The defining moment each week is when my prepared sermon looks back at me and asks, “Do you really believe this?”
I think it was a Thursday. That’s usually about the time in a given week when I’m polishing Sunday’s sermon; or perhaps more precisely the sermon is polishing me. In my short career as a preacher I’ve discovered that the goal each week isn’t a completed document or manuscript. The final hurdle in every sermon is to review the message and ask, “So … do I really believe this?” True conviction has no substitute. This particular Thursday a few elements of the message remained a bit elusive to me. So, I did what I always do when I’m a bit hung up on a thought or message, I took a walk.
I made my way to the Starbucks just down the street from my office. I took a moment to sit, reflect, and general mind my own business … for a moment. Just as soon as I had sat down for my first sip a kind women graciously brought my moment to an end. (I’ll call her Nancy.) Nancy asked me for help. She must have been in her late sixties. How did I know her age? Well, it wasn’t as you may assume. It wasn’t anything about her appearance that revealed her season of life, but the softness and genuineness of her general presence.
Admittedly, both qualities seem consistently slippery to those of us on naive side of thirty-five. And so her request didn’t come with any even a hint of frustration or entitlement. She was really in need and she openly admitted it, to a complete stranger. Nancy’s quality is not something that can be practiced and perfected but is the obvious result of a life lived long enough to learn the beautiful embrace of dependence.
She handed me an e-reader fresh out of the box. It was a Kindle.
With a half smile she said, “I can’t figure this thing out. Can you help me?” As my thirty-year-old self I was tempted to respond, “Sure, buy an iPad.” Thankfully I didn’t. Instead I thought, as a good Christian pastor whose church meets just up the road, I had better be nice. Failing to be polite and gracious — in traffic or in coffee shops for instance — is not an luxury we pastors can afford. Wronged drivers have an uncanny habit of being “first-time guest” at the next Sunday service. I reached out for the reader, happy to oblige.
Over the next ten or fifteen minutes Nancy and I became friends. We learned a bit about each other. I got her account dialed in and a couple of books started downloading. I told her I was a pastor and that I was a new dad, with an amazing little girl. Nancy was single, she had never been married, and served in the medical field most of her life prior to retirement. She went on to explain that the Kindle was a gift. That, she hoped, would explain why she didn’t know how to use it. Apparently, a friend of Nancy’s had recently passed away and her late friend’s partner gave it to Nancy as a “thank you” for taking care of her the last few months of her life.
After the Kindle was squared away, Nancy displayed her trademark disposition. She looked directly at me; she was obviously thinking about something. I could only guess, but I thought she must have had another question. Maybe she had a smart phone too. She looked at her Kindle, then moved to the table, paused for a moment … then stared right at me. “You’re a pastor, right?” Few questions ever constructed produce more alarm within the inaudible yet ruckus world of my mind than one framed just so. Was she about to praise me for my gracious nature and pastoral servitude? Or would she bring up the last time she went to a church and how badly she was treated? I instinctively buckled up preparing for the worst. Shockingly, I was neither complemented nor accused. Nancy, soft and genuine, paused … “So, do you think my friend is in hell?”
I was shocked.
I was silent.
I took a long pause.
Christianity, and perhaps faith in general, often feels like a disconnected addendum to an otherwise modern existence. As if it were a stagnate edifice amid a raging stream of progress and knowledge and love. At best faith provides an encouraging and positive social environment for troubled teenagers, the kids from Breaking Amish, and NFL running backs, but it fails to appropriately address the real issues of our current twenty-first century lives. Consequently, this all leads to an apparent contradiction of concepts.
To some nothing could be more comforting than the idea of heaven. However to others the afterlife has been a tragic tool wielded to judged diversity and manipulate the weak. Apparently religion has been unable to improve upon holiday sentimentally … you better watch out, you better not cry … because one day Jesus is coming to town?
I looked at my new friend. I smiled with obvious discomfort. I didn’t know her full story. All I knew was that she had a dear friend recently pass away. And I could only imagine that she had read or heard or just generally understood that the Christian Scriptures denounce homosexuality. But this question, and any question like it, is not a simple yes or no question. She wasn’t asking me about doctrine. She wasn’t asking me to quote a verse. She wasn’t interested in politics. She was interested in me, her new friend.
My biggest obstacle in answering her question directly was that I didn’t know Nancy’s friend. And Nancy’s obstacle was her unfamiliarity with the Christian story. Because you see, Christianity is not merely a set of bullet points; hit the points, get the reward. And people can’t be fully known by their chapter titles either. Christianity is a much bigger story. People’s lives are a much bigger story.
I began to speak.
With a newly discovered softness and genuineness, I explained to Nancy that she would never understand my answer to her question until I told her the story of Jesus. As I walked back to my office that Thursday I realized something. I really do believe this.