Two weeks ago I was standing at the bedside of one of my longest gym friends. He was in an induced coma; and it was probably the only time I’ve been able to get in a word edgewise without him talking back. “Biff” is not his real name, but it’s the one I’ve used in sermons and prayer requests. Watch the 1985 classic Sci Fi movie, Back to the Future and you’ll know why “Biff” seemed like a good name for the argumentative and even insulting character I came to later call my friend.
It was 2011 when I learned in casual conversation that Biff had worked in the movie industry as a grip. In his younger days, he pumped iron with Arnold at Gold’s gym so he knew a thing or two about training. I noticed he wore a prominent Jewish symbol, the nine candle menorah, around his neck. So one day I decided to complement it and said that as a Christian I have a lot of respect for Judaism.
That’s when Biff told me he was not a practitioner, but had a girl friend who was. What surprised me, was what came next. He began to make some very nasty, disparaging remarks about Jesus. At the time, I just listened, then took a deep breath and said, “Well, as a Christian I believe a lot more about Jesus than you do, but I bet we could have a great conversation.” Now I am certainly capable of being defensive, but the Holy Spirit helped me to shut my mouth. Good thing too, because he approached me later to say, “Hey, I used to go to church a long time ago. I want to get to the Promised Land too.” I didn’t think that conversation was finished.
As the years passed, Biff and I became unlikely friends. At the time, St. John’s was encouraging church members to write down their testimony of faith and share it with someone. So one day I approached him with an invitation. “You know, we see each other for about 5 minutes here every day. We should get some coffee...my treat.” Biff nodded like he would be up for that, but no definite plans were made. Then one Monday I prayed again before I went into the gym. “Lord, who will I share my testimony with?” When I walked up to Biff that day, sure enough, the first thing he said was, “Hey Steve, when are we going to have that coffee?” I smiled, “How about this Wednesday?” and so we agreed to meet at 9am in two days.
That morning I had the chance to hear more about Biff and his story. He was pretty honest with me about his life’s ups and downs, his past drug use, his womanizing, his estranged relationship with his children. One part of Biff’s story revolved around a period when he was going to church and voicing his skepticism. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to be around...but ultimately, he was asked to leave. That struck me as very sad, even though I knew there was probably two sides to the story. As he finished, he got up from the table, getting ready to leave. “Hey Biff,” I said, “would it be OK with you if I shared a little of my story with you?” He sat back down and said, “Sure.” Wow, I thought. We’ve come a long way.
I want to tell the rest of that story and my journey with Biff next week, but not before reflecting on something Biff taught me early on; and that is the importance of being willing to listen, of earning the right to be heard. So many folks around us have been wounded by the church, or have false images of the church, or see religion as the problem, not the solution, or consider church-goers “hypocrites.” If we can listen to people’s anger or frustration with patience and undertanding, we may be given the opportunity to share the deeper truth of Jesus who came not for the righteous, but for sinners like you and me. In the context of genuine friendship, we may even help them let go of that anger and skepticism, and open themselves to God’s love. Hope to see you soon….