A Questioning Spirit
by Patrick Lafferty
And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?”
Randy Newman (not the songwriter whose Toy Story repertoire my children sing on cue) was born into a liberal Jewish family, yet came to faith in Jesus during his sophomore year of college. When he called his parents to inform them of his new found trust in the long awaited Messiah, the response was civil but shot through with, as he puts it, all the “Jewish-mother guilt” she could muster. Her reply of “I'm happy”—a token nod to her principled liberalism—sounded to Randy more like, “You've made me miserable.” While his father remained silent throughout the ensuing conversation, his mother expressed two requests and three wishes:
“Don't tell grandma and grandpa.”
“Stay away from your younger brother.”
“We hope you won't join some commune in Colorado.”
“We hope you won't try to change the world.”
“We hope you won't shave your head.”
Newman, a staff member with Campus Crusade for 30 years, and author of such books as Corner Conversations and Questioning Evangelism, tells this personal story in his latest work, Bringing the Gospel Home, a frank discussion of the pitfalls and privileges of sharing Christ with family. But the story of his evangelistic efforts with his mother doesn't end with her choked acceptance of his faith.
Newman carefully but consistently brought their conversations over the years back to the topic of Jesus, to which his parents responded with rebuff after rebuff. No matter how many pamphlets, books, and videos he sent, no affirmation of Jesus seemed to make a dent in their indifference.
It wasn't until an unpremeditated comment in a phone conversation that Randy got any traction with his mother. One of Randy's childhood teachers had died and Randy's mother sought to console the man's adult children with the conventional comment, “He's in a better place now.” Rather than receive the well-intentioned comment with courtesy, they responded with derision at what they considered to be trite pablum for a grieving heart. Shocked by their response, Randy's mother related the episode to her son. Randy knew his mother offered the comment in love and based it on an uncritical acceptance that all people go to heaven. But rather than let the moment pass, Randy asked a straightforward question, “How do you know that?” “How do I know what?” she asked. “How do you know he's in a better place.” Pregnant silence, then this, “I guess I don't know that.” With gentleness and respect, Randy had challenged a core tenet of his mother's belief system. Marshaling just a simple question, he'd succeeded in provoking his mother to reevaluate her own entrenched presuppositions.
You should read his book to hear the full story of how he engaged her in years of patient conversation, but at the age of seventy-five, his mother was baptized as a Messianic Jew—and by, of all people, Randy's younger brother who'd since become a pastor in the Netherlands!
Pastor Julian walked us through one of the seminal events of the New Testament church last Sunday, recounting how the Spirit of God had been poured out in an unprecedented but not unexpected fashion. The Spirit dramatically enabled many who believed in Christ to proclaim the works of God among diverse peoples whose languages the disciples had had no previous training in. In so doing, the Lord God affirmed both His power and His intention for the gospel to never be a local belief system, held by a provincial few of Palestinian descent.
The moment provoked astonishment and incredulity, but also confirmation that God would keep His promise to make His name known through people not typically associated with prophetic utterances. As the prophet Joel anticipated, God would disclose Himself through sons and daughters, young men and old men, male and female servants.
To be sure, the phenomenon of people speaking the claims of the gospel in languages they'd never before studied was a singular event. But Randy Newman's story of proclaiming the works of God in Christ to his mother does more to confirm the continuity of God's mode of witness throughout the ages than setting Pentecost apart as an extraordinary event. How so?
For one, proclaiming the works of God still requires adopting the “language” of the audience. It's not that Randy and his mother couldn't communicate, but it wasn't until they found a common point of reference—namely, that a claim of one's eternal destiny should have a basis in something other than one's wishful thinking—that the two of them could finally have a discourse about the person of Jesus. A careful, rational, and patient dialogue could emerge now that the two of them had established a shared understanding and belief in the necessity of substantiating one's beliefs. In that sense, they were finally speaking one another's language. Now she could listen to the words of Jesus and consider his claims.
Secondly, proclaiming the works of God still provokes incredulity from those who listen as to how those speaking can claim such authority on such a fundamental issue. There may be a subtle dig coming from the Jews in the words, “Are these not Galileans,” when they heard disciples speak in myriad languages. Their question insinuates their shock that the commonly unlearned stock originating from Galilee would be least likely to have any authoritative knowledge of the works of God. When Randy's mother heard he'd become a Christian, she did not immediately defer to his wisdom, but rather dismissed it as something between a passing fancy of his or an unnerving repudiation of all they stood for. Only after decades of compassionate but persistent dialogue did she yield, not to Randy, but to the Jesus to which he'd pointed her.
Lastly, though the Spirit of God won't be threatening the makers of Rosetta Stone anytime soon in His efforts to enable believers to spread the gospel in languages and dialects where it is not yet known, the Spirit's work is no less needed to persuade men of the authority of Jesus. Our triune God has worked many signs and wonders to persuade men of their need of redemption, but one stands out as His most profound and consistent miracle: the conversion of a human heart to believe in the holiness and mercy of the Lord God Almighty. This the Spirit of God wrought at Pentecost. This He did in the conversion of Randy Newman's mother. This He continues to do throughout this world, on this day, in places you've never heard of, and some you have.
And this He will do through you and me, whether gifted at proclaiming the works of God or not, if only we'll seek to find our unbelieving acquaintance’s “language,” not recoil at their incredulity, and respect the power of the Spirit of God—through us and in them—to make His name known. If you really believed that, how would it change your attitude and approach to proclaiming the works of God in Christ?