March 24, 2011

A Real Conversation

Someone came by the office the other day, a young man who lives down the street from the church.  He asked if the church had any Bible studies taking place.  Unfortunately I had to tell him that we do not, other than a small group of mostly older adults who meet Sunday mornings before worship for what, in a previous generation, was called "Sunday school."

This young man then asked if he could help start a Bible study group.  I did not answer him yes or no; instead I invited him to sit down and tell me more.  He accepted my invitation.

I learned that he belonged to another church on the other side of town, and I got the impression that its theology and interpretation of scripture is very different than mine and most of the members of my congregation.  He wanted to be part of a study group closer to where he lived, and when I suggested he host one at his home that was affiliated with his own congregation, he said something about wanting it to take place in a church building so that it would be spiritually blessed.  I wasn't quite sure what he meant.

I was, I admit, a little skeptical.  There were thoughts in the back of my mind that perhaps he was sent here by his church to convince us of the errors of our ways, to point out how the devil has corrupted theologically progressive folks like ourselves by leading us astray from the one true faith.  However, this young man seemed remarkably sincere in everything he said, and when I talked to him about how we interpret scripture, he listened with genuine interest.

I suggested that, before we do anything, we should take some time to get to know one another.  After all, more often than not Jesus' first response to people was to establish a relationship with them through table fellowship and other activities (much to the chagrin of the religious authority figures).  So we took turns talking and listening, and before I knew it, a good length of time passed.

It reminded me of another conversation I had many years ago.  This other conversation took place with a friend of mine as we sat on a rockly cliff overlooking a lake in the Sierra Nevada backcountry.  It began when my friend asked me with genuine interest about how I, a Christian, justified voting a certain way in an upcoming election, while he and most of the Christians he knew felt that their faith called them to vote differently.

Our conversation by the lake lasted through the late afternoon, and ended only because it was time for dinner.  It was a rare opportunity to have a real, two-way conversation, one between people who were seeking understanding rather than stubbornly trying to convince one another of the rightness of their own beliefs.

That's what the conversation with this young man felt like to me.  So I invited him to return the following week.

I often think that the world would be better if everyone thought like I do, and that the church would be better if all its members thought the way I think.  It's a smug, arrogant way of thinking, and most of the time it is done sub-consciously.

Conversations like these, however, lead me to realize that perhaps there is an even better way:  perhaps, instead of a church where everyone thinks like me, it is better to have a church where we can engage in conversations of theology and biblical interpretation in ways that are genuine and sincere; conversations in which we ask questions and then actually listen to the responses; conversations in which we have enough humility to recognize that none of us has a monopoly on the truth.

I'm looking forward to next week's visit.

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