I go to law school now, so when I’m hanging out with Tullian after a conference, or whenever we end up in the same city, there are usually other pastors present who wonder why Tullian and I would be friends. So usually I get to tell the story of how Tullian and I became “amigos.”
[I’m telling this story because Tullian was singled-out for the way he talks about the gospel recently, and within one of the comment threads an individual wrote, ‘I would regress in my spiritual walk if I listened to what Tullian is saying.’ I think that dude is an idiot. I could say it a lot stronger, but my mom likes reading my posts, so I will fight to contain myself.]
Ready? Here goes:
The Dude’s Guide to Failure
I worked for a big Acts 29 church in St. Louis. I was the assistant to the pastor. I was terrible at it, and I really just failed every day for two years. The pastor let me know that every day for two years as well. He reminded me of this, obviously, so that I would become the man I wanted to be: more disciplined, harder working, and a bigger contributor to the work of Christ’s body. It never worked. He kept doing it. The more I failed, the more I heard the imperatives (what to do). The indicatives (what is true) were given lip service, but always in the context of motivating me to work harder. Nobody in my life let the truth sit long enough to sink in, it was always overshadowed by the response that was being sought.
I tried to quit that job, twice, and during those phone calls I was told, ‘If you just stick it out here, you can do anything you want in ministry. Don’t burn this bridge.’ Both times, I broke down and stayed and usually spent the rest of the weekend vacuuming his van or babysitting his son.
Eating Carrots on Smoke Break
Finally, I did quit and I went to work at a warehouse. I still had all these grand plans, but mostly I was exhausted. There was a warehouse in my hometown that my best friend’s dad ran, an hour south of St. Louis. All my co-workers were warehouse lifers, and I really hoped I was just passing through, on my way to grand ecclesiastical influence.
We had these smoke breaks. Problem was, I didn’t smoke. So I would pack bite-sized carrots in a sandwich bag and eat them in the cloud of smoke and foul language. I am still shocked how fulfilling that experience was after working at the sleekest church in the midwest, on my MacBook, making phone appointments with other celebrity pastors.
I get this call one day from a former co-worker at the sleek church, who had also quit. He says, “Jake, I have this great opportunity for you.”
“Okay.” I bite into a carrot.
“Come work for a famous pastor and writer. I’m with this research group, and you would be perfect with this guy.”
“No.” I finish the carrot.
“Come on, man! Good pay, you can work from home. Few hours a week. Don’t you want to hear who it is?”
“No man. Seriously, never again.” And I was serious. He finally gave up and left me back to my work, heaving boxes and fighting with the other workers over who gets to drive the forklift.
Two days later, same thing.
“Come on, man! There isn’t a better opportunity!” Only a few days had passed, but as I looked at my co-workers, hacking and talking about their “old ladies” (my least favorite term ever), my weariness came into focus.
“Fine dude, I’ll do it. But if I hate it, I’m quitting. I won’t hesitate.”
Tullian, Angels and Airwaves, Grace
Tullian had to know what he was getting, right? I mean, who else signs up to be a ‘research assistant’ unless they are really convinced they have their theological shit together?
This part of the story isn’t actually that exciting. Essentially, Tullian and I both loved Angels and Airwaves (the band), and we talked about movies non-stop. That was the primary content of our weekly 2 hour conversations. The rest of it, he would just tell me where he was going that week with the sermon, and tell me to look into the commentaries and find some good stuff, and work with the sermon structure. Pop a few pop-culture references in there, maybe some psychological studies. Commentaries and word studies. I got this.
Two months go by. One night, we are talking about an old testament passage.
“So did you get to look at the passage at all?” Tullian asked.
“Yeah man. I have a few ideas.”
“Cool! What are they?”
“Okay, so, God comes to the garden. God knows sin and he hates sin, and so he is coming to show Adam and Eve their sin. He does this to us all the time in our lives. We hide and God pursues us so that we can know our sin. And that’s all I’ve got.” (I was convinced it was pretty solid. I mean, the explanation is there. The application is there. Now. What more exactly is needed? Oh yeah, I mean, at the end he would say, “Jesus loves you anyway.” I get that. That was implied.)
“Dude,” Tullian replies, “I don’t know. It seems like we can focus on why man hides in the first place. How we try to cover our own sin with fig leaves and self-righteousness. You know? Like we are resistant to the very idea that God will have to deal with our shame himself?”
I was baffled, but I tried to recover, “Yeah man, that can totally work.” I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my approach.
“Dude. I am going to keep paying you, but don’t write anything. Take two weeks, and read everything on the reading list that I sent you.”
I actually wasn’t hurt. I was on the brink of something, and, more than that, I was getting paid anyway. It was perfect. I read everything on the list (apparently “the list” – now infamous – originated with Justin Holcomb, so buy his latest book about Heretics and then ask him for it).
Then, our next conversation. Tullian called me after spending the day with his Grand-dad, a fairly well-known evangelist. My first words:
“Are you saying about the gospel what I think you are saying?”
He laughed, “Dude, isn’t it unbelievable? I mean, how can God really love us so much?”
“No way, dude! I mean. I can’t believe it. Evangelicalism is going to be uprooted by this stuff. You might end up banished on a desert island.”
He laughed again, “Well you are free to join me, I think we will have good company, too.”
Not only am I saying, ‘Tullian is harmless, so listen to him if you want,” instead, I beg you to listen to what he says about the Gospel. I spent two years in seminary and three years in ministry before I had any clue what scripture was about. I spent two years working for a well-known Acts 29 pastor – an experience that evokes jealousy in most of my peers – and all the while I clung tightly to my own accomplishments. You might be a pharisee, yes, even you. In fact, I’m certain you are. Don’t brush past it. We are all recovering Pharisees, except some of us think we are past it now and ready to move on. You aren’t! The commenter dude, you won’t regress if you over-focus on grace. In fact, you will probably get better, but your quantifiable, Nike+ Fitness App-esque trajectory might not immediately (or ever) show the results. Listen, you might not get accolades on earth for all the spiritual things that you do. But my question, if you have Jesus, why do you need that anyway? Not caring about seeing results is not the same as not caring about Christ’s work in and for you. In fact, not caring about seeing results is probably evidence that you care a lot about Christ’s work.