Being born with an evangelist for a father and a mother who not only taught more of my Sunday school and vacation Bible school classes than I can remember, but also traveled with dad as part of a southern gospel group, it’s no surprise most memories of early childhood involve some sort of church activity or function. From carrying cardboard sheep clothed in a robe in the annual Christmas play to sitting front row during the Saturday night singings, from helping to print the church bulletins at home in our basement to laying out the stencils on the plywood as dad painted the revival sign, from singing in the kid’s choir to eating flower shortbread cookies with holes in the center while drinking from little plastic jugs filled with grape flavored drink, childhood for me was church. Of all those memories, one of my favorite memories is the excitement of dad receiving a new set of gospel tracts in the mail and knowing I got to help sort and stamp them.
If you’re unfamiliar, a gospel tract is simply a pamphlet or brochure containing a scripture or religious message. Most tracts are typically small, pocket-sized and can easily be distributed by hand, left on a gas pump, under a car’s windshield wiper, on the restaurant table, or behind the faucet in a public restroom. Not only do I remember the joy of sorting and stamping them with dad, I was thrilled when dad would slide one out of his shirt pocket and let me be the one to leave it behind. Dad had various rubber stamps we would use with his red ink pad to stamp either our home address and phone number or the church’s name, address, and phone number on the chance someone might find the printed invitation to Christ and need to contact someone to pray or ask questions. In my early twenties, I carried the practice of distributing tracts with me on my second of three business trips to Las Vegas after learning on the previous trip of the advertising materials distributed on the street which, to put it mildly and nicely, were certainly not about spreading the gospel of Jesus.
As a boy, when dad’s new shipments of tracts would arrive, I would hound him night after night until he finally said it was time to sort out the bad and stamp the good. It was dad’s job to sort them and my job to stamp them. At times there were more good than bad and other times more bad than good. As I got older, dad started explaining to me the determining factor on the good and bad tracts and I got to assist with the sorting prior to stamping . . . but only once or twice . . . and then we stopped sorting altogether and simply started stamping all of them. When it came to sorting the tracts, it wasn’t about color, it wasn’t about size, it wasn’t about print, and there was no scientific method involved. Sorting the tracts came to down three little letters . . . K – J – V. The good tracts were those with scripture references from the authorized 1611 King James Version of the Bible. The bad tracts were those which referenced any version other than KJV. As dad started to teach me how to sort the tracts and was faced with my questions of why we couldn’t use the “bad” tracts, he found himself questioning if there was anything really bad about them at all. If they pointed someone to Christ, could they really be considered bad? As the revelation began to set in, we stopped sorting the tracts and simply stamped them all to prepare for distribution.
Jesus faced a similar situation with his disciples in the town of Capernaum. John approached Jesus explaining they had encountered a man that did not belong to their group or follow them casting out devils in the name of Jesus. What’s not certain in either narrative listed in the gospel of Mark or Luke is John’s intentions in making such a report. Was he complaining or was he boasting? We cannot be certain, but I would suspect it was hint of both. He was upset with the idea of others using Jesus’s name yet commending himself to the master for taking efforts to stop the man. Whatever his intention, Christ’s response is certainly not what he expected, “Don’t stop him. He that is not against me is for me.” The beauty of such a statement is reinforced just immediately before John had even approached Jesus. In the moments prior, he took a child in his arms and said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this welcomes me.” There is no mention of Jesus correcting the child for the manner in which he approached him. It simply says he took him in his arms. While Jesus was seeking to make all welcome, John was seeking to sort out the bad.
The life of a churchboy is a life of sorting out the bad. It’s a life of living as if your way to Jesus is the only way. It’s a life not realizing anything – whether it may be something we prefer, like, or even agree with – which points to Christ and not away from him is a good thing. It’s a life of choosing to be right over choosing to be welcoming. It’s a life lived seeing things through a glass dimly.
Just as Christ extended his arms to welcome the child, it’s time we extend our arms to make all welcome. It’s time we stop seeking to sort out the bad.