A weekend with Luis
Lessons from the famous evangelist’s message to a gathering of unbelievers
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I met Luis Palau, who died Thursday, in December 1997 at a most unlikely place: the annual “Renaissance Weekend” talkfests leading up to New Year’s Day that Bill and Hillary Clinton used to headline. In 1997 about 1,300 people—including sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a passel of celebrities, corporate CEOs, and cabinet secretaries—hung out at fancy hotels at Hilton Head, S.C.
Renaissance Weekends were overwhelmingly liberal and secularist, but occasionally invitations went out to a handful of evangelicals able to note the claims of Christ. Whether those individuals were willing to do so was another matter. As a public policy person I went there twice during the 1990s and witnessed the tendency to want to fit in, because remarks that challenged secular liberal beliefs were greeted less by vigorous argument than by looks of pity: The poor dear must be cloistered and clueless.
Into this environment strode Luis. On Dec. 29 during a panel on “spirituality,” a Southern Baptist criticized the leadership of his denomination and another evangelical spoke about Star Trek. Neither talked about Christ. Others were not so reticent. A woman introduced as a witch (and tarot card reader) pushed paganism. A questioner asked whether the Trinity and the resurrection were optional ideas for Christians. None of the panelists was ready or willing to emphasize the centrality of those beliefs.
That evening, though, Luis was on an after-dinner panel, answering a question about whether God is relevant to people today. Luis—his intensity softened by a ready smile—leaned forward and said, “We are created by God and for God. There is an emptiness in the soul until we get to know Him in a personal way. Many Americans miss out on the third dimension of the human experience. We’re healthy, we have good minds, but we forget about the soul. People’s lives are empty. If you die without knowing Christ, what hope do you have?”
To a follow-up query concerning the questions he is most often asked, Luis said people are consumed by guilt. Then he went right at the issues about which some of the assembled cabinet officers, journalists, CEOs, and celebrities were likely to feel most guilty: “Will God forgive me for my abortion? Will God take me in after my divorce? We know so many children are angry after divorce. And people want the assurance of eternal life.” Luis spoke of hope “based on facts. We need to fix our faith on a stable rock: God as revealed in Jesus. Eternal life is promised to us, but we need to put our feet on that rock.”
The next day Luis had several good one-on-one discussions. That evening I asked him how they went. “When you present the gospel, there will be a reaction,” he said, punching one hand into the palm of the other. “But this is what we’re here for. Salt and light.” On Dec. 31 more panels about spiritual life went on, with several evangelicals seeming to disarm opposition by suggesting through jokes and irony that evangelicals are harmless and Biblical ideas not particularly challenging. Many played to postmodernism: I’m spiritual my way, go ahead and be spiritual your way.
Luis, though, spoke about truth and planted some seeds. He told me the experience showed that evangelicals should be up-front about the claims of Christ: “Tell the truth, and everything works out.” He said, and showed, that evangelicals at a Renaissance Weekend–type gathering should be polite, but should not fit in. We should help people understand the vital difference between Biblical and non-Christian understandings. That’s what Luis did throughout his career, whether with poor people or the rich and famous.
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