Leaving Salem

January 13, 1982 was a cold, snowy day in the nation’s capitol. A massive blizzard delayed the travel of commuters trying to get home and air-travelers trying to leave the city. At the height of the storm, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from Washington D.C.’s National Airport.

Just seconds in the air, its wings heavy with snow and ice, the plane struck the14th StreetBridge and plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac River. The attempted helicopter rescue of the precious few survivors was viewed on the nation’s television sets all afternoon.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered on the damaged bridge and the snow covered banks of the river to watch as well. One man was twenty-eight-year-old Lenny Skutnik, a gopher in the Congressional Budget office. Lenny had a simple life with his wife and two young sons. He had never taken a life-saving or first aid course. Making less than $15,000 a year, paying the $325 a month rent was his biggest regular challenge.

Yet, when he saw a woman, Priscilla Tirado, blinded by shock and jet fuel, too weak to grasp the rings being lowered by the rescue helicopter, Lenny quickly went from being an observer to a participant in a daring act of courage. He jumped into the freezing water after her, pulling her to shore and to safety.

Later that month President Ronald Reagan seated Lenny Skutnik next to the First Lady as his special guest for the State of the Union address. Lenny was the first ever “ordinary” American to receive such an honor.

President Reagan said, “Nothing had picked Lenny out particularly to be a hero, but without hesitation there he was and he saved her life.” Skutnik resisted all efforts to make his risky act into something extraordinary. He said, “Nobody else was doing anything. It was the only way…I just did it.”

Heroes, spiritual or otherwise, are not those who have special powers, bulging muscles, and colorful costumes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heroes are simply those who, even in throat-strangling fear, say their prayers and jump into the water.

Whether it’s the giant-killer David, the law-giver Moses, the beautiful queen Esther, the missionary-traveler Paul, or the errand boy Lenny Skutnik, heroes are just plain normal people. Yet, this is who God chooses to work with and through: Ordinary people called to take extraordinary risks.

Mother Teresa, an ordinary woman in her own right who did extraordinary things, was once asked if she felt proud of all she had accomplished in her life and ministry. She brought up the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as her answer. She said, “When Christ rode the little donkey into Jerusalem and the people were shouting and praising God, do you think the donkey thought the praise was for him?”

There are no superheroes in the ways of God, only those who will trust and obey. Anything that results in a superhuman or extraordinary outcome finds its source in God, not in those who are mere instruments in his hand, conduit through which he works.

No, we can’t solve every problem. We can’t answer every call. We can’t singlehandedly do the heavy lifting that will change the world, but we can do what we can do. We can respond in faith, believing that the same God who calls us will grant us the necessary courage to act.

Tim Hansel says, “You can live on bland food so as to avoid an ulcer; drink no tea or coffee or other stimulants, in the name of health; go to bed early and stay away from night life; avoid all controversial subjects…spend money only on necessities…And still you could fall and break your neck in the bathtub, and it will serve you right.”

Yes, the water is cold. The dangers are many. The risk is great. But do not be afraid. Place your bets and roll the dice. Jump into the water. You may not think God can use you where you are, but one thing is certain: He can’t use you where you are not.

You are where you are because God has brought you to this place. Seize it. Quit waiting for that big moment to come along. This is the moment. God is calling today. Don’t let fear keep you on the sidelines.

“That was one hell of a sermon, preacher.” That was the word of encouragement passed on to my good friend at the conclusion of an especially inspiring Sunday morning sermon.

The young man paying the compliment was a simple diesel mechanic named Terry. Terry came to church every Sunday with grease under his fingernails; tattoos peeking out from beneath his cut-off sleeves; and the smell of Marlboros heavy on his breath.

This didn’t mean he couldn’t recognize a good sermon when he heard one, even if his praise was a bit unorthodox. Beaming from ear to ear, pumping the pastor’s hand, this young man was happy to attend this little church to hear good sermons and pursue his new-found relationship with Christ.

It had not always been so. Terry’s story was one of glorious conversion like something you hear from a Billy Graham crusade. Drug abuse, alcoholism, failed relationships: He had suffered from and caused more than his share of disaster. Then, by God’s grace, it all turned around.

My friend, his pastor, had been instrumental in this transformation. He served as a spiritual guide to Terry, a true pastor, helping him sort out all his past baggage, pointing him forward, and allowing the rough edges to remain. After all, God looks at a person’s heart not the grease under his fingernails.

If only people were the same. One Wednesday Terry was running late for the church’s weekly Bible Study. He came straight from work. No shower, no shave, no change of clothes. He came like that old hymn so often sang: Just as I Am.

A self-appointed delegation met Terry in the parking lot on this particular night. This group told Terry that should he wish to continue to be a part of the church, it was time he learned to dress right, cover those devilish tattoos, and clean up his language.

Terry’s reaction was expected. He was crushed. Bible in hand he returned to his truck, drove away and never returned. The chances of him ever giving church a shot again are slim to none. Who can blame him?

