I recently read an interview with late night television legend David Letterman in Rolling Stone. The entire piece was fascinating, but one section in which Letterman described his relationship with Johnny Carson stood out to me:
“You know, there are people in everyone’s life who you can’t believe you have a relationship with, and you are truly in awe of them, because they are so iconic and so influential that you’re just kind of pretending. You know if you behave the way you really behave, they would recognize that you’re a complete dope and they would never have anything to do with you ever again. That was kind of the way I felt about Johnny. I was so worried that I would say something idiotic and he would just pull me out of his Rolodex. … I never got out from under the feeling that he and I really could be friends because I idolized him and I knew by any measure I would always fall short.”
I thought that was interesting because in many ways, those sentences captured how I sometimes treat my relationship with God. Here, using excerpts from above, is what I mean:
1. “there are people in everyone’s life who you can’t believe you have a relationship with”
When people say that Christianity is weird, they’re right. Faith is weird. The idea of having a personal relationship with the creator of the universe is crazy. That’s a big, wild thing if you think about it and sometimes when I do, I can’t believe I have a relationship with God. But I do and that’s what God wants. A relationship, not a ritual or a reward system.
2. “you are truly in awe of them”
I am. I was reminded of this recently when I was driving up interstate 75 to Nashville. There’s this one ridiculous moment where you cross this river and the mountains are looming over you reminding you how small your big problems really are and the sun was blazing big and bright in a sky I didn’t create and I was in awe. My hope is that someday it won’t take a mountain vista to spark my sense of awe for God but that I will see that more in the people I know and the places I spend my days. But I’m cool with starting with a mountain and working toward seeing the beauty of a cubicle wall.
3. “you’re just kind of pretending”
This is me in college. This is me going through the motions of a relationship. This is me trying to do what I think good Christians are supposed to do. This is me church hopping and bouncing between friendships as I pretend to be deeper than I really am, more connected to God than I really am and happier than I really am.
4. “You know if you behave the way you really behave, they would recognize that you’re a complete dope”
Have you ever dressed up for God? We talked about doing that in college on Sundays when you wanted people to think you had gone to church, but have you ever done that for God? Dressed up some issue? Dressed up some desire that you think is wrong or not true or too big for him to handle or too small for him to care about? The key word in that sentence above is “recognize.” At times, I am equally terrified of being recognized and never being recognized. That if God knew who I really was he wouldn’t love me and if no one knows who I am then I might as well be invisible. But he recognizes me. He created me. He knows me inside and out, the parts that are ugly and the parts that are beautiful and the parts I don’t even know exist yet. And he doesn’t see a dope. He sees a son.
5. “they would never have anything to do with you ever again”
I think that when Christ died, the question “again?” died too. Although I fall repeatedly and feel shame at my weaknesses, God will never see that and reject me by saying, “Again? Again? Again?” I think that when Christ rose, the statement “again!” did too. How many times will God take me back when I fall? “Again! Again! Again!”
6. “I was so worried that I would say something idiotic”
Ever edit yourself for God? Ever spend your entire day talking one way and then talk with a completely different vocabulary when you pray? Why do we do that? Is it reverence? Are we afraid to say something idiotic? I am. And in that fear I often end up babbling and ruining one of the most beautiful parts of prayer, listening.
7. “I knew by any measure I would always fall short”
This is not a possibility when it comes to me and God. This is a promise. I will fall short. I could work as hard as I want to for the rest of my life, say all the prayers one mouth can physically speak and do as much charity as one pair of hands can accomplish. And it would still fall solar systems short of being worthy of God. Thank God he sent Jesus.
Is comparing God to Johnny Carson a great analogy or metaphor? Probably not but on some level every metaphor for God is broken. He’s God. He’s bigger and wilder and more loving than we can even fathom. I’ve said before that the idea of capturing God on a piece of paper is like trying to capture the might of a hurricane with crayons. But sometimes, when you read something interesting in a magazine, you have to at least try to scribble.