Walt & Steve*

John 6:24-35 – the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 2, 2012

“So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30)

Walt Kowalski growled at his priest . . .

You don’t know anything about life or death because you’re an over-educated twenty-seven year old virgin who holds the hands of superstitious old women and promises them eternity.

I wish I could say, it’s only a movie, only Clint Eastwood playing a cranky racist widower who’ll do most anything to insult his parish priest. But in 2008’s Gran Torino, Eastwood directed and starred in a movie striking close to the bone for me.

I saw the DVD not long ago. Walt’s pastor, a newly minted and “over-educated” Roman Catholic priest, reminded me of me. I was twenty-seven when I served my first church. Was I over-educated? Well . . . when I processed down the sanctuary’s middle aisle for my first worship service, I’d continuously attended school since kindergarten. I frequently (and foolishly) preached on the “eternal” issues of life and death. Yeah, I also held hands with older women. A virgin? No. I was divorced, so I guess the start of my real ministry scored a notch higher on the pain-and-experience scale compared to the reel priest.

Still, what did I know then? Or, more importantly, what did (and do) I believe?

If you haven’t seen Gran Torino, though the language and violence might unsettle some, I highly recommend a viewing. It depicts an authentic glimpse into Hmong culture, a difficult reminder of why families become dysfunctional, terrific action and unexpected humor. But I’d recommend the film because it’s a story that openly wrestles with the differences between actively engaging in faith versus safely believing from a distance.

What do you believe in? And is that as important as what you do in and with your faith?

In John’s Gospel, a crowd approached Jesus—the same crowd that had recently been miraculously fed—and wondered how they do the “work of God.” John has Jesus answer, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Did John mean we are to “believe” in Jesus? Okay, again . . . what does that mean for you? For me?

Sadly, sharing faith has often meant an argument about belief systems, about keeping score and declaring a winner (me, not you, of course). Do you believe in the trinity, atonement and the virgin birth? Are you pro-life (and if not then you must be a moron)? Are you pro-choice (and if not you must be a moron)? Do you support gay marriage or are you going to hell in a man-purse? Do you take the Bible literally, claiming scripture is God’s immutable law, or are you a lost soul, falling for anything because you stand for nothing?

You see how belief goes. It becomes a test. In a recent newspaper column the always insightful and irksome Karen Armstrong pondered,

All good religious teaching—including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or Incarnation—is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to ‘believe’ them. Why?

So what do I believe? How ‘bout this:  I believe in Santa!

Last week I went to a nearby post office. A man exited as I entered. He gave me a dude-nod. You know:  acknowledge the other person, but don’t get carried away. There was also eye contact. He looked familiar and I realized it might be someone I hadn’t seen for awhile. I blurted out, “Hey Frank!”

“No,” he said, “my name’s Steve.”

Wrong guy. But with his ruddy face, flowing beard, and bandy legs, he looked an awful lot like good old Frank. Years ago, Frank taught me how to cross-country ski.

As I apologized, Steve responded, “No big deal. I get it all the time since I’m Santa.”

Surf’s up, Santa!

Whoa! Santa in July! My friend Frank has a nice beard and a welcoming smile, but Steve looked the real fake deal. Just like Clement Moore wrote, Steve had a broad face and a round little belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly . . . Probably in his seventies, Steve shared his love of children and rattled off the local and national Santa Claus-related organizations he was a member of (including one for Santas with natural beards . . . who knew?). Steve said he’d volunteer anytime anywhere to play Saint Nick.

As we parted he, of course, said, “Merry Christmas, kid.”

I, wiping the July sweat from my brow, replied, “Thanks Santa!”

Do I believe in Santa? Naw. And yet now I believe a little in Steve. In someone volunteering time to help kids and adults laugh.

The fictional Walt Kowalski cared less about proper belief and more about helping another. Santa Steve, even in summer, offered to volunteer wherever he’s needed. The Biblical crowds, bellies full, wanted more signs and guarantees. Jesus, prove yourself! I don’t want to promise anyone eternity anymore. But I’ll still hold hands with others and help them remember, in my doing, that God’s love is best revealed by our gracious actions.


(I borrowed/light-fingered the Santa image from here.)

*’Cuz I was gone for several days helping Mom move from her home of 46 years to a retirement “village,” I thought I deserved to recycle an old And Yet. A version of this was first posted in July, 2009. I knew you’d forgive me . . . ?

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  1. Very thought-provoking, thanks Larry. I think at the heart of it, faith is such a simple requirement, but we manage to make it so difficult. Believe in Me, says Jesus, and you will live. Not because of anything you’ve done, but because of what I’ve already done for you. End of.

    And yet we drag in our rivalries (who is the greatest?) and our unbelief (show us a sign!) – we’re no different now from those folk in the boats…

    Liking the Santa by the way, though we could use some sunshine here after a month of incessant rain.

    1. Ruth:

      Sorry to hear about the rain…among other things, I watched women race on their bikes through the rain for Olympic medals. It can be wet over in England in July (and June and May…).

      Thanks for your comments!

      1. … and any and every month you can think of! It’s the wettest year in a long time. At least it’s eased off a bit for the Olympics (no really, it’s been far worse than this). But the cycling has been good!


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