America lost a cultural icon this weekend. Dictionary.com lists one of the definitions of icon as “one who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol”. I am pretty sure that Johnny Hart would hate that description. Hart was the creative force behind the comic strip B.C. and he shared the byline for The Wizard of ID. I think that Johnny Hart would hate my description because it would elevate him to status that Hart reserved only for Jesus Christ.
The Associated Press reported this weekend that Hart died at the age of 76. There are at least two things that I want to emulate from the life of Johnny Hart. The first way I would love to imitate Hart is in his passing. Bobby, his wife of over fifty years, noted that he suffered a stroke and died at his storyboard. I can’t control how I go but I can control how I live the days I have left. Country group Rascal Flatts has a song that I was thinking about before the news of Hart’s passing. I added another candle to an increasingly crowded birthday cake last Friday and each year brings an increased awareness of the temporal nature of this life. This song from Rascal Flatts is called “Running When the Sand Runs Out” and here is a snippet of the lyrics.
I'm gonna stop lookin' back and start movin' on
Learn how to face my fears
Love with all of my heart, make my mark
I wanna leave something here
Go out on a ledge, with out any net
That's what I'm gonna be about
Yeah I wanna be runnin'
When the sand runs out
That is what Johnny Hart did and I want to learn from his example. He died while doing what he loved. He certainly had made his mark and had left a legacy that will endure for years. I am excited about the time I have left on this planet and I want to be running when the sand runs out. There is no excuse for a follower of Christ to ever stop serving and working for Him. The world is in great pain and I am called to be the hands and feet of Christ to this hurting planet. As long as I have breath and clarity of thought (some would already dispute that) I want to be used for God’s purpose.
That is the second lesson from the life of Johnny Hart. He was unashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and felt like he had been given a unique platform to communicate his faith. The day after his death I picked up the paper and read his Easter strip that featured the last words of Christ on the cross. That commitment to his beliefs got him in trouble at times. He was censored by the Los Angeles Times when one of his characters wrote a Palm Sunday poem about Christ. The Times claimed it was editorial sensitivity (spin for censorship) but they later recanted and printed the strip. The AP noted that a strip published on Easter in 2001 drew protests from Jewish groups and led several newspapers to drop the strip. The cartoon depicted a menorah transforming into a cross, with accompanying text quoting some of Jesus Christ's dying words. Critics said it implied that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Hart said he intended the strip as a tribute to both faiths.
That debate caused me to think long and hard about the topic of proselytizing. I was surprised to see that proselytize is used as a synonym for brainwashing at an online thesaurus. The actual definition listed by dictionary.com is:
1. To induce someone to convert to one's own religious faith.
2. To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.
I had never paid a lot of attention to the use of the word. I knew it was generally a pejorative when used to refer to Christians. But as I read the definitions it became clear to me that I need to gently challenge this word. As an evangelical Christian I do not feel it is my mission to “convert” someone to my religious faith. I cannot “convert” anyone to Christian faith. That is God’s job. In baseball parlance I am merely a set-up man at best…the Holy Spirit of God is the closer. I do have a job. Actually it is a command that Jesus gave in Matthew.
Jesus said, ""Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: "Love others as well as you love yourself.' Matthew 22 The Message
Frankly we have too often lost track of these simple yet powerful commands. When we love others sacrificially the message of Christ becomes inviting…not proselytizing. A Christian who is truly living by those commands is a powerful spokesperson. Saint Francis of Assisi wonderfully observed that we should “preach the gospel at all times…if necessary, use words.” Do you see the power of letting the gospel message flow out of our actions? Authenticity is what a hurting world finds attractive.
But to anyone reading this who is of a different faith or no faith at all I must confess my dilemma to you. If I truly believe this to be the truth and if my faith in Christ has genuinely changed my life then how can I not tell you? Why should you be offended if I care enough to reach out gently and in love.
I remember being intimately involved with some friends over a period of years in our kid’s sports activities. They were from a denomination that believed only they were going to heaven. They knew we did not belong to that denomination. Yet they never once said a word that they believed we were off track and even doomed. Would I have changed my views? Probably not. But it would have showed that they cared enough to let me know what they held dear and their concern for me. I was actually a little miffed that they didn’t seem to care that I would not join them in heaven.
Michael Kinsley wrote a similar sentiment in Time magazine about the anger that some folks feel toward Christians who seem compelled to share their faith.
“You may not agree that your soul needs saving, but why is he wrong to try as long as he isn't prying away your soul against your will? As an ethnically Jewish nonbeliever, I find this fuss over conversion utterly baffling...But an insult? In a way, it is insulting to Jews that Fundamentalist Christians don't try harder to convert us. Oh sure, they're friendly enough now. But wait until Judgment Day. Then it will be, `Sorry, we seem to have lost your reservation.' And from this perspective, the Jewish policy of actively discouraging converts to Judaism starts to seem like `theological arrogance' indeed. At the same time, when you object to noncoercive conversion, it starts to look like the opposite of arrogance: theological insecurity. What are you afraid of? The decision will be made by you or by God, and in either case, there is no ground for complaint."
I suspect that technique is too often the rub. I was a victim of over the top zealous religious people as a teenager. I am still a little amazed that I eventually came to faith despite their sledge-hammer tactics. If I care about you I will naturally want to share the most important thing in my life. But I think you have some rights as the hearer of my message. I wrote the following in When Bad Christians Happen to Good Christians.
The Unbelievers Bill of Rights…
- I have the right to never have faith forced on me.
- I have the right to never be treated in a condescending manner.
- I have the right to always hear the truth.
- I have the right for you to patiently hear my concerns and doubts.
- I have the right to seek answers to those questions and doubts that you can’t answer.
- I have the right to be steered to resources for my own study and investigation.
- I have the right to be loved no matter how I respond to the gospel message.
I hope that I honor you by following the list above. I hope you will understand that my wanting to let you know about the most important thing in my life honors you as well.
I believe that was Johnny Hart’s desire. In his final Easter strip he used Biblical quotes from the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. Hart quoted the Thief, the King, and the Soldier from scripture.
The thief on the cross asked Jesus to “remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." And the soldier said when He died that “truly this man was the Son of God.” Johnny Hart believed that Jesus was the Son of God. He believed that Jesus would remember his humble faith. And this weekend I believe that Jesus ushered Johnny Hart into paradise with a “well done, good and faithful servant.”
He will be missed.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com