And then it happened; a simple text message. “What you doin Thursday brotha?” This simple query represented a monumental turn in my foray into suburban American millennial post-Christianity-ness…and other sociological labels contradictory to any typically applied to me. Maybe I’m just as suburban and American as the next guy, but I digress. At this point I had interviewed about 25 individuals and managed at least one follow-up interview with just four of those unfortunate persons. I was still contemplating what a realistic new year’s resolution would be in regard to continuing this project when the phone beeped. For the first time an interviewee requested to meet with me rather than the other way around.
Ben* is a big dude with a countenance that normally would send pencil-necks like myself to the nearest exit or crosswalk. Among various exploits Ben happens to be gainfully employed as a bouncer at an establishment the sort of which requires such services. We were first introduced last fall on the local college campus. Ben and I, and a mutual friend, made small talk about apartments, part-time jobs, music, and World War II tanks. He’s an eclectic guy which is why he’s so much fun. One of Ben’s first assertions was, “I believe in God. I just don’t believe in God the way you believe in God.”
Thus far that has proven to be true. Nonetheless after several conversations I put together a letter summarizing what I thought I’d been hearing Ben say about his beliefs. There are as it turns out areas of agreement between us. For instance we both believe God exists. We both believe people are generally a mess and Ben, being a bouncer, is in as good a position to know this as I am. There are also significant differences that keep the conversations intriguing. Thus I emailed Ben my best attempt to ruin his Christmas. He affirmed my ability to provoke thought and we sort of left it at that.
After New Year’s I received the text message. I figured the indelicate pithiness of my prose must have kept Ben awake with visions of something other than sugar plums all holiday season long. That wasn’t entirely off base, but before I could squirt ketchup on my fries it became apparent that there was something else on his mind. Ben related to me an episode from work the likes of which people don’t generally share with their accountants or barbers.
A roustabout was looking to stir up mischief outside the bar late one afternoon. Having been asked to move it along, he chose instead to test his odds. Bravado combined with certain hand placements indicated the peevish perpetrator might possess an equalizer, a.k.a. a deadly weapon. Ben therefore found himself in a tense and quickly escalating situation, the apex of which was a split-second decision: “If the hand comes out of the coat with a gun in it, I can and I will kill him.” There is not a doubt in my mind that, from a strictly physical standpoint, Ben would have been more than up to the task.
Fortunately the hand stayed put. An acquaintance eventually whisked the offender away, presumably to sleep off his liquid courage. What bothered Ben days later was how quickly and confidently he had arrived at his decision to kill the little jerk. So there we sat; a minister and another person who believes in God but not the way the minister believes in God, having a conversation about justifiable homicide, the sorts of decisions typically made in trenches or foxholes, and human conscience. But actually it felt more like two friends, one a bit older than the other, talking through some things.
Perhaps if you have been part of a church for any length of time you’ve missed the significance of this particular episode. To you it may seem entirely logical to consult a pastor regarding matters of life and death. But for many, particularly those who like Ben “have problems with organized religion” such a course of action is by no means second nature. In fact it is the furthest thing from many people’s minds.
The Church has noticed this; noticed that its opinion no longer carries as much weight as it used to, particularly within discussions of critical issues like abortion, bio-ethics, euthanasia, and so on. The obvious cultural shift away from what are customarily referred to as “Judeo-Christian values” in the West has resulted in an alarming lack of both introspection and innovation. Instead the response has been akin to more vigorous cane-shaking from the proverbial front porch of the Church--“Get off my lawn!” Paradoxically mood lighting and blue jean clad pastors are deemed adequate solutions to irrelevance when in fact superficial changes make little impact at all. I’m writing as one who aspires to someday deliver a sermon while wearing Levi’s 501s, and even I don’t think that will make anyone more likely to listen. If the Church is going to be heard it looks to me as though we will need to do the hard work of actually investing in people’s lives, especially the lives of those who think differently than we do.
Yeah, sorry. That’s going be hard; harder than going to church for an hour each week and harder than reading the latest Tim Keller book. It’ll be harder than writing checks or volunteering. And those things are hard! But before we, myself included, start whining consider what we actually believe. We believe that Jesus, who is God, emptied himself, became human, and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). In so doing Jesus made it possible for us to “be reconciled to God” (I Corinthians 5:20).
That. Was hard.
I don’t presume at this point to be sure of Ben’s standing in relation to God, mostly because I’m not entirely sure Ben presumes to know where he stands in relation to God. But I do know that recently when he was unnerved at his own self’s reaction to a particular stimulus on the street in front of the bar, he afforded me the opportunity to talk about it with him (and now write about it for you). It wasn’t that hard honestly. Over the last four months I’ve probably invested a grand total of six hours of my life to conversation with Ben, and he’s done the lion’s share of the talking. But I am looking forward to more talking and listening in the future. We don’t necessarily think or believe the same. Perhaps we never will. I don’t believe that is up to either one of us, thus if nothing else I would at least venture that I’ve gained a friend, one who I hope happens to be nearby should anyone ever see fit to pull a gun on me.
*You didn’t think I was going to use his actual name did you?