It will come as no surprise, to the religious or the non-religious, that we Christians can be terrible ambassadors for our faith. So when you meet a good one, it’s almost startling. Duke Kwon is a good one. Back to Duke in a minute.
I work in a business school, so I hear the term “brand” All. The. Time. Like, if I see a face, and that face is talking, chances that face is going to say the word “brand.” It’s thrown around like the word “baby” is thrown around by One Direction.
The Christian brand has become something that can be difficult to be associated with because of how people use and manipulate it. Christians, the ambassadors for this faith, can often go wildly off-brand from the Jesus in the Bible. It’s like walking into an Apple store and finding a shelf dedicated to mulch.
Which means that our non-believing friends have very little incentive to even hear anything about Christianity. Because we put the megaphone in the hands of politicians and radio hosts who weaponize it, shouting about moral superiority and judging people and using coded bigoted language and blaming people’s problems on the fact that they don’t have enough Jesus in their lives.
And these are our ambassadors for our faith. So of course people are turned off the idea of Jesus! In other words, many folks don’t even know that the Apple store sells iPhones and iPads. They think it’s a mulch store. And gross mulch, at that.
I do speak from some experience – I was an atheist for the first 32 years of my life. Here’s what I learned as an atheist:
I learned to never, ever ask about Jesus. I learned to escape from any conversation where Jesus was mentioned. I learned that it wasn’t safe to talk about Jesus to Christians.
You know why I never asked? And why I always tried to escape?
Because SO often it was taken as an invitation to “win me over” instead of treating me like a person with a question. Because I felt like I had just walked into a used car lot and that person wasn’t going to let me go without selling me Jesus.
So I learned to keep a wide berth. Instead I learned it from the safety of my TV, from those hypocrites with megaphones.
The best ambassadors don’t lecture and they don’t sell. They don’t need to, because they believe deeply in something. They listen to the question being asked without readying their prefabricated soundbites. They are rare.
Enter Duke Kwon.
Duke was Liz’s pastor back in DC. Liz and I (now married almost ten years) met in Nepal, where I had founded an organization that reunited trafficked children with their families. Liz was a volunteer. She was a Christian, and I was an atheist. The way she was, with the kids and with me, made me want to learn more about what she believed. She told me that if I had questions, I might want to talk to this guy, Pastor Duke when I came back to the US.
So let me put you in that conversation for a second.
My first questions for Duke are softball ones. He calls me out on it almost immediately.
“Are those really the questions you have?” he asks. “You can ask whatever you want – I’m not going to get offended. This is a hard thing to get your head around, I understand that.”
It’s true – I’m avoiding hard questions. I don’t want to challenge him because I don’t want to offend him. And if I’m being honest, I’m afraid my questions will expose this Christian pastor as a fraud. I’m a new believer, after all.
But he insists. So I ask a question that has always bugged me.
God demands to be worshipped, I tell him. Which seems awful to me. Like the Emperor in Star Wars, like everyone has to bow down to Him. Why would anyone want to be associated with a religion like that?
Duke looks pleased at that. It’s finally a real question.
God doesn’t need you to worship Him, Duke tells me. He’s commanding it because it will benefit you, not Him.
Think of it this way: God does not command you to worship Him in a vacuum. He says to worship him above the other stuff you would otherwise worship. Because you ARE going to worship something – money, relationships, work, etc. God loves you – those other things don’t. He cares for you, those others don’t. He has a plan for you. Whatever you worship – and even atheists worship something – that thing will control you.
Okay, so let’s assume God is real, I say. How am I supposed to know He loves me? Or cares for me? Or has a plan for me? There are a bazillion people in the world.
Duke looks downright delighted at this question. Because of the Cross, he tells me.
At this point, I don’t even pretend to know what that’s supposed to mean.
So Duke spends the next half hour talking about The Cross. Which is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and atheists sort of tune it out, right? Because it sounds like Christian-ese talk.
So let me put it into an analogy that I’ve come up with based on what Duke explained to me that day in DC.
