Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Tony Campolo speak twice. If you’ve never heard him speak or read anything written by him, you need to stop reading this blog now and look him up. Find out when he will be in a city near you, go on to Amazon and order one (or all) of his books, and check out his website, Red Letter Christians. Tony Campolo is someone who has been an influence on my spiritual life going back to before I was born, even before my parents had met. He was involved with an organization called Morning Cheer and their conference grounds/family resort, Sandy Cove, where he met my grandparents and entered my spiritual DNA.
I’ve heard Campolo speak several times now, but it had been a few years since the last time I heard him in person. So, I was excited when I found out he was speaking in Nashville. He is the kind of speaker who will step all over your toes, but you don’t mind because you are laughing so hard. He’s not afraid to say what needs to be said, and he certainly isn’t afraid of offending anyone. He’ll be the first to admit, though, that it’s easy for him because he can say the difficult things and then leave–he doesn’t have to worry about a congregation who comes every week who might get mad.
Campolo’s message (as in, if you were to sum up most of what he speaks and write about into one condensed version) is largely about the poor, how Jesus spoke about the poor and oppressed, and how Christians should treat/view/love the poor. All of his arguments are found in the red letters–the words of Jesus. He doesn’t try to rationalize what Jesus meant but simply takes His words at face value. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Comfort the sick. Visit those who are in prison. Forgive. Overcome evil with good.
It’s all there. And, if you have an older Bible (or the NIV), it’s all in red letters. You can’t understand the black letters (the rest of the Bible) if you don’t first understand that it’s all about Jesus to begin with. The way you understand Jesus is through what He said in the red letters.
This idea of the red letters is one that is not new to me. In fact, it was an idea I subscribed to before the term “Red Letter Christians” was developed, before I had ever heard Tony Campolo speak, or even really understood why. It’s the reason why passages like Luke 4 (Jesus reading Isaiah 61) and Matthew 26 have been so important to me. Christians all know Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. We get, to a point, salvation. However, Christianity is supposed to go much farther than going to Heaven. Heaven is great, you’ll be glad you are there, but it’s only one piece. Jesus even prayed “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” How many times did He say “The kingdom of God is at hand” ? How many parables start with “The kingdom is like…”?
If you want your life to have meaning, if you want to change the world, if you want to make your community better, get a deep understanding of Christ-like love and justice and act. Love is so much more than the Golden Rule. If you read the Gospels, read the words of Jesus, you can’t help but notice He asks us to do some radical things. These statements were so radical they got Him killed. They are just as radical now as they were then. One of the things Campolo said last night was, and I’m paraphrasing, “If Christianity ceases to be dangerous, it ceases to be Christianity.”
Hearing Tony Campolo speak reminds me that I’m not crazy, there are other people (quite a lot, actually) who have similar theological beliefs, and the reasons behind some of the choices I’ve made in my own life. After hearing Campolo for the second time last night, I was contemplating on my time in Romania. I know I mostly wrote about the good things that were happening. I would be lying if I were to say every moment was cheery. I definitely went through some difficult times, especially in the beginning. I had moments of being homesick, contemplating hopping on a plane early, etc. If you’ve traveled long term/experienced culture shock, you know all of these feelings are normal. However, knowing what you are experiencing is normal does not make it any easier.
I’m entering into a phase of my life I’ve wanted for a very long time, since I was in elementary school. I think I did something that many Christians do. I thought because I had prayed for something and wanted to do something to serve the Lord, it would be, maybe not easy, but at least the type of hard I knew how to deal with. And then, I, like so many of us are, are shocked when it’s not a cake walk, when we experience things we don’t know how to handle yet, when we have moments where it’s just…hard. Over the last six months, I’ve begun to realize on a deeper level what, exactly, I will have to sacrifice if I choose this lifestyle I have been praying for for so long–being with friends, relationships, sleep, etc.
Many of us have these types of dreams as kids. Some of us are unfortunately told our dreams are unrealistic, we’ll never be able to support ourselves, we’ll never be able to accomplish anything. Some of us make it to the point where I am now and the sacrifice scares us. It is a scary point, but we can’t let fear rule our lives. And, now, like I hope to continue to do, there are the few of us who break through and understand our life has meaning, not because of anything we have done, but because of what He did. Yes, there are sacrifices. Yes, there are moments of hardship. Yes, there are moments of sheer terror. However, it is all worth it.
As I was contemplating last night, I was reminded of a moment from the movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness. In this semi-biographical movie, Ingrid Bergman plays Gladys Aylward, a British, uneducated woman who wants to be a missionary in China. When she arrives in China, an older missionary woman tells her the following:
“It’s a hard life for a young woman. But it won’t seem hard, I promise you, when you’re my age and look back. It’ll only seem beautiful.”