A tall, nonfat latte with hazelnut, a good book and some alone time. Private time. I entered the coffee shop with a copy of Walter Wangerin’s latest book under my arm. I could almost taste the coffee, relish the comfort of an easy chair by the fireplace and the time I rarely spend quietly, reading. Opening the door, I flipped the book over so the title wouldn’t show — JESUS — in a tall uppercase font that occupied nearly half the book’s cover. No one needed to know. It was a private matter.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was about to repeat a process dating back two millennia. Like Peter, I would deny Jesus three times before fully understanding what had happened. There would be no cock crowing in 2006, but the process was as automatic, as insidious, as it had been when Jesus predicted it and Peter refused to accept the possibility. And Peter wept.
“At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ ” (Mark 14:72).
As coincidence would have it, the chapter I turned to that night in the coffee shop told the tale of Peter’s denial. It gave me cause to reflect on what I’d just done—and why. Isn’t it easy to deem something private to avoid public accountability? How strong is a faith that won’t stand up to public scrutiny? I felt ashamed. I didn’t weep or writhe in the dust the way Wangerin depicted Peter, but I spent a few moments taking a mental inventory of those around me, engrossed in their conversations and books and lattes. I turned the book over, propped it up on my lap for all to see and went back to reading.
Our sermon that week was on outreach and evangelizing our belief. The paragraph on the back of the weekly bulletin echoed those themes. If we are to live out our faith, the pastor said, we have only to go out into the world Christ-like, with a living faith. I was being reminded, over and over again, like Jesus to his “Rock”—yes, you will deny me.
“But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about’ ” (Mark 14:71).
A book under the arm is one thing, but a cross of ashes on the forehead is something else. Ash Wednesday was quickly upon us. I could attend an early morning service and endure a three-hour staff meeting with the mark of the cross emblazoned on my skull. This, in a corporate setting where words and thoughts are carefully meted out and sanitized so as not to offend. Or I could go to the evening service and avoid the entire situation — deny my faith yet again. That is, until we stopped briefly on the way home from the service at a grocery store and began to get — the look. Up and down the aisles, as if in slow motion, heads turning with brief puzzled glances toward the darkened bit of earth on my forehead that reminded me of the dust from which I came. A private matter.
“But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean’ ” (Mark 14:70).
I ended my journey through the book of Mark and the book of Wangerin in another early morning staff meeting. This time I brought JESUS with me, front cover facing up, and handed it to a friend in faith who sat beside me.
“Here’s the book I promised you,” I said, sensitive to the interest and shifting attention I provoked around the conference table. “It’s very good. I think you’ll enjoy it. I did.”
“Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ ” (John 21:17).
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