This was what the whole Cross thing was about:
Let’s say that you commit a horrible murder. You’re caught. You are guilty, and the judge, following the law, sentences you to death. Let’s say you’re in the electric chair, leather straps around your wrists, metal cap on your shaved head. And who walks in to pull the switch but the very same judge who sentenced you to death for your crime.
But that judge isn’t pulling the switch. He’s undoing the leather straps around your wrists. He’s helping you out of the chair. You aren’t going to die. You’ve been forgiven for your crime. And you are overcome with relief and gratitude.
But wait – the crime was still committed, and the law is the law. You have been set free, but that means that somebody else has to take your punishment for you.
The judge explains all of this to you. And then he calls in his son.
This is his only child, a boy so innocent he is hard to look at. The boy takes the seat on the chair. And the father, the judge, watches as they strap his boy to that chair. The son is brave. The son looks at you and tells you not to be afraid, that this is how it has to be so that you can live.
But then the boy, as brave as he is and as willing as he is, looks at his father when the switch is about to be pulled. He looks his father in the eye in this unthinkable moment and he shouts to him: Dad, you’re really going to abandon me?
Then the switch is pulled. The noise is terrible and the room shakes. And that beautiful boy dies in front of you. And the worst nightmare of a father is realized, watching his son die in front of him.
The door opens. You are free to go. The judge tells you, as you leave, to remember this day. He tells you to remember what it looks like to love somebody like that father and son loved you, even though you didn’t deserve it. He tells you that all of this was done for you, just so you might go and try to love others in the same way.
Duke says this: Every day you make a decision who and what to trust. God doesn’t need you to worship Him. But you need something that you can absolutely trust, something that you can set your compass by. And when the son of God died on that cross, He did it so that you would be free. In that moment He cleared out a path to Heaven for you.
Duke Kwon is now the senior pastor at Grace Meridian Hill in Washington DC. And he is a great ambassador for Christianity, because he doesn’t twist it or wield it like a weapon of shame. He just listens and he answers what he can and he loves you, because that’s what he believes in.
And that’s what I wanted to say about Duke. Now I’m going to finish up on the weekly Top Five.
In honor of things I didn’t know, let’s do our weekly top five list on….
Top Five Things I’m Still Waiting for An Explanation On:
1. How To Keep Plants Alive.
What am I doing wrong, people? I’ve tried everything. I water them a lot. I water them a little. I’ve put them near windows and far from windows. Twelve hours later they look like homemade hippie compost. My mom has this localized rainforest in her living room and I’m like the Pennywise the Clown of the plant kingdom.
2. How to Spell (Rythem? Rythm?Rethym?).
Rhythm. There. It’s one of those words that even spell-check is like “No idea what you’re trying for, bro.” Seriously, that word. That’s not how spelling works! First of all, there are zero vowels. And don’t try to sell me the “Y can be a vowel” thing because that an urban legend we tell kindergartners. And the second letter is h? No thank you.
3. Why my Dishwasher Needs an Hour and a Half to Clean my Dishes.
I want to get the food off my dishes. Spray some hot water in there, add some soap, rinse. I can do it in, like, five minutes. But the dishwasher is standing at attention like it’s expecting plates with barnacles on them.
4. How to Work my TV Remote.
I don’t want to sound like an old man here, but I just need my remote to turn on my TV and adjust the volume. Maybe change the channel. That’s it. My remote is the size of a toboggan. There must be a country where the number of buttons on your remote are a sign of prestige because I don’t think any of those buttons do anything.
5. Whether to Let Babies Cry Themselves to Sleep.
Finn is 9. Lucy is almost 7. I feel like we’re out of the woods on this. But still I have flashbacks to the times I picked them up when they were crying and the times I let them cry and EVERY SINGLE TIME I was positive that I was permanently scarring them. So every morning I’m still anxious that Finn will come out of his room telling me “I’m not going to school anymore, dad. You picked me up from the crib when I cried. So I have decided to live with the squirrels.”
So any advice anyone has on any of that would be very welcome. Duke’s already done his part. Time to step up your game, people. #MakeConorLessDumbAboutStuff