At age 19, I was a proud, Bible-thumping holy-roller who was on a one-man mission to save the world from sin. Consequently, I had trouble making friends outside the most sympathetic circle of gracious believers at my church. I mean, people didn’t know what to do with a guy who was always trying to convert everyone – including Christians – to Christianity.
But John Moorhead knew exactly what to do with me.
“Josh, you need to get some experience in bed,” said John, a 72-year-old ladies’ man who worked with me at the clinic where we were both couriers. He knew how straight-laced I was, and that was probably the reason he enjoyed making these kinds of comments on a regular basis.
I tried to see it as an opportunity to spread the good news.
“I’m saving myself for marriage,” I said, showing him my purity ring.
“Aw, that’s no fun,” he said. “I’ll tell you what – I’ll get a couple of girls to meet up with you at my apartment, and they can really show you a thing or two.”
Before he could describe the “thing or two” they were going to show me, I launched into a fiery sermon, setting him straight and letting him know where I stood in my quest for purity. His eyes sparkled, he flashed a wide grin, and when I finished, he broke into a wheezy smoker’s laugh and said, “You’re a good boy, Josh-ah.”
In the following years, I managed to alienate a handful of my coworkers – I told one guy that his main problem was that he was evil; I strongly insinuated to a couple of others that they were going to hell; and I often yammered on about my faith with little regard for whether my coworkers were even listening.
And all the while, “Uncle John,” as I came to call him, took my preaching in stride. No matter what I said to him, he would warmly smile with that twinkle in his eye and say, “You’re a good boy, Josh-ah.”
He had no idea how badly I needed to hear that. A lot of my fanaticism was fueled by a fear that God didn’t like me, that He was an angry, cosmic king who delighted in sending failing subjects into eternal torment. Essentially, I was terrified that I really wasn’t a good boy and that He really wasn’t a good God.
But in the midst of all that stress and condemnation, Uncle John offered a respite, a shelter from the angry, condemning god I had fashioned in my own judgmental image.
To my own surprise, I eventually started hanging out with Uncle John at his apartment – and no, he didn’t invite the girls over to teach me anything. We either watched college football or just made conversation. Looking back, I suppose the most remarkable thing about those conversations was how little I talked about Jesus – not because I was avoiding the topic, but because for once in my young adult life, I was listening.
And as I listened, I gradually learned that Uncle John was a man of many sorrows, one with a broken life history, a man who was afraid God could never forgive him for all the ways he had failed.
I could relate.
Over time, I grew to love Uncle John so much that I found it easy to see how God could love him, and I made a point to try to get that across to him. But I never felt like I made much progress until one memorable phone conversation towards the end of his life.
“You know that God loves you no matter what you’ve done, right?” I asked.
“Naw, Josh-ah. I’ve done too many bad things,” said Uncle John.
“Oh me too, Uncle John,” I said. “But bad things aren’t going to keep us out of Heaven, and good things won’t get us in. Only Jesus can do that. It’s kind of like we’re a football – we’re just an old, dead pigskin that’s useless without a quarterback. All we can do is rest in His arms and let Him carry us into the end zone.”
“Now I never thought of it like that,” he said.
“Well, you’re that football, Uncle John, and He’s the quarterback. Do you believe He’s strong enough to carry you into the end zone?” I asked.
Uncle John paused.
“I believe He can, Josh-ah,” he said. And deep inside, I was relieved to know that I actually believed it too.