Stories indeed: An Unexpected Encounter That Stretched My Apologist and Pastoral Sides

In my last post, I mentioned my friend’s blog, Letters and Stories, and wrote a joke post showing why I’d be bad at writing stuff like that.  It was loosely based on a real encounter (I was a lot more engaging in real life, I promise), and it more or less made fun of my own introverted tendencies.  Haha!  Isak avoids other people, especially ones that talk his ear off out of nowhere.

Little did I know that, not long after that post, God would bring a meeting that would fit pretty well within that website.  It was one of the more interesting evangelistic encounters I’ve had, stretching my mind as a student and, more importantly, my heart as a minister.

How I ended up at Barnes and Noble

Every other Thursday, our church offers a young adult men’s small group.  I was already nearby several hours earlier, so I debated whether I should stick around and go to this group or just go home.  I was busy: I need to finish reading a book and write a short review on it, among other ministry and school things.  In addition, I am, as stated above, a natural introvert, and we just had a college event last night.  I like our college students as well as the men of the small group, but let’s just say that I would have enjoyed being alone tonight.  I almost went home, but I felt the Spirit tugging at me to go to small group.  “Fine…”  I looked up a nearby Chick Fil A that I could chill at and went there… and realized that it was inside a mall.  I didn’t want to walk into the mall, but in the midst of turning around, I saw a Barnes and Noble and decided to read there until it was time to go to small group.

I walked into the B&N, set up my laptop, and started to read.  I only got through a few pages before an older gentlemen stopped me and asked me what I was reading.  I told him that it was a book on religious epistemology, particularly Christian.  Upon hearing that, he asked if he could sit down and talk to me about Jesus.  I gestured for him to sit across from me, and so began a much longer night than I envisioned.

A Conversation About Hurt, Hypocrisy, and Faith

The man’s name is Josh, a Vietnam War veteran who has seen a lot in life.  He has given me permission to share our conversation minus a couple of details.  Obviously, we talked for a while, so what I will present below will be a very truncated version of our discourse.  Nonetheless, I hope the following will be illuminating, as it was for me, on how Christian behavior can greatly affect how the Gospel is perceived and received.

The very first thing Josh asked me was, “What is a true follower of Christ?”  At this point, I was not sure if he was a believer who was testing me or not.  I gave an answer about faith, justification, and obedience.  He was seemingly impressed with that answer, but then he said matter-of-factly:

“Well, the day I find a true follower of Jesus, I’ll fall over.”

Welp, not a Christian.  I asked him why he’s never seen a true follower of Jesus, and he shared with me several experiences he had.  I can share that one pastor basically destroyed his life, and also, his grandmother was apparently bamboozled by televangelists and died broke.  Also, he says that he has many friends who have gone through tough times and have asked churches for help, only to be turned away.  “These churches have some mighty nice buildings and security guards, but they can’t help people in need.  So much for following Jesus.”

These experiences led him to believe that Christianity is a scam and pastors are all phonies.  He asked me, “Are you a pastor?”

“Nope, not yet,” I answered, “but I’m in seminary.”

He snorted, “Oh, that Southwestern one over there?”

“Yep,” I replied.  I smiled knowingly, “So… did your opinion of me just lessen?”

He smiled back.  “Yes.”  At least his honesty was refreshing.

Despite that, the conversation started pretty cordial.  He asked me why, if Jesus is real, Christians and especially pastors keep committing the same sins, particularly regarding things like sex and money.  He rejected the, “Christians aren’t perfect” line as an excuse (though he did have a sense of humor about it when I mentioned I went to UT and loved UT football, saying with a twinkle in his eye, “Yeah, your football team is struggling… but hey nobody is perfect!”).  I agreed with him that it’s not an “excuse,” but it is an explanation.  I replied by telling him that 1. Many people who claim to be Christians really aren’t and 2. The Bible never says that Christians will be perfect in this life but is instead quite realistic about Christians still struggling with sins.  He shot back, “But doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Be holy, as I am holy?'”  I affirmed that it does, but I pointed out that this states God’s standard that the Bible also says everybody fails, such as in Romans 3:23.  He pressed on, “Okay, sure, but are they even trying to be holy?”

This is where we met our first impasse; I told him that his experiences were too narrow and that there are many Christians who try to (imperfectly) follow God, while he tried to universalize his experience.  When he expressed skepticism about my motives on materialism, I told him that I was a UT grad of the McComb’s Business School who has experienced both student loan and hospital debt, yet I still went to seminary.  “If I was in this for the money, I obviously picked my path poorly,” I quipped.  This led to this amusing exchange.

