I was flying into Denver a year or so back to speak at a conference. Seated next to me on the plane was a very well-dressed Muslim woman, who looked quite professional in her outfit and her demeanor. About 45 minutes away from landing, she turned to me and spoke:
“Are you a Christian priest?”
I was wearing my cassock. “Yes,” I responded.
“I have never met a Christian before,” she said. “Do you really believe that Jesus is God and that He died?”
I was immediately put in mind of an exam I took in seminary. It was called the “General Ordination Exam,” and was designed to test a candidate’s preparation for ordination. It covered a wide range of topics and often put them in practical, real-life situations. One section of the exam was called, “Coffee Hour Questions,” with very believable, theological questions that one might have posed to them during a coffee hour. So, this airplane test seemed to fit very well:
“You are flying into Denver seated next to an educated Muslim. Explain the incarnation and the crucifixion in a persuasive manner in under 45 minutes. Go.”
The woman, it turned out, was a medical doctor, from Saudi Arabia, flying in for a medical conference. She was genuinely curious and had never had such a conversation in her life. I knew that I would not only need to answer her question, but deal with the fact that she had been taught, all her life, things about Jesus that were simply not true (such as that He somehow escaped death on the Cross). Islamic teaching on Jesus is a mishmash of 7th century heretical gossip and confusion.
The 45 minutes that followed were not my finest. I gave up trying to “explain” everything and spoke about the nature of God’s love and why He would die for us. I was left with a sense of incompletion. Sometimes you can only sow a seed.
The conversation reminded me of a scene during my 2008 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our bus pulled up in the main square in Nazareth. A huge white banner was stretched across one entire end of the square, with a slogan written in several: “God has no son.” It’s a verse in the Quran. Of course, the sign was another way of saying, “Welcome to Nazareth where Christians are not the majority!”
In a culture like our own, we meet the occasional contradiction. A city refuses to allow a creche on public property, or a Christmas concert at the local school has become a “Seasonal Festival,” etc. We meet people who are hostile to the faith, though most are more likely to attack the Church than the faith itself.
Not long after becoming an Orthodox priest, I went to lunch with a Catholic friend. His son had just graduated from Law School and joined us for lunch. No sooner had I seated myself at the table and been introduced than the son asked, “Why doesn’t your Church ordain women?”
There is never an easy answer to such questions, for the simple reason that they are not real questions. It is not the cry of a heart that is seeking the truth, but the cry of a hurt that is seeking to wound. In the conversation with the young lawyer (I remember Jesus having a conversation with a lawyer), I remember saying at some point, “You don’t know God. If you want to know Him, come see me. I can help with that.” It was spoken in kindness. I wanted to get past the hurt and speak to his heart. He never came to see me.
God speaks to the world largely in symbol and sacrament. The direct assault on reason is rarely effective. The truck pictured with this article used to sit in a parking lot along the main road from Oak Ridge to Knoxville. The many thousands passing by each day had probably learned to ignore it. I was always struck by its question, “Are you saved from the wrath of God?” which implied, in fine Penal Substitutionary logic, that God saves us from Himself. All of my life here in the South, I have seen Christian road signs of similar sentiment. I have never heard anyone speak of becoming a Christian as a result of these signs (not that it never happens).
Jesus Himself had a poor reception in Nazareth during His ministry. He was unable to do any great miracles there we are told, “because of their lack of faith.” They also tried to throw Him from a cliff. His claims to be the Son of God brought accusations of blasphemy. Indeed, His miracles (when worked on the Sabbath) were the subject of condemnation and rebuke.
I could multiply the stories of awkward and failed encounters in my ministry. I’ve been spat at, flipped off, yelled at, and cursed (and these were just times in which I was in my cassock). I will not begin to mention the less than happy emails or unfriendly videos thrown my way. They come with the territory.
What I will mention, with joy, are the quiet revelations that I have seen and witnessed, the tears of peace and happiness in the faces of those who have found the heart’s true home. In very few instances have any of those encounters come as the result of reasoning and speech. Instead, it is as though these events occurred in their “peripheral vision.”
There is, it seems to me, something of a block that stands between us and the things we see directly. The heart is too often on guard and unable to receive what is being given. As such, I think that symbol and sacrament have a way of speaking “laterally” (or some way that I do not have words for) such that the heart hears what the mind (or emotions) reject.
I remember the story a man told about his conversion to Orthodoxy. He had encountered a wonderful woman, a living saint, and wanted to rush into the life of the Church. When he approached her she said, “Yes. Become Orthodox. But wait ten years.” I was astonished at the story.
Some 15 years before I converted, I met an Orthodox woman who had been an Anglican nun. I was eager to hear the story of her conversion. She shared it with me, and listened patiently as I blathered all of my own thoughts about the “Orthodox” faith. She said to me:
“Stephen, you think a lot! Someday, you’ll think with your heart, and when you do, you’ll become Orthodox.” I met her again in the year after my conversion. I reminded her of our conversation. She did not remember it, nor did she remember me. However, I had never forgotten.
These moments: odd conversations, signs, symbols, and sacraments are sprinkled throughout our lives. They are like bread crumbs leading us into the Kingdom of God. Never imagine that you fully understand or that the journey is complete. Wonders abound. May God find us – for we are so often lost!