“Do you believe in the resurrection?”
Tom Caldwell did not start our conversation with this. It started over whether I was a Pittsburgh native because I was wearing a Steelers jersey. I was standing in the lobby of the Litchfield Inn on Pawley’s Island, SC carrying on a conversation with Tom, whom I had known for a grand total of about twenty minutes. I had gone downstairs to look over the Continental breakfast with my children and while I was rummaging about, Tom asked about the jersey and things just went from there. Usually the conversation ends when the inevitable question of what I do for a living comes up. In Tom’s case, it was just the opposite.
Tom is a retired lawyer from the Charlotte area who happens to have a few ministers in his family. He also happens to be practicing agnostic and a curious intellect which apparently made a conversation with a minister an added treