From Supermarket to Super Bowl: Interview with Kurt Warner

Being cut by the Green Bay Packers was not part of the plan. Neither was returning to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and working the night shift at the Hy-Vee supermarket for $5.50 an hour. Needless to say, playing Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers and then doing a stint in front of Dutch fans in Amsterdam is not exactly the career path for star quarterbacks in the National Football League.

However, that was all part of the zany agony-and-ecstasy trek of quarterback Kurt Warner, a real-deal quarterback who went from stocking shelves in a supermarket to hurling passes in three Super Bowls with two different teams.

The recently retired record-holding, MVP quarterback is going to be hosting a new TV show about second chances, premiering on April 11 on the USA Network. GOOD NEWS editor Steve Beard spoke to Warner about the show, his faith, and leadership in the huddle.

Your new show is called The Moment. Seems like you are the perfect host for a show about deferred dreams and second chances.

I was the guy chasing my dream for a long time and then a number of things brought me to a screeching halt and forced me to work in a grocery store and to travel overseas to make my dream happen. It took somebody giving me a second chance for me to be able to get back in the NFL.

Let’s talk about this new show?

The individuals that are nominated for the show are those that were chasing their dreams and then somehow life got in the way. They no longer could pursue the dream that they’ve always wanted and they had to step in a different direction. Once you step in that other direction, it’s very difficult to get back on track. We come in and we surprise them with an opportunity to chase that dream again. They spend two weeks training with a mentor in their profession and getting back up to speed and learning the ins and outs of that profession again. At the end of those two weeks is a dream job interview for them in which they get a chance to showcase, not only their skills in their profession, but more importantly to really sell themselves and why a particular company should take a chance on them and what they can bring to the company.

It ties in so perfectly with my story. If we’re going to chase our dream, most of us need somebody to open a door for us and give us a second chance. My hope is to be the guy that can help open a door for someone else.

Your career track was seriously a road map of heartache and elation. On the way to the Super Bowls, what kept your dream alive?

I never let my circumstances outweigh or crush my dreams. Like you said, it was deferred, but it was never covered up. When I was working in a grocery store, playing football was still at the forefront of my mind. I always kept that dream alive. As soon as you start to push it out of your mind or step down a different path, it’s very difficult to get that back. I never let any of those things be an excuse.

You had plenty of available excuses, though. You were picked by the Packers and then cut and began working in a grocery store.

I never allowed any of those excuses to dictate my circumstances. I think that was the key for me. What you see with a lot of people is that they make the excuse that it’s somebody else’s fault. But a lot of times, people have stepped away from it and then maybe that opportunity arises and they’re not ready for it or they’re afraid to step into it because they’re going to fail.

It’s easier to sit back in the confines of your garage and create something where nobody can tell you it’s not any good than actually going out into the world and having to compete and pitch your product. A lot of people come up with something to blame for why they’re not where they want to be and what should be blamed in most situations is ourselves.

All these things underlie The Moment and that’s why I love it so much. Hopefully some of these episodes will be like looking in the mirror for some people saying, “You know what, that’s me. Now, what am I going to do about it? Am I going to just continue to wallow in my excuse or am I going to go out there and create a second opportunity for myself.”

I can’t knock on everybody’s door. My hope is that people watching at home say, “Ah, this show is enough to throw me back in the ring. This show is enough to inspire me to do something.”

If you wanted to be in a band, pick up your guitar again and start playing and seeing what happens. If you wanted to be a lawyer, pick up a couple of online classes and start working towards that.

It seems like the rest of life devours our deferred dreams. What did you do when you were tempted to give up?

The one fortunate thing with my dream was that even when I was doing these other things – arena football and playing over in Europe – there was always football that was a part of my life. There were moments of frustration when I would go to a try-out and never get a call back. I’d be thinking, man I couldn’t have done any better in that try-out.

There were moments where I wanted to make an excuse. But these excuses don’t get me any closer to doing what I want to do and to living the life that I want to live. If I’ve got to work nights at a grocery store so I can work out during the day and have opportunities to try out for teams, I’m going to work nights and do that.

I enjoyed going to work every day. I was in a much better place as a father and a husband because I did what I loved to do and I wasn’t just sitting around every day.

The Moment is not a faith-based show, but you are a faith-based man. How does faith play into the issue of dreams deferred?

I think faith plays into it so many different angles. As a Christian, the idea of second chances is what the Christian faith is all based on. Jesus came to give us that second chance, that second opportunity. So that’s where it starts. The real reason that I continued to chase my dream was I believe that’s what God created me for.

Hey, I’m supposed to play football, I’m gifted to play football. I believe if I get that one opportunity, I’m going to jump in with both feet and I’m going to take advantage of it and my life is going to change.

God creates each one of us with a distinct purpose. He’s gifted each of us in certain ways: to lead men, to throw a football. And He’s given us different gifts. The key is living in your gifting, living in your passions – what God put inside of you, that drive that He put inside of you. That’s what life is all about: taking that gift and sharing it and utilizing it and having an impact with it.

There are so many people that step away from what they believe they were called to be and to do, and they never really get to enjoy the life that God presents each and everyone of us because they’re not chasing those things. We allow the world, we allow finances, we allow the big house, we allow the pressures of other people to get our minds away from what God’s really called us to.

Obviously, not everyone can play quarterback in the NFL. But I believe it is essential that athletes, preachers, and role models encourage men and women to pursue their dreams.

The mission that God has given everyone of us is to use our unique talents. God says, “I want you to use that because in using that is where you’re going to have the greatest impact for Me.”

It’s all encompassing what we’re doing with this show – trying to rekindle that fire and that passion that God put inside of everyone of us so they can really step into the life that they’ve been called to. I believe that their impact on other people is going to be much greater than just wallowing around in the 9:00 to 5:00 job or in the career that they’ve got now where they don’t enjoy it and they’re punching a clock. They really can’t be the people they want to be or have the impact they want to have in those positions.

You have some of the most incredible records in NFL passing history. They are going to be etched in NFL history forever. But even for you, there was a time when your interceptions outnumbered your touchdowns? How do you get out of that funk and launch your success again?

My life has been about setbacks and breakthroughs. And I believe that the microcosm of life is sports. That’s what sports is about, it’s about ebbs and flows, it’s about highs and lows. It’s about the fact that it’s very difficult, if even possible, to play the perfect game. And so, there are going to be moments that you don’t succeed. But to me, those are the greatest challenges in life. You didn’t play very well last week. Now what are you going to do about it?

This person said you’re not good enough, what are you going to do about it? This team said we’re cutting you because you can’t play. This coach said you’re not good enough to start on his team. When people say that, what do you do with it? Do you run and hide underneath a rock or do you say, “Okay, I hear you, now I’m going to go out and show you.”

That was how I approached it. And I think that’s how all great players and all great leaders and all great people of accomplishment look at it. They don’t look at it like I have to be perfect and if I’m not perfect then I’m going to run away.

All great people realize they are not going to be great every time out. But when I’m not great, that presents to me the ultimate challenge to accomplish something.

What did you learn about leadership in a huddle?

The first thing is that all eyes are on you. So how you respond, what you say, what your actions are is the primary thing in any kind of a critical situation. I’ve thrown an interception in the Super Bowl and we went from being ahead to being down by 10 points.

We step back into the huddle and all eyes are on me. And I have no idea where we’re going from here. What’s next? How I respond in this huddle is going to infiltrate the entire team.

As a leader, you must understand those critical situations and how you’ll respond. Maybe one time you’ve got to yell and scream and get on your teammates. Maybe one time it’s just, “Hey guys, my fault, but I’m going to make up for it right now.” Maybe sometimes it’s just looking at them with confidence. “Don’t worry about it, guys, I’ve got it covered.” And then there’s other times where there’s nothing I could have said. These guys are scared to death, saying, “Man, we – you just lost the Super Bowl for us.”

The only thing I could do was say, “Here’s the play.” And you go out and make a play and then you watch them come back, play by play, because you’re responding in a certain way with your action.

In loss and victory, all eyes are on the leader.

Yes. And the second thing I learned being in a huddle is that you can’t lead everybody the same way. There’s a lot of people out there with these leadership books that say, “Okay, here’s how you do it.” Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that the key to leadership is knowing the people – your followers and understanding how to reach each and everyone of them. You’ve got to find ways to reach them where they are.

Some players, I had to get in their face. I had to embarrass them because it was that embarrassment that pushed them to the next level. Other guys, if you embarrassed them, they shut down. They didn’t want to talk to you.

You had to put your arm around them and say, “Okay, you know, here’s the deal….” There’s just different ways to lead. Some people are rah-rah people, where you have to yell and scream and emotionally kind of tap into them. Other people, you can yell and scream all day long and it doesn’t change their expression one bit. They want to see you work, they want to see your actions. There’s just not one way to do it. You have to be in tune with your guys, your team, your group, your business, your employees to understand what drives them.

There are very similar aspects between a football field and The Moment. Part of my process on the show is to learn what helps motivate these people. I’ve got to get them from working in their garage to being ready to present with one of the biggest companies in the country in two weeks.

I’ve got to find ways to push his or her button. I’ve got to find ways to force the issues, to take them places that they’ve never gone before, they don’t want to go, or they didn’t think they could go.

Leadership becomes a huge part of being able to encourage them along the way and find ways to go through those disappointments and those struggles and get them back on track and get them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

They might not like you, but your goal at the end of the day is to accomplish something – not to make them your best friend. A lot of different aspects of that that are difficult, because we all want to be liked, we all like to be everybody’s favorite. But you’re going to be respected more by getting the results at the end of the day than just being everybody’s best friend.

This has been a true pleasure, my friend. Thank you very much.

My pleasure. Take care.

Compass of Divinity – A conversation with Thomas C. Oden

Unbeknownst to him, Professor Thomas C. Oden was the prime agitator to the agony and ecstasy of my seminary experience. It was wading through 1,400 pages of his three volume systematic text books that introduced me to his dear friends Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, as well as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine –– that’s just to name a few.

To be honest, sometimes it felt like fraternity hazing and at other times it read devotionally, healing the wounds of my worn-out and stretched mind.

Looking back on it, I would not have had it any other way.

There are a few notable reasons I have always trusted Oden.

First, he is steadfastly committed to the historic teachings of Jesus. He’s made a professional vow to be theologically “unoriginal,” a counter intuitive move for a brilliant mind within a culture where newer is always considered better and theologians huff and puff to “keep pace with each new ripple of the ideological river.” Oden is sold out to the witness of the martyrs, saints, and prophets –– the faith that has been “everywhere and always and by everyone believed” to be the truth of Christianity.

Second, he has a past. For some reason, I trust those whose skeletons have already been laid bare. He wasn’t always a bleeding heart for orthodoxy. As a “movement theologian,” he dabbled in theoretical Marxism, existentialism, demythologization, Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, humanistic psychology, and parapsychology. Oden liked the bandwagons and everyone winked and nodded. Everyone, that is, except the late Jewish scholar Will Herberg, a brilliant colleague at Drew University who hounded Oden to rediscover his Christian roots.

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I still felt depressed even in acquiescence,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy. “But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy like a bird in spring.”

Taking Herberg’s admonition seriously, Oden incrementally turned his back on the countless trendy movements and “the fantasies of Bultmannianism” he had embraced and ended up being United Methodism’s preeminent and most prolific theologian.

Third, Oden smiles. Sounds insignificant, but it’s not. He is pastoral and deeply concerned about the care of the soul. He’s a lover of ideas, an engaged student and teacher. Oden’s not bitter –– mildly amused, but not bitter. He was actually grateful for his colleagues –– feminist, form critical, deconstructionist, and even heretical –– who challenged him to be more clear in his espousal of orthodoxy. He only asks for a fair hearing.

One would need a billboard to list all his books. Oden spent the last 17 years editing the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Amongst all his writing, he was also one of the original founders of The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church.

Oden’s latest endeavor is the four-volume collection of John Wesley’s Teachings. He shows that Wesley’s instructional homilies addressed the “whole compass of divinity” through his deep grounding in ancient ecumenical teaching.

Oden shows that over fifty-plus years of writing, Wesley covered the waterfront of essential issues surrounding Christian theology with a “cohesive and implicitly systematic core.”

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation about his new project.

You have written, “Wesley’s eighteenth-century movement corresponds closely with classic fourth-century consensus Christian teaching. Wesley’s teaching springs out of what he called, in lower case, the catholic spirit.” Let’s start there. What are John Wesley’s theological and spiritual roots?

Wesley relied upon and was personally shaped by a deep encounter with sacred Scripture, which he constantly considered normative for the Christian life. But after that it is the history of ecumenical doctrinal formation and scriptural interpretation in the Patristic period that became the grounding for his teaching ministry.

He was particularly drawn to the earliest Church fathers of both the East and West. He found the great writers of the Patristic period very important for him on questions of living the holy life of perfect love: Clement of Alexandria, Macarius the Great and Ephraim the Syrian. As a learned Oxford Anglican, he also had a great great grounding in Augustine. Many people would not notice it but he refers to St. Austin –– that’s just an 18th century term for Augustine. And then, of course, the Reformation writers, both Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as the Anglican reformers were especially important to him. Above all, Wesley preached in a way that was very accountable to the Elizabethan homilies that were largely gathered, conceived, and written by Thomas Cranmer.

With all the diversity of his theological roots, how do you describe John Wesley?

I regard Wesley as an ecumenical writer and an ecumenical teacher that stands in the via media tradition of Anglicanism, but with a very strong focus on the new birth that follows from justification by grace through faith. He did not want that Reformation core to be slighted. Although he never felt that the continental magisterial Reformation was adequately fulfilled, he thought that the evangelical revival going on in the 18th century was a significant fulfillment of what was sought but not fulfilled in classical Lutheranism and Calvinism.

He had criticisms of both Luther and Calvin, but they were not on the basic gospel truths concerning justification by grace through faith active in love. They were tempted to antinomian imbalances of those truths –– the temptation to take Christ as an excuse for disobedience to the law of God, the moral law.

United Methodists might be surprised to learn about his deep dependence upon the ancient writers of both East and West. We don’t really learn to read the Patristics. Have we dropped the ball perhaps?

Oh, yeah, we’ve dropped the ball in almost every way you can imagine.

When Wesley was headed for Georgia as a missionary to the native American Indians, he had to select a few books that he would take along with him. What did he take? Well, he took two large volumes by Bishop William Beveridge, the Patristic scholar at a time when Oxford and Cambridge were experiencing a Patristic renewal period. These volumes written in Latin and Greek were on the apostolic tradition of the early Patristic period.

So you can see how far away that is from the mentality of what we now have in The United Methodist Church. What I’m hoping to do is get evangelicals –– not just United Methodists –– to read Wesley.

Wesley was taking the best of Patristic and Reformation scholarship to the people. Plain speaking was a key feature of his personal temperament and his public teaching.

That is really one of the most phenomenal gifts of John Wesley. You knew that he was probably the smartest guy in the room, but he attempted to use his intelligence to pass on the truth to everybody else.

And he did not hesitate to poke holes in the pretenses of the academic guild.

Let me ask about Wesley’s relationship with George Whitfield. Is their relationship a possible model for how modern day Wesleyan/Arminians can work with Calvinists and those from the Reformed tradition?

Wesley was clearly the tutor and mentor for the younger Whitfield. In certain ways, Whitfield overshadowed Wesley, especially in America as a great public orator. Where did Whitfield get the energy of his message, his interpretation of Scripture, his evangelical passion? It really comes from John and Charles Wesley. And close readers of Whitfield will see that even though they had some disagreements, especially on double predestination, the patterns of preaching that Whitfield brought to the United States and in a sense all over the world were inspired by Wesley’s strong preaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Okay, let’s talk about predestination and double predestination.

In speaking of his relationship with Calvin and the Reformed tradition, Wesley wrote that he was only a “hair’s breadth from Calvin.” Wesley had a doctrine of predestination. Anyone who reads St. Paul knows that Christian teaching has a doctrine of predestination. The question is what exactly is decreed by God before the beginnings of the world. Wesley rejected the notion of double predestination –– that God has selected the elect from the very beginning and the elect simply have to become aware of it through hearing the Word preached.

In addition to him being a forefather of modern day evangelicalism, is it fair to say that he is also a forefather of worldwide Pentecostalism?

Yeah, that’s true. Where did Pentecostalism get its ideas about the work of the Spirit, of new birth, of totally transforming humanity through social holiness? From Wesley, essentially. That’s what Wesley, the Methodists, and the Holiness Movement in America had been teaching for 100 years before Pentecostalism emerged.

Modern Pentecostalism began in the 1890s, and who are the people that were shaping the early Pentecostal movement? Some of them were Baptist, but they were Holiness Baptists. Some of them were Presbyterian, but they were Holiness Presbyterians. But the largest number of the earliest Pentecostals were Wesleyan/ Holiness preachers teaching on the works of the Spirit going out to the ends of the earth and the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s promise that the Word of God will extend to the whole creation. That is the energy of Pentecostalism. It begins in Kansas, Texas, and Los Angeles and from there everywhere.

That is similar to the spirit of the evangelical revival that was happening in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s in the Wesleyan movement. And as you have pointed out, Steve, there were many anomalies that were happening in the revival.

And Wesley kept a close eye on all of them.

Yes. Wesley was an observer of the work of the Spirit in the heart. And he thanked God for the ways in which the Spirit was moving unexpectedly. But on the other side of Wesley, of course, is a person who sought to utilize reason and tradition to understand how the Spirit is moving.

You touched upon a few aspects of what has become known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral. How would Wesley interpret the way that contemporary United Methodists utilize the quadrilateral?

The way in which it is often distorted is Scripture, reason, tradition, experience. But experience is wrongly put at the top of that list.

In other words, what the liberal church has wanted to do is to include our experience –– our ethnic experience, our gender experience, our personal experience –– as the key determination. And then, you could read Scripture. You can say, “Well, maybe my experience doesn’t quite relate to the account of God’s saving action in Scripture. And maybe I can ignore tradition and reason on the basis of my own experience or our own experience as a community.”

It was exactly the opposite with Wesley. Scripture was at the top of that list. And it was given by God. It is inspired, and we are called to accountability to the written Word of God.

And so these other three become normative in a secondary sense only in relation to the history of salvation revealed in Scriptures. While Scripture is the judge of tradition, nonetheless, tradition is to be highly valued and that’s why Wesley was reading the early Christian writers like John Chrysostom and Augustine and Macarius, because they were closest to the earliest apostolic preaching.

Wesley put at the top of the list the Scripture, and then secondarily the tradition of the memory of God’s saving action. Then underlying all of this is reason –– using the intellectual resources that God has given us to analyze, to make discriminating judgments.

Wesley was not a rationalist in the formal sense because he thought that theistic rationalism had distanced itself from the history of salvation. But it’s a constant feature in Wesley that moral consciousness expresses itself through reason and conscience.

Finally, the experience of the new birth makes personal the knowledge of God’s pardon.

Modernity has turned the Wesleyan tradition upside down by imagining experience as judge of Scripture. And it’s time to get it straightened back up.

What was Wesley’s view of universal salvation?

Wesley is often accused of being an advocate of universal salvation and there is a yes and a no. He was an advocate of universal grace in the sense that grace is for all. God is offering himself on the cross, not just for some, but for all. The gift is for everyone, but it must be received. It requires repentance and faith. So in order to receive it, you must repent and believe and be baptized.

These are the conditions upon which God will receive us back into His favor. So universal salvation is by grace offered by God and received only by complete trust in God’s pardoning love on the cross.

It is a very simple distinction that very few people seem to get. When many people talk about universal salvation, some forget all about the repentance and belief as conditions for receiving grace.

Let’s talk about the experiment at Claremont School of Theology in attempting to train Imams, rabbis, and Hindu leaders under the one roof with United Methodist seminary students. In our pluralistic world, is this a good idea, or have we simply lost our Christian distinction at a United Methodist seminary?

Of course, I taught in a United Methodist seminary. I know the system and I know the ideology and I know the assumptions. And I don’t really know much about this Claremont experiment, but it’s clearly accommodative to modern culture and I think we’ve done enough accommodation.

I think what we need to do is to return to our historic identity, and if we’re going to really have a serious conversation with imams and with gurus, let’s have it on the basis of the real differences between those who are saved by grace through faith and committed to a life of love in action. Let’s talk about that relationship. It’s by grace through the cross. That’s the core: The atonement.

It is perfectly fitting, in my view, to bring in speakers or even teachers from non-Christian traditions –– but without losing their identity so that the process of dialogue ends and becomes a monologue –– simply an absorption without witness.

Let’s talk about your late Jewish colleague Will Herberg.

Will really helped me understand the Christian tradition better by challenging me to rediscover its roots. So you know, I’m not afraid of dialogue, but it’s got to be rooted. That’s a part of what I learned as a result of my conversations with my dear friend Will Herberg, in that I have to be myself as he had to be himself.

Twenty years ago you were on the cover of GOOD NEWS and we published an account of your adventure back to orthodoxy. Looking back on all of that, what are your thoughts?

I spent the first 40 years trying out every modern path I could find, and found them all a dead end. And that includes Marxism and Freudism and Darwin and most key players in the modern experiment. I was just an ordinary university student. That’s what my teachers were teaching, so I learned it, took it to heart and became an activist. So the first 40 years of my life were very much as a “movement theologian” on behalf of modern ideologies.

Quite simply, I was trying to use the church for the political ideology. That was my purpose. In fact, I went into the ministry with that desire. I decided that the ministry was a place where I could have an effect upon society, particularly through radical social change.

Herberg could see right through this ploy. He helped me to see that I wasn’t a Christian theologian at all. Result: I knew I was going to have to relearn classical Scriptural teaching if I was going to be a theologian. That’s what happened to me in 1970.

In that relearning of Christian theology, what stuck out to you?

I still hold to post-modern paleo-orthodoxy. Now, that sounds like a mouthful, but it has a clear meaning. Modernity is a period of time in which ideologies that are very dysfunctional have become normative.

We are in a period beyond modernity. We are not in the modern period. We are in a post-modern period. And in that period believers are rediscovering our own powerful history. We are reclaiming our own salvation history. So I became orthodox. And then I used the word “paleo” in order to distinguish what I was trying to convey from “neo” orthodox (Bultmann, the Niebuhrs, Tillich, and Brunner). I learned a great deal from these theologians but they did not teach me classical ecumenical teaching. They just didn’t do it. Some of them tried, but I don’t think they considered the incarnation, the atonement, and resurrection as facts of history. Well, we know that the cross occurred, there are very good historical evidences that the cross occurred. But the cross doesn’t mean anything without the resurrection.

You can’t have Good Friday without an Easter Sunday!