The pastor, my friend, only discovered the transgression against Terry after the fact, when his usual seat in worship was inexplicably vacant. My friend, to his credit, no longer pastors that church.

The last time we find Jesus in synagogue on the Sabbath, he healed a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. With just a word and a touch he caused her to regain her lost strength. Those who happened to be in church that weekend were astounded.

But this was more than the synagogue attendant could stand. He makes the audacious statement, “There are six days of the week to get healed – not on the Sabbath” (See Luke 13). It’s good for people to get well, in other words, but not on Sunday and not in the church house.

A woman who had been broken for eighteen years – eighteen years! – had been healed, and all this man could do was fret over the minutia of keeping the rules. He couldn’t celebrate the physical and spiritual deliverance of one who had long suffered. All he could see was the grease under the fingernails of a Nazarene carpenter who had violated the sacred customs of worship.

He rebuked the awe-struck crowd and chided the healed and the Healer. We never find Jesus attending the synagogue services again. Never. Who could blame him?

Question: Why won’t some people go to church? Answer: Because they have been. This is no excuse for throwing away spirituality, not in the least. But it is recognition that the church, when it behaves in ways oppositional to its Founder, is its own worst enemy.

Jesus intentionally broke the rules and customs of the religious establishment not for rebellion’s sake, but to reveal how preposterous it was to hold to these rules: Choosing to honor the oppressive Sabbath law over celebrating the healing of one of God’s children; and running off diesel mechanics whose hearts have changed but who don’t dress right on Sunday. This is ridiculous! Actually, it’s more than ridiculous. It is sinful.

On this weekend when we celebrate our national freedom, let us also remember the freedom that Christ brings. For those whom “the Son sets free are free indeed,” and no amount of religious rule-making manipulation can change that.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said. We Christians are quick to fasten hold of these words. We properly talk about his uniqueness, Jesus’ distinctive nature, but maybe we miss the point.

Rather than treating Jesus as the way to know God, Christians often speak as if Jesus is standing in the way. Our view is not Jesus as an open door, but Jesus as a roadblock.

“Do you want to get to God? Sorry, you have to go through Jesus.” We pitch this sentiment out there like it is something dreadful. Jesus becomes an irate troll living under a bridge, ready to jump out and devour anyone traveling along the road.

But to the contrary, Jesus is an open path, much more open than many of us are ready to accept. Just read about some of the people he hung out with and who were his friends: Extortionists, the non-religious, the oddballs and outsiders, welcomed, they were, into his kingdom.

Jesus hasn’t padlocked himself behind a steel and concrete wall, waiting for those with just the right code to get through. His arms are open. His way is open. His heart is open. He invites all who will to come to him and find God; to come to him and discover what life can really be.

Most every day I cross the beautiful Choctawhatchee Bay. Birds, dolphins, jumping fish, boaters and kayakers are usual sites along the way. But to cross the bay, I have to use the Clyde Wells Memorial Bridge.

A mile and a half long and hanging there in theFloridasky, it is the only way to get my vehicle to the other side. What if I arrived at the foot of the bridge and treated it like a roadblock instead of a bridge?

“Who put this bridge in my way? I’m trying to get to the other side. What am I going to do now? My car doesn’t float you know. I guess I’ll just turn around and go home.”

How foolish would that be? The bridge is there for a reason – to be used. The bridge is not in the way. It is the way.

We should not speak of Jesus, not even when speaking of his exclusiveness, in such a way that communicates a lack of openness on his part. He invites all to travel with him and through him on the journey to know and experience God.

But following Jesus is about much more than getting to the other side (You know, going to heaven when you die). Following Jesus is a way of radical living for today, a life of imitation.

As long as we live in a “What Would Jesus Do?” world we can wrestle with hypothetical situations and largely remain who and where we are, safe and sound. But when we start asking, “What did Jesus do?” and “How can we do the same?” well, hold on to your hat because things are going to get willy-nilly.

For instance: Do we forgive others as Christ forgave, even those who murdered him? Do we turn the other cheek when we are mistreated? Do we love our enemies? Do we resist violence and power, opting instead for the upside down influence that comes from service and surrender?

Are we quick to cast off the allure of wealth, serving God rather than the pseudo-securities of contemporary culture? Are we accepting of all people – even those radically different than ourselves – and welcome them to God’s table?

Are we ready to speak the truth about religious hypocrisy, about the abuse of position and privilege, and invite those who long to be set free from all coercion to come to Christ to be set free indeed? If so, then maybe, just maybe, we are ready to begin following this way-maker, Jesus.

This life of Jesus-imitation goes far beyond propositions, creeds, and statements of faith. These are largely collections of powerless words on paper. But a way of life, living a life like the one Jesus lived, this is the sort of thing that changes the world.

Living like Jesus will pit us against the cultural and religious planet on which we live in some very fundamental ways. But being pitted against these means we have something worth saying and a life worth living; the way and life of Christ.