Rainbow Man

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If you watched TV sports during the 1980s, you’ll probably remember the Rainbow Man. 

Rollen Stewart dreamed of becoming an actor.  When his Hollywood career flatlined, he decided the ultimate act of self-promotion would be to show up on camera during major sporting events. 

Stewart donned a multi-colored wig and somehow managed to seat himself behind home plate, a goal post, or a backboard – places where viewers were sure to see him waving his hands or doing his patented jig.  TV producers were amused.  If the game was dragging, they could always count on “Rockin Rollen” to liven things up as a kind of crowd mascot.

Then Stewart got religion. 

It dawned on him that he could advertise his newfound faith in Jesus by holding up a sign or wearing a T-shirt that directed people to a Bible verse.  Stewart settled on John 3:16. 

During the 80s he lived out of his car, traveling 60,000 miles a year.  Churches supported him financially.  He begged, borrowed, or cajoled his way into highly visible seats at Super Bowls, World Series games, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, and even the Wedding of the Century.  Rainbow Man could be seen dancing in the background on the day Prince Charles married Diana. 

Highly visible preachers usually get one TV spot a week.  Stewart averaged two events a week for something like a dozen years. 

TV producers gradually became weary of his persona.  And behind the scenes his life was unraveling.  Stewart married and divorced four times.  He became angry, delusional, and increasingly certain that the Apocalypse was approaching.  In September 1991 he held three people against their will at gunpoint at the Hyatt Hotel near the Los Angeles airport.  During an eight-hour standoff with a SWAT team, he threatened to fire bullets at nearby commercial aircraft.

After his arrest and trial – during which he turned down a plea-bargain that would have sent him to prison for 12 years – Rollen Stewart was handed three consecutive life sentences for kidnapping.  He’s been behind bars now for almost three decades. 

It’s an unexpectedly sad finale to the life of America’s “endzone evangelist.” 

Stewart’s verse of choice, however, still gets plenty of play. 

University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wrote “John” and “3:16” on his eye black when he took the field for the 2009 NCAA National Championship game.  He did so again in 2012 when he led the Denver Broncos to an overtime NFL playoff win.  During the game, “John 3:16” was Googled an incredible 90 million times and was the number one topic trending on Twitter.  In-N-Out Burger, the iconic West coast fast food joint, has printed the verse on the bottom of its drinking cups.

Genesis 1:1 is presumably the most famous sentence in the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  But John 3:16 isn’t far behind:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”  Let’s break it down:         

For God… A statement that describes the basis of our spiritual security could never begin with our own names.  God is the primary actor in history.  

So loved… From cover to cover in Scripture, this is God’s ultimate motivation. 

The world… The Bible isn’t a love story written exclusively for good people or religious people or lucky people or Jews or Baptists or Catholics.  God’s love is for everyone. 

That he gave… Real life is a gift, not an achievement. 

His One and Only Son… From the Bible’s opening chapters, a promised person called the Messiah has been God’s plan for restoring this broken world.  Jesus died on the cross to pay off the cumulative international sin debt, then rose again to unleash God’s own power to transform human lives. 

That whoever…  We get an invitation, not a summons.  

Believes… This doesn’t mean guesswork or hoping against hope.  Believing is not a leap into the dark, but an eyes-wide-open conviction of both the mind and the heart. 

In him… We don’t shackle ourselves to a never-ending list of things to do nor to a sterile religious tradition.  Spiritual rebirth means abandoning ourselves to a living Person. 

Shall not perish… This is our other spiritual option.  We can either believe or perish.  All we have to do to live is to surrender ourselves to Jesus.  All we have to do to perish is to take no action at all.

But have eternal life… The Greeks had two different words for life:  bios and zoeBios is the root of the word biology.  Everybody born the first time experiences physical, organic life.  But the tragedy of a sin-marred world is that not everybody experiences zoe – spiritual existence as it was meant to be.  Jesus declares that the reason we are here is not to improve our biological circumstances.  It is to be reborn into God’s gift of zoe through a relationship with him.

You might say that God puts the new software of the Holy Spirit into the old hardware of the bodies we’ve been wearing since birth.

As with any systems upgrade, there will be plenty of struggles with start-up and compatibility.

You don’t need to feel something to know that God has become active in your life.  Most people never experience a supernatural rush.  Surrender yourself as best you can to as much of God as you currently understand.  Keep saying yes to the spiritual promptings that will come your way.

A number of people have had the sense that they were simply giving in to a love that was pursuing them.  Author Anne Lamott writes, “I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever…”

The mind-bending news is that forever in that sense really means forever.   

The Rainbow Man, like most of us, had a hard time proclaiming that message through the shape of his life.

But he definitely picked the right verse to wear on his T-shirt.