As a general rule I don't try to talk about Jesus with intoxicated people. Particularly a groom-to-be at his bachelor party who happens to be wearing a women's dress. But sometimes thats exactly who Jesus wants me to talk to. Jesus often surprises me.
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
Let me clarify my reticence. It wasn't because I didn't know what to say or feared sharing my faith. I enjoy talking about Jesus. I often find myself in spiritual conversations with strangers and sometimes, even, over a glass of wine. But this felt dangerous to me. Not physically, but emotionally. My friendly demeanor has been known to get me into uncomfortable situations and I was afraid I would end up in a conversation I didn't know how to get out of. Perhap more importantly, I didn't want my coworkers watching me have a friendly, animated conversation with a drunk guy. I know what people will say about me. At best, I'd be called naive for thinking a man was talking to me because he actually cared about my thoughts on spirituality. But louder than the fear was the still, small voice of God inviting me to stay.
Religion and Redemption
I prayed silently as I continued. Steve told me he was from Northern Ireland and had grown up in a Protestant neighborhood being bombed by his Catholic neighbors. As an adult he had become a soldier and been deployed to Iraq where he experienced more war associated with religion. Unsurprisingly, he found religion abhorrent.
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.
Lessons for Me
Later, as I reflected on this experience and realized the source of my fear, Jesus reminded me again of the woman who washed his feet with perfume and her tears. He was not concerned about how it looked to others, even though her sins were many. In his tenderness he reminded me that I don't need to be afraid of my past or what others think. He sees my heart. He can redeem me even as he redeems Steve.
I will never see Steve again. I don't know if he'll even remember our conversation. But I know it wasn't wasted. I still pray for him and his new bride each week knowing that God cares infinitely more for them than I do. And I never want to forget the peace, exhileration and joy that accompany our yeses to God's crazy invitations. Even when we don't know ultimate outcomes.
Kelli is a writer, speaker and consultant equipping leaders for a deepening intimacy with Christ, greater impact in ministry and more effective intentionality in all of life.
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