On my desk where I do most of my work there stands a Charlie Brown bobblehead figurine. I take that little comic strip figure very seriously because he kept me in ministry on two very different occasions in which I was ready to quit. Here’s why.
The first time was very early in my ministry, when I found myself in a deep depression after seeing things about the underbelly of church life that I wished I had never seen: hypocrisy, backbiting, cover-up, and Darwinian power politics. I didn’t even go to church one night, knowing that the congregation I was a part of at the time was scheduled to erupt in some bitter fight. I sat home wondering whether, based on what I now knew about human depravity (including my own), I ever even wanted to go to church again, much less to serve in church ministry. I turned on the television for some background noise to quiet my mind, just as the opening credits started playing for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It hit me that what I was hearing was the glory of the Lord. Even though the words I was hearing were mediated at the moment through, of all things, a cartoon child.
I had seen this program so many times as a child that I could probably stage every scene by memory from that sickly little tree to the kids dancing to the amazing jazz soundtrack to watching for Pigpen’s cloud of dust in the background. I was expecting the usual “lesson” from the show—as from every children’s show—about the “true meaning of Christmas” being about more than commercialism, sandwiched between, of course, commercials. But then there was Linus.
The cartoon figure of Linus appeared on the stage, dressed as a shepherd, complete with blanket headdress. He recited Luke 2, on the announcement of the birth of Jesus to sheepherders in Galilee. I had heard this countless times, more accustomed to these words than Schroeder was to Beethoven.
But at that moment, there was something about hearing the words, in the King James Version, as old and familiar to me as my own security blanket: “And the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” It hit me that this was my problem: I was sore afraid. It hit me also that what I was hearing was the glory of the Lord. Even though the words I was hearing were mediated at the moment through, of all things, a cartoon child, they still had their force. The story was more than just a story. The story was true.
I really believe that God used that moment to lift me out of my fear and anxiety and despair, and to pick myself up to preach again the tidings of great joy.
More than twenty years later, I faced another awful season. I had seen even worse sin and hypocrisy and power politics than I had ever imagined as a twenty-year-old. I was ready to do something else with my life. More than that, I was angry and sad, in ways that reached deeper than such things ever had before. Despite the fact that all I wanted to do was to hide beneath the covers somewhere, maybe for years, I had a job to do. I had to do a filming with my friend Randall Goodgame about, of all things, silliness in teaching children to memorize Scripture. On the way to the set, I listened, for about the millionth time, to my favorite song by Randall, his homage to the Peanuts. What struck me was a line about Schroeder on that piano: “He played like Harry Truman, without those Coke bottle glasses that only Marcie wore; like Harry Truman, without the atom bomb, without the burden of a third world war.”
It struck me that I did indeed feel like a war-weary Harry Truman, cradling my own personal nuclear football, wondering whether Lucy would yank it away from me just in time. The imagery is perfect. The joy of Schroeder was that he played the piano, as Truman did, but he played it not with the fake, display-exuberance of an old man weighted down with decisions. He played as a child, for the sake of the music itself, and thus with joy.
In that moment, I realized that I was approaching the ugliness I was watching the way a wartime President would, protecting my vulnerabilities with my weaponry. I could smile and play on command, but none of that would be real. My path to joy, it seemed to me, was to embrace the childlikeness of faith, to ignore the carping on the other side of the metaphorical piano, and to re-enter the joy of my calling, as one who has nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
The most liberating truths I’ve heard didn’t come to me from august heroes of the faith but from unexpected, childlike places.
At the filming, Randall asked three of us—an Anglican priest, a Presbyterian pastor, and me, to talk about children and the Bible while sitting in a children’s Sunday school room, building Lego sets and mashing together Play-Doh as we talked. At one point, he asked us to talk while swinging on the swing-set outside. At first, I thought this was too silly for me to do. And then I remembered that song, and my need to come before God not as a public intellectual but as a dependent child. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun coloring dinosaurs with crayons than while talking about the authority of the Bible.
I left that place laughing, but also with a new resolve to recommit to my calling, to fight spiritual warfare not with the obligation of a slave but with the freedom of a child, with the security of an heir (Rom. 8:16-17). I would be Schroeder at the piano, not Truman in the war room. And I haven’t, so far, looked back.
The Charlie Brown figurine is there to remind me that the most liberating truths I’ve heard didn’t come to me from august heroes of the faith but from unexpected, childlike places, just like where I heard them in the first place. And it reminds me that what it takes to jostle me into wondering at great joy can sometimes be some good grief.
You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.