On the last night of a recent conference in Budapest, much of our staff was gathered in the hotel lobby, taking advangtage of every last minute together before we each headed our separate directions in the morning. As I sat down to wait for a colleague, I felt someone tap my shoulder from behind. It was the aforementioned bachelor and he wanted to talk.
I did not. I attempted to put on my don't-even-think-about-talking-to-me face but was reminded again that no matter how hard I try I always look friendly.
"Are you from Colorado?" he asked. (Apparently he was testing his knowledge of U.S. states with every person he met.)
"No. California." I replied shortly.
"I'm Steve," he said as he extended his hand. I reluctantly introduced myself and hoped he would turn around and continue talking with his friends.
"Why are there so many Americans here?" (Actually there were many more Europeans present than Americans.)
"For a conference." (I hoped that would end the conversation.)
"What kind of conference?" (He was not giving up!)
"We catalyze spiritual communities that are committed to the flourishing of cities throughout Europe." (I hoped this would be sufficiently vague and off-putting.)
"So, you're Protestants?" (I wasn't sure where to go with this one, but decided not to explain further.)
"I myself am not religious," he declared.
"No kidding?" is what I wanted to say, but a smile and a nod seemed the better part of wisdom.
I reluctantly acknowledged he was not to be dissuaded by my brief answers and he was definitely going to pursue the spiritual conversation I was trying to avoid.
People Will Talk
Religion and Redemption
I couldn't imagine what that must have been like. And as much as I felt angry for what had been done to him in the name of God, I couldn't escape the reality that I had harmed others in the name of God. Maybe not with physical violence, but certainly with the emotional tools of manipulation and guilt. I had no adequate words to express my emotions so I fumbled through an apology for Christendom.
"I hate religion too," I began. "I'm so sorry you've experienced all of that. Religion has hurt me as well--not even close to what you've experienced-- but I'm just trying to follow Jesus. And Jesus has no part in the violence and death you've experienced. I'm so sorry. " I inwardly berated myself for even attempting to relate my experience to his.
"You really believe Jesus is real." He said it more as a suprised statement than a mocking question. "Look me in the eyes and tell me you believe Jesus is real." The change in his demeanor was almost instant, like I was talking to a different person. Chatty, jovial Steve was replaced by uncertain, intense Steve.
I looked directly at him. I was close enough to smell the beer on his breath.
"I know Jesus is real." There was a brief pause as this registered with him.
"And I know he loves you." Even as that last sentence exited my mouth I felt a wave of regret. I hadn't planned to say it and I wasn't sure why I had, but could I possibly say anything more cliche' than Jesus loves you?"
Steve looked up and away from me for a second as he closed his eyes. Then his face contorted into what can only be described as "ugly cry face" as he opened his eyes and yelled, "Don't f*****g tell me Jesus loves me! You don't know what I've done!" He went on to tell me about the men he had killed in battle. The things he had seen and done that made him unredeemable in his own mind.
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The despair was so thick and deep and painful and I wondered if it had ever seen light. But I also felt like I had just been asked to bring water to a dying man in the desert. I possessed the very thing he needed in order to live. What joy!
About this time my colleague, Mike, arrived and I motioned for him to join our conversation. I introduced him to Steve and Steve leaned in to ask him the same question. "Do you believe Jesus is real?" Without missing a beat Mike acknowledged that, in fact, he did.
As you might imagine, Steve's friends were growing weary of waiting for him and they began calling his name loudly and demanding that he stop talking with Mike and me. He ignored them for a bit but then turned toward them angrily and yelled, "Shut the f*** up! We're talking about Jesus!" (This may be my favorite line of all time.)
As his friends began to mock Jesus loudly, Steve continued to share. He talked about his guilt over what he had done in war. He shook his head at his friends who he said had no idea what he'd been through. He cried. He called us liars when we told him God did not hold his actions against him but wanted to welcome him with open arms.
Finally his friends physically pulled him from his chair and the conversation was over.
I was physically shaking; it had been so intense and messy and confusing and beautiful. A few of us spent time praying for Steve and I walked around in a daze for the rest of the night. I was simply amazed. Who is this God who pursues us with his love? Who lets us participate in his redemptive plan. Who uses unlikely people as messengers.