There is a difference in speaking to middle school students as opposed to middle aged men or elderly women. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. But I’m confident that the middle school demographic is in my wheelhouse, which may tell you something about me but that’s beside the point. Many moons ago I was asked to speak at a middle school retreat in a faraway land. Not that faraway…two states, which in the northeast doesn’t amount to much. Anyway, it was a retreat composed of youth groups from a regional collection of churches in a certain Protestant denomination. By comparison I was from another part of the world, leading my own youth ministry, in a church that was part of a different Protestant denomination.
I prepared for the weekend in the usual manner, determined to stick to the basics: What is the Bible? Who is Jesus? What does that mean to me? Answers to those questions were and remain, respectively, the Word of God, my only hope of reconciliation to God, and I should place my faith in Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. Basic, orthodox, Protestant stuff.
Middle school students however, even those from many moons ago, are more apt to capture the gist of a message if it is accompanied by visual aids. Thus I set about preparing a series of graphics. During the process I found myself in want of some image to represent Jesus. Having grown up in the era of flannel graph it never occurred to me that this could become an issue. I wasn't about to use one of those images of a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Jesus peacefully gazing directly into a beam of light without squinting. Thus I recalled something I’d once seen someone else use with little to no consequence. After a quick Google image search I inserted into my presentation a picture of a bobblehead Jesus, for the middle school crowd…not the middle aged men or elderly women. I packed my laptop, my torn jeans and grungy hoodies, and headed down the interstate.
Things went swimmingly that weekend. Bobblehead Jesus made his appearance and got a few chuckles, but clearly some students were given pause in considering their relationship to the real Jesus. When it was all over a number of students asked if I was on Facebook, leaders thanked me and assured me of the positive impact the weekend had had on the kids, and I received a generous honorarium. We all parted ways with nothing but happy memories…or so I thought.
Several weeks later I received a phone call from the friend who had initially invited me to speak. As it turned out he, and by extension I, were being brought up for discussion at the next regional meeting of his church’s denomination…sort of a big deal, and not because I had done such a great job speaking. “They think you’re a liberal,” I was told, “because of the denomination your church is a part of.” It should be noted that liberal, as well as conservative, are loaded terms especially in church politics. Most of the time they are used simply as a socially acceptable means of insulting one another. Thus I laughed. “All I did was tell kids the good news about Jesus from the Bible!” I offered to email my notes, passages of Scripture I referenced…and my slides. “No…” said my friend, “Not the slides. The complaint also claims you broke the second commandment. You actually may want to delete the slides.”
That hurt. The second commandment is: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5). Given that I did not suggest or encourage anyone to bow down to the bobblehead it took a long time before I comprehended the controversy I’d created for my friend. Now, years later I’ve come to understand there is an ambiguous line between flannel graph and bobbleheads, regardless of whether you’re speaking to little old ladies or punk kids. One is an educational aid, the other a frivolous toy. I had tried to use a frivolous toy as an educational aid and thus made a poor choice, crossing the line in a manner irreverent of him to whom I credit the eternal salvation of my soul! Bad move, I grant you. But why didn’t someone just talk to me that Friday night, point this out, and ask me not to use the image again?
Well, in the end I learned the plaintiff wasn’t even actually at the retreat but had received second hand info and formed his complaint from that. Thus he classified himself as neither liberal nor conservative, but just a garden variety, humorless, jerk. I still have no idea who he is. Should we ever meet we’d probably spend a few minutes fighting like church sissies will. I’d call him a legalist (one who pays such close attention to the rules that he forgets to extend grace to the occasionally reckless). He’d call me an antinomian (one who consistently bends the rules thus cheapening the grace afforded to me). Actually I imagine I'd just apologize and we'd go to lunch...and I'd still be tempted to stick him with the check.
Still the bobblehead lives on in my conscience. At one point prior to my fateful speaking engagement I had actually lived in that faraway land, before setting out on a roundabout journey to the place I call home now. Occasionally I have fancied returning with my family to live in that place, but wouldn’t you know it…every time the opportunity has arisen so too has the story of that stupid bobblehead Jesus doll! Apparently the legend lives on in a manner similar to one of Washington Irving's haunting tales. Most people though don’t know I’m at the center of it until I confess. Well, with this narrative the cat is out of the bag, and so be it…I’ll probably never (certainly never if this blog somehow goes viral) move back there again anyway. Nonetheless my sin is always before me, and my need of repentance is constant. That is after all what God's law, the Ten Commandments, is meant to remind us of and there's no sense in denying it.