The cross and the resurrection are so intimately tied that one is reflected in the other. So my basic question early on in the 1970s was, is the resurrection really just an idea or is it a fact of history? And I finally –– and I think I was influenced by Wolfhart Pannenberg here –– was grateful to embrace the classical Christian view that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He is in fact the incarnate Lord and truly God, without ceasing to be truly God, truly human. The incarnate Lord died on the cross and was resurrected. And then I presented evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. I’ve been doing this for 40 years now.

The crucial turning event for me was: Did this Jesus rise from the dead? Not symbolically, not just as a fragile memory of the earliest Christian rememberers, not just as an ever-questionable matter of fallible human remembering, but did Jesus actually rise from the dead. And finally, I did believe. And that changed my life.

The 2012 General Conference was focused almost exclusively on much- needed restructure. If our guest speaker in Tampa would have been John Wesley, what would his message have been?

Well, it would be very simple. I’ve already stated it. Repent. Believe. Be baptized. Let that baptism emerge in being active in love. Let it be the perfect love empowered by the Spirit. Let it be a complete response, not partial response, to the grace of God. I don’t think Wesley would have paid much attention to the bureaucracy. That’s what’s gotten us in trouble.

We need to think small.

Think small in The United Methodist Church. Think about the congregation with Bible in hand. Think about the lay person who has access to the great good news of God. I think that focus is the potential in the good news. And that’s the potential for the renewal of The United Methodist Church. It’s not going to happen without it.

Einstein’s search for God

When Albert Einstein first introduced his theory of relativity dealing with space and time, it was widely joked that there were only three people in the world who comprehended it. During a question and answer time after a lecture, the acclaimed British scientist Sir Arthur Eddington was asked if he was one of the three. After a lengthy pause, Eddington replied, “I’m trying to think who the third person is.”

Although the story may be apocryphal, it still grants a sigh of relief to all those who struggled with science in school. It is not as though most of us sit around and chat about energy equaling mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, more commonly known as E=mc2.

As a cultural icon, Einstein was the ultimate caricature of an absentminded professor. When he was young, the family maid referred to him as the “dopey one.” As an adult, his moustache was too bushy, his hair untamable, and his clothing unfashionable. His most famous portrait is of him sticking out his tongue. You gotta love a physicist who knows the pose that even makes a kid laugh.

Walter Isaacson’s new book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, intrigued me because of its lengthy chapter on faith. I had wrongly assumed that Einstein was an atheist. What I discovered was quite the opposite. In addition to wanting to know why the sky is blue and the quantum theory of radiation, this man of unsurpassed genius and unquenchable curiosity was enamored with figuring out the most profound of mysteries. “I want to know how God created this world…I want to know his thoughts; the rest are details,” he said.

Einstein was raised in a secular Jewish home and attended a large Catholic school at the age of six. He was the only Jew among the seventy students in his class. As was expected, he studied Catholicism; as wasn’t expected, it turned out that he enjoyed it.

As an early manifestation of youthful rebellion toward his non-observant parents, young Albert became a devout Jew. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He followed the rules of the Sabbath, ate no pork, and kept kosher. “He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school,” reports Isaacson.

At age twelve, prior to preparing for his bar mitzvah, he suddenly gave up his zealous faith. Although he gave up his observant Judaism, he was still perplexed and curious about the harmony and beauty of creation that he would later call the “mind of God.” He settled into a deistic faith that embraced a non-intervening Creator.

As he grew older, Einstein became more outspoken about his beliefs. At the age of fifty, he granted an interview that delved into his Jewish upbringing and religious beliefs:

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?

“As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus?

“Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

Do you believe in God?

“I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

Einstein’s comments address the pervasive myth that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. It is also mistakenly assumed that all scientists are non- believers. Despite the arguments from some of the more vocal atheist scientists—“I am attacking God, all gods, and everything supernatural,” writes Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion—it is not true today, and it certainly was not true for Einstein.

Quoted in Isaacson’s book, Einstein said, “There are people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” The famous atheists of his day such as George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Sigmund Freud had a keen taste for denigrating those who believed in God. Einstein, on the other hand, was not shy about expressing his feelings about non-believers. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

“The fanatical atheists,” he once wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

What is so striking about Einstein’s writing is his humility and poetic sense of creation. Not even eloquent theologians use such refreshing phrases as the “music of the spheres.”

In 1929, Einstein and his wife were at a dinner party and the discussion turned to astrology. Einstein denounced it as superstition. One of the other guests likewise derided religion as mere superstition. When pressed to explain his own views, Einstein said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

Later, he further articulated his viewpoints in his essay “What I Believe.” “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science,” wrote Einstein. “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

The mop-top genius who captivated the affection of the world with his quirky brilliance was insatiably curious as a child about why the compass always pointed north. He knew there must have been a reason. As a mature scientist, his desire to know true north led him on his quest to grasp the mind of God.

At a conference on science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Einstein said, “Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.”

