Sunday, November 25, 2007

A conversation

Nicholas Cage Con AirI sat next to a guy at evening service today. He was a little scruffy-looking, with a haircut not dissimilar to Nicholas Cage in Con Air. Actually, I thought he looked uncannily like someone (in?)famous, but I still can't figure out who. He looked fairly intimidating, not the kind of guy you want to play roughhouse with. It was a little surprising, then, when we both stood up at the end of the service, to find out that I was actually taller!

The service started with a reflection on Scripture,and I noticed that he didn't have a Bible and offered to share mine with him. He nodded politely at me and said he was fine without one. As the music struck up, I then noticed that he didn't have a service sheet. (We're old school, no OHP projectors!) So again, I offered to share. He mumbled something and declined again. Then I cottoned on. He must have found reading difficult, and if I insisted I would just have embarrassed him. So I let him be.

Because my church is pretty big and so it's likely you're sitting next to someone different each week, there's always a moment during the service where we have a pause and introduce ourselves. So at this juncture, I said hi to Nicholas Cage. He gave me a name. David. Not Rusty James or Motorcycle Boy then. We talked a little. He seemed reticent, yet at the same time pleased that I was attempting to engage him in conversation. He asked me how long I had been coming - I've been here for just over a year now. He claimed to have been coming for two. I asked him how he found it. "Oh, I like it maybe 50%? No, just 40%," he said. "What about you?". "Oh, errr...70?" I said, probably unhelpfully. I wish now that I had pursued what he thought of the church or said something more about the church as family; putting percentages on it was simply travelling down a cul-de-sac. In any case, he chuckled.

He then asked me if I was a Christian. I nodded. He wasn't. But he was coming as he wanted to learn. I asked him if he had been learning much. "Well," he reflected. "It's not easy, you know. I've been listening, real hard, but," he knocked his forehead lightly, "not much goes in here, you know? I'm sure you find it easier as a Christian," he looked at me a little wistfully. I wanted to encourage him and almost quoted Jeremiah 29:13. Instead, I said, not very coherently, something along the lines of how it was really God's work that helps us understand and I'm sure it could help him too, which this time drew a more cynical look. He replied, "Ah, but the devil is at work too." We lapsed into a silence. And then I asked him, "So when you're not here on a Sunday, what do you do?". He said rather reluctantly, "Oh, I work." Seeing his reluctance to divulge information, I didn't probe further. But with some effort, he looked at me directly, and said, "I work in a casino." I nodded; that wasn't shocking really - it wasn't like he had announced that he was pimping Eastern European girls for a living. At this point our conversation was interrupted as we were brought back together by the service leader. But it was not before he whispered to me: "I've seen the devil's work firsthand."

Charlie preached a characteristically fine and heartfelt sermon on 1 John 2:28-3:10. As always, Charlie helped bring out the relational implications as we saw what it meant to live as the family of God, as his children. In light of David's comments on God and Satan, I couldn't help but wonder what he (David) made of 1 John 3:10. 1 John is not an easy letter to read and can be read very moralistically. Charlie did a good job of making sure we still saw Jesus in v.5 and v.8, but I did wonder whether a non-Christian would have seen the gospel of grace, especially if he was thrown right into this passage without any prior knowledge. (This isn't a fault of either Charlie or the Apostle John of course!)

At the end of the service I bit my lip, sent a quick prayer to my Father and turned to David. "What did you think of the talk?" I inquired. He looked startled to be asked his opinion. "What do I think?" he repeated. The cynic re-emerged. "Well, it's not very realistic is it?" he said. "How so?" I asked. "Well, the world, everyone's, full of sins aren't they?" I agreed: "Yes, the world is a broken place - none of us are good, we're all sinners." We lapsed into another short silence, and then he mumbled something - I wasn't able to catch it all but it was along the lines of "what's the point? All this doing good, all these rules are useless anyway." I saw that this was rapidly heading towards moralism, so I tried to redirect the conversation towards Jesus. We had a short exchange but I don't think he quite got that Jesus is the centre of Christianity and who we're all about. He shook his head, sighed, then said: "Oh, all this scanning [his word] to see whether you're doing right or not. I think it must be exhausting. It's more relaxed, you know, to not worry about such things." I replied, as gently as I could: "Actually, I think it's the other way around." He suddenly looked very interested. "Why is that?" So I tried to explain how Jesus, and indeed, the message of 1 John, is one of reassurance and security, and freedom to follow and know God.

At this point, someone who apparently knew him came over to say hi, and it was clear from their ensuing conversation that he had been actively trying to love David and to introduce him to God's love. I was encouraged by that. It was time to go, so we said our farewells.

I thought about David on the way home. I thought about how he must really be spiritually hungry, even as he oscillated between cynicism and longing. After all, to keep coming to church even when he liked it "only 40%"? I wondered how he felt being in a predominantly middle-class church. I wondered what he saw at work in the casino and how that coloured his world. I wondered too how to reach non-book people like him. Before writing this post, I remembered vaguely that Tim Chester had written an article on this very subject and googled around for it in vain. If anyone knows where it is, please do tell me!

I'm glad too. I think how difficult it must be for Charlie and others who are engaged in the preaching ministry, and how they must work hard at "speaking God's words", as it were. I'm grateful that the Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately does the work and not us. I'm encouraged that there's people, like this brother, who are following God and loving him by loving others. In a big church like mine, I know it's easy to be critical and be especially dismissive of it as a middle-class ghetto. But there's much that goes unseen.

I'm not too sure why I wrote this post, but I had to get it out of the system.


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Blogger pearlie said...

I'm not too sure why I wrote this post ...

But I am glad you did - it was very well written, like I was just there next to you.

And it gives me encouragement too.
I would like to link you :)

4:02 pm  
Blogger Kar Yong said...

Thanks BK, for this post, and for reaching out to a stranger as a demonstration of God's love. I wish I could have done that to the many strangers who have sat next to me in church over the years.

1:41 am  

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