“Ok… I see that your laptop is beat up.  Well, how much debt do you have?”

I told him.

“How much money do you have in your bank account right now?”

I told him.

“Yeah, you’re broke.”

I laughed.  “Thanks… I already knew that.”

He informed me that he had come to meet a friend and give him money, so he needed to take off but he’d be back.  I told him I’d still be there, and I also assured him that when he got back, he was free to say whatever he wanted to me and not worry about hurting my feelings.  He would definitely take that invitation to heart later.

An interlude

A few minutes after he left, an older woman who was sitting nearby came to me.  She told me that she couldn’t help but overhear our conversation and encouraged me by telling me that I planted some seeds, and we’ll see if God grows them.  She sat down with me for a little bit (so much for this introvert being alone at all 😉 ) and shared a little bit of her own testimony.  She too walked away from the church, though not from her faith, for a period of fifteen years because of something hurtful before God changed her heart.  She learned to forgive, and she hoped that this man would also learn from God how to forgive.

Round 2: It gets heated

She left to sit back at her table, and Josh came back.  This part, I’m sorry to say, was a bit more contentious, and it was partly my fault because a few times I got more into “debate mode” and just shot down what I found to be bad arguments.  He started asking a series of questions and also started making some accusations that seemed designed to get a rise out of me.  I’m the wrong person to try that with, so I was more amused than anything when he made such accusations and even laughed a few times, which seemed to irk him.

Still, he did ask some pretty challenging questions, such as why God would allow Satan to torment Job and why God would command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  I did my best to answer those questions, and then he challenged me about the Sermon on the Mount: If it says that a Christian should turn the other cheek when he is struck and give his cloak when he is sued, why don’t Christians just freely give everything they have?  I tried to explain context to him and Jesus’ teaching method on the Sermon on the Mount, but he grew increasingly impatient, “If you can take John 3:16 literally, you can take that literally too.”  When I pointed to several counter examples of Jesus clearly not being 100% literal, he just waived his hand in dismissal, saying that that was just a way that pastors try to weasel themselves out of Jesus’ commands.

I also took the opportunity to challenge him too; I told him that his bitterness and anger against Christians was clouding his judgment and logic.  Surprisingly, he agreed, but didn’t seem to have a problem with that.  He got really exasperated when he started to test me and I decided I didn’t want to go along with it.  He asked to borrow a series of things–my phone, some money, my drink–not because he wanted them but to test me.  Eventually, he got to my laptop:

“What if I asked to borrow your laptop?”

“Sure… let me type in the passcode for you…”

“Well, what if I just walked around with it for five minutes.”

“Why don’t you just use it here since we are… well, here.”

“Well, what if I wanted to walk around with it, huh?”

Oh brother, I thought.  “Look, I’m not playing games with you.  This is irrelevant to whether or not Christianity is true.”

“I’m not playing games.  It’s important to ME to see if you are willing to let me borrow your laptop and possibly lose it.”

“I can tell it’s important to you.  I’m telling you that it is not OBJECTIVELY important, regardless of how you or I feel.”  He didn’t like that, and I probably shouldn’t have said it quite like that.

He eventually told me that he would rather take his chances with God and Hell then believe in Christianity, and he called me a phony.  I asked him how I was a phony, and he muttered that he didn’t know and that it was between me and God.  The sarcastic side of me unfortunately popped up and I smiled, “I agree; God is my judge.  I frankly do not care how you judge me.  But you are the one accusing me so I am asking you.”  He didn’t like that either, and he eventually cut me off, got up, called me a phony again, and left.  It was a little weird because we had moments of genuine humor and laughter throughout our conversation, and he seemed to like talking to me, but he was pretty scathing here.

Thinking that was that, I looked up Texas football recruiting online.  However, to my surprise, Josh eventually circled back and sat across from me again, trying to use his phone to call a cab.

Round 3: We get somewhere

After a moment of awkward silence, I asked him, “Hey, I know you don’t seem to like me, but do you need a ride?” He declined and said that he’d just get a cab.  “Ok,” I said.  “Um… did you want to talk again?  I’m a little surprised you came back.”  He muttered that he has to wait anyway, so he might as well come sit down.  I think this is where it became very apparent to me that Josh, despite his bitterness and hurt, was seeking to find some purpose in life.  Anything.  He was still asking about Jesus even after his experiences, though it sometimes came off as a bit barbed.  So I softened my approach and offered him a ride again.  Then came another “test”: He asked me for some money for rent, since he gave all his money to a friend in need and his military pension wouldn’t come in until a few weeks later.  I told him, “Look, you know I’m broke, but if you really need it, I can go to the bank and give you some rent money.”

