had a crazy marriage, a crazy bunch of boys, and a crazy alcohol problem. He echoed Denny’s statement. Like Louis Zamperini, our neighbor, Gary Barrett, got cured of a host of ills when he met Jesus. Overnight. I am not kidding.
Right before we moved away from Lock Haven, Bill, who was only thirty-eight at the time, had a heart attack. Matt, our oldest, was almost 11. One night, while I was two hours away with Bill at the hospital and Bill’s mom was managing our other boys who were eight, four, and two, Gary heard Matt sobbing his boy-heart out through an upstairs bedroom window. (It was springtime, and we didn’t have air-conditioning, so the windows were open.) Gary crept up our back stairway, let himself in, and knocked on Matt’s bedroom door. (No locked doors in Lock Haven either.) This burly, compassionate man was exactly who Matt needed that night. He encircled our son in his arms and wept with him.
This summer, Gary thanked Bill for introducing him to a Change Agent like no other, and I thanked him for, as a changed man, looking out for our son when we couldn’t all those years ago.
That is exactly what the Gospel does. It gets inside us and changes us. But sometimes I forget that.
In Acts 3, Luke tells the story of a broken man whose life and health were completely altered by the Gospel. It’s a familiar Bible story, so even though I know better I tend to read it as less real than Denny’s or Gary’s or even Louis Zamperini’s stories. Or even my own. But as I read it this morning with all these real-life stories humming in my head, it shocked me with its authenticity.
Peter described what happened like this: “Faith in Jesus’ name put this man, whose condition you know so well, on his feet – yes, faith and nothing but faith put this man healed and whole right before your eyes.” (Acts 5:16, MSG)
So there’s Louis Zamperini, a man whose “condition” I know well after reading about him for over 1000 pages. And here’s Denny and Gary, men I personally know who were in no condition to radically alter the trajectory of their own lives for the good. And here’s me, a woman who is “healed and whole” even if I don’t always look like it. Who, from time to time, has to pinch herself to believe this delightful wholeness is real.
So I think what happened in Acts 3 could actually happen now. Peter said the end result of the Gospel was that we can know “times of refreshing from the Lord.” (Verse 12) Yes, I feel the gentle breeze only God’s breath can circulate into my life. So today I find the Gospel reality to be crystal clear.
But I have non-Christian friends who do not look like they need to be healed or refreshed. They are compassionate, healthy people. And I have Christian friends who worry me with all their issues. People can be troublesome. They don’t always follow the rules, me included. People make the Gospel all fuzzy. But I find this only happens when I place people at its center instead of Jesus. If perceived need was the lynchpin of the Gospel, it would lose its power. Jesus, Almighty King over life and death and the life that lies beyond death, he is the focal point of the Gospel. Peter and John knew this.
“Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” Peter asked the crowd that had gathered around the healed man, because miracles do seem to draw crowds. We don’t have the piety or the power to do this stuff, he’s saying. I get that.
Peter understood that the chills we get in the presence of a Gospel miracle don’t ever belong to us, not even if we are Billy Graham or a bona fide Apostle. They belong to Jesus alone.