The lecture garnered major press coverage and his conclusion became widely quoted: “The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” If anyone earned the right to make such an authoritative statement about science and religion, Albert Einstein would be the one.

The crossroads, sobriety, and the grave

Despite being a monumental influence on contemporary music, most people outside the small fraternity of blues aficionados have never even heard of Robert Johnson (1911-1938). As a matter of fact, it was not until 70 years after his death that he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

His mark on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, however, is undeniable. “Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived,” says legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”

Robert Johnson’s life was tragic, miserable, and short. He never knew his father. His birth was the result of an extramarital affair. He wandered around the South, using aliases to keep one step ahead of the law. When he got married as a young man, both his wife and baby died during childbirth. After that, he drank hard and chased women. In “Preaching Blues,” he sings, “the blues is a low-down achin’ heart disease/ Like consumption killing me by degrees.”

Johnson also was a certifiable musical genius, able to do things with the guitar that no one else had done. Even though he only recorded 29 songs in the mid-1930s, he mesmerized fans all over the South.

Because he had mastered the guitar seemingly overnight, the rumors began to whirl. It was said that he went out to the crossroads and traded his immortal soul for the ability to play the guitar. Like a showman, Johnson never contradicted the rumors. With songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” as well as lyrics that dealt with damnation and salvation, he let the legend take on a life of its own.

Five years ago, my best friend Troy and I traveled to the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly waited for his encounter with the Devil. Blues fans like us from all over the world travel to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

In the South, the juke joints are packed on Saturday night and the clapboard churches are crowded on Sunday morning. The Robert Johnson legend of the crossroads fits right into a vibrant worldview of angels, demons, heaven, hell, sin, and atonement. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can even buy a t- shirt that reads, “Lord, forgive Robert Johnson.”

The metaphor of the crossroads is not reserved for yesteryear blues vagabonds looking for fame, fortune, and females. Rather, it carries a universal draw to anyone looking for a second chance. The crossroads represent an opportunity to get back on the right course, regain integrity, and give life another shot. It often defines our journey with grit, soul, and drama.

Clapton’s Crossroads

In honor of Robert Johnson’s memory, Eric Clapton hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival every year. He actually knows a thing or two about crossroads. At one point in his life, Clapton was in the middle of a tour in Australia and he couldn’t stop shaking. “I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink and I couldn’t live with one,” he wrote in his fascinating autobiography.

At the time, Clapton was a new father and he knew he had to get back into alcohol treatment—especially for the sake of his son Conor. “I thought no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.”

Clapton had been to rehab and tried to control his drinking, but once again it was controlling him. “I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”

His love for his son proved to be his prime motivation. Clapton wanted things to be different for Conor from what he had experienced as a boy. “I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father,” he wrote. Clapton had grown up believing that his grandparents who raised him were actually his parents. His childhood was miserable and he was scrambling to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.

Ticking off the days in rehab, he came to the terrifying realization that nothing had really changed about his desires and that he was going to go back outside the safe confines of the treatment center completely unprepared to deal with his addiction.

“The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he wrote. “It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.”

“At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with,” Clapton confesses. “Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”

That epiphany took place in 1987. Eric Clapton just recently turned 65 years old, but more importantly he has now celebrated 23 years of sobriety.

It took only a few days after that experience for him to realize that something profound had taken place within his life. “An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that,” he conveys. “I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.

“From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continued. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”

In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son died from an accidental fall from a Manhattan high-rise. Understandably, this crossroads devastated him.

“I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program,” he writes. The song “Tears In Heaven” emerged out of the anguish of the tragedy in order to help him cope.

Clapton would go to his 12-step meetings and people would get him coffee and let him vent. On one occasion, he was asked to chair the session on the third step— the one about handing your will over to the care of God. During the session, he recounted the mystical experience he had when he fell to his knees and asked for help to stay sober. “I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered,” he relates. “Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.”

Much to his surprise, a woman came up to Clapton after the meeting and said, “ You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” He asked her what she meant. “ I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk,” she said. “You’ve shown me that’s not true.”

Clapton came to the sudden realization that perhaps there was a way to turn his excruciating pain and tragedy into something that could help someone else. “I really was in the position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober then anyone can.’ At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”

Call Me From the Grave

Not everyone responds at the crossroads of pain and tragedy by finding peace kneeling in prayer. But everyone has been given a choice and an opportunity— from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton to you and to me. There often comes a time when decisions must be made, courage must be summoned, and change must occur. For some it is getting off dope, for others it is getting right with God, and still for others it is just choosing to be a decent human being.

Robert Johnson died at age 27 after three days of pain and agony. Apparently, he was given moonshine laced with strychnine by a jealous husband who believed that Johnson was messing with his wife. Even though there are three different graveyards that claim his bones, he most likely is buried in the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Etched in the granite tombstone are the words that Johnson supposedly scribbled on his death bed: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the grave.”

The lines between fact, fiction, and Robert Johnson are blurry at best. What we know for sure is that crossroads have always held out the offer of a shot at new hope, even if we are approaching the exit gate of life.

John Coltrane and A Love Supreme

“I’m never sure of what I’m looking for,” John Coltrane once told noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, “except that it’ll be something that hasn’t ever been played before; I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.” In the world of jazz, Coltrane was Ponce de Leon with a saxophone tirelessly searching for a mystical fountain of rhythms and harmonies. He practiced relentlessly, stretching every conceivable note to conform to his will.

“A man who studied all religions as well as Einstein’s theory of relativity, Coltrane dared to try to discover through music a way toward what Stephen Hawking has called ‘the mind of God’ for modern man,” writes Eric Nisenson in Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest. “That quest was not just pretense on his part. Anyone with ears and heart and soul could hear and feel it.”

Throughout his illustrative life (1926-1967), Coltrane shared the stage with jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Theolonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. His admirers have included Bono, Patti Smith, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and Outkast.

Last year, Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”

There is even a 25-year-old church in San Francisco that has named him as their patron saint. It’s not a kitchy novelty. The three hour worship service at Saint John’s African Orthodox Church (a branch of Catholicism) is described as a jam session and revival meeting rolled into one, featuring traditional Christian liturgy and improvisational jazz.

A notable difference between the contemporary church service and a vintage Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails. For Trane, as he was called, to play is to pray. Dubbing it “sheets of sound,” Ira Gitler described Coltrane’s playing as a “continuous flow of ideas without stopping. It was almost superhuman, and the amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Those packed into the gritty jazz clubs such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, Five Spot, Blue Coronet, or the Half Note would all testify that Trane could light the joint ablaze—sometimes logging 45 minute solos. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described one scene: “En masse, cats started to put their hands up to the ceiling and the whole place stood up. It was like those holy-roller meetings. It was unbelievable.” Jazz man Archie Shepp remembers another occasion: “The place was packed. And man, they played until 4 o’clock in the morning and it was like being in church. I mean Coltrane brought something which raises this music from secular music to a religious world music.”

The potency of his musical genius was not always so easy to recognize. Miles Davis had to kick Trane out of his band in 1957—for the second time—because of intense addiction to alcohol and heroin. Davis was all too familiar with the travesty because he had kicked a nasty heroin habit cold turkey a few years earlier.

Trane was a mess. He was nodding off on the bandstand, appearing disheveled, always running late or never showing up at all. Davis had reached his limit.

Coltrane retreated for a two-week stay at his mother’s house in Philadelphia where he locked himself in a room with water and cigarettes to kick the addiction. Trane is said to have heard the voice of heaven during his withdrawals.

“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” Coltrane wrote many years later in the liner note of his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

His recovery was jaw-dropping. One need not believe in God to know that Coltrane had met Him. He began playing in Thelonious Monk’s band and recorded Blue Train. At the end of the year, Miles Davis asked him to rejoin his group.

Seven years after his battle with heroin, Trane recorded A Love Supreme. He had been sequestered to a section of his Long Island home for four or five days. “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful,” Alice Coltrane recalls. “He walked down and there was the joy, that peace in his face, tranquility.” She asked him to tell her what he was experiencing. “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite,” he told her. “This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

A Love Supreme is introduced with a Chinese gong and then the listener is ushered into a mosaic of sound and energy. Be informed that this is not elevator jazz; this is jazz as exclamation point—tortured souls finding liberation, exorcism, and deliverance. Within the confines and liberties of jazz, it is Jacob wrestling with an angel, the parting of the Red Sea, the kiss of betrayal from Judas, and the empty tomb.

In the liner notes, Coltrane writes: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION— ELEGANCE—EXALTATION—All from God.”

Five years ago, Rolling Stone ranked A Love Supreme #47 of the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” commenting that “…Coltrane soars with nothing but gratitude and joy. You can’t help but go with him…” Likewise, the Village Voice keenly observed, “As much as any speech by [Dr. Martin Luther] King or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Love Supreme radiates the virtues of principled struggle, rapturous idealism, intellectual rigor, devotional passion. For all its thunder you can hear yourself think when you listen to it, primarily because Trane achieved the unthinkable: creating a secular form of God-loving music for the godless universe of Western modernity.”

You often hear about the blind having a stronger awareness of their other senses, particularly hearing and smell. Coltrane had the accentuated senses of a blind man who had been healed—eyes wide open and soaking up a dazzling vision from a heavenly realm.

“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music,” said Trane. “If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”