After that, his demeanor towards me changed.  He said he didn’t want my money, but it was important for him to see me be willing to part ways with my “wallet” (he claimed earlier that you can always expose a pastor by “hitting him in the wallet”).  He said, “You know what, you may not be so bad after all,” and then he told me something that was very important for me to hear.  He told me that he was puzzled why I was reluctant with the laptop when I was generous with everything else, including my time (which he appreciated the most), and I told him that it was because I felt he was playing a pointless game, not because I cared that much about the financial value of the laptop.  He then said, “Hey, let me tell you something.  I understand that it may have been a stupid or unimportant to you, but for me, I’ve been through a lot of hurt.  It was a big mountain for me to get over, to see if you would be willing to lend me your laptop.  I just had to see it.”

When he told me this, I actually apologized and told him that I did not mean to diminish the bad experiences that he went through.  We started talking more fruitfully, and then he got upset again, but not at me: The aforementioned older woman was leaving, and she came by one more time to ask me if she could help in any way and to encourage me again.  She did not address Josh.  When she left, Josh exclaimed, “I knew it!  I knew she was eavesdropping!  She’s a Christian and she didn’t even bother to ask me if I needed help, even after hearing what I said!”  I didn’t quite know how to respond and tried to steer the conversation back to what we were talking about, but before I knew it, Josh stormed off yet again.

Round 4: To the airport

He wasn’t gone long; he came back shortly after and said, “Yeah, I think I’ll take that ride you offered.”  Humorously, he followed me to the bathroom to keep talking with me and was a lot more complimentary, which actually gave me more opportunities to drive home what the Gospel is.  He would say stuff like, “You know what, you might have some good in you after all!” and I would respond, “Not enough; if I thought I was good enough, I wouldn’t think I need Jesus,” which made him think.  I eventually took him to the airport, missing the exit a couple of times because we were talking.  We actually dropped by a bank too; when he found out he didn’t have anything in his account, he asked if he could borrow money for rent.  Because I was too lazy to activate my new debit card, I could not withdraw money, but I gave him what cash I had in my wallet.  He still said that what he appreciated most was my time.

On the drive, he continued to ask me questions, and I eventually got him to the airport.  He told me he wanted to meet up again near seminary on Monday, and I agreed.  I asked him if he wanted my contact information, but he said no; just meet him there and bring him a Bible.  I prayed for him, and then I drove home.

Witness matters

I learned a lot from my conversation with Josh.  I learned again how damaging it can be when self-proclaimed Christians sin greatly against people.  As I have written before, there is no good logical argument that shows that Christianity is false merely because Christians do bad things.  However, I also note in that post that for most people, it’s not a matter of logic.  For Josh, it certainly isn’t, and he’s suffered enough from so-called Christians that it’s hard to blame him for being bitter.  A little empathy goes a long way; Josh ultimately wasn’t entirely interested in how well I could slice up any objections he had but that I was willing to give him my time.  Ironically, empathy isn’t something I’m typically good at, but God orchestrated this meeting between us anyway, probably as a learning experience for the both of us.  As I was driving home, thinking about how God led me to a B&N that I never go to in order to meet this man, I just shook my head and laughed.  “God… you are funny.  And awesome.”

Arguments, logic, and evidence certainly matter.  Christianity is a historic faith that must be defended historically.  However, one of the greatest pieces of evidence for or against Christianity is how we live for Christ.  For sure, people are ultimately responsible for their own response to Jesus, but that does not excuse the fact that the Church can often act as an unnecessary stumbling block.  On the drive back home, I thought about the people that I have wronged in my life and prayed for forgiveness, hoping that my mistakes did not impede the Gospel message.  I have no idea if Josh will show up, but even if he does not, I hope that my small offer of a ride to the airport would open his heart more to the actual message of Jesus.

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2 thoughts on “Stories indeed: An Unexpected Encounter That Stretched My Apologist and Pastoral Sides

  1. I’m thankful that God has led you to Josh and moved in and through your life like this. Thanks for sharing about you encounter with Josh. I will be praying for your meeting with him tomorrow. God-willing, he will show up again and continue to work in both of your lives through your conversations and interactions. 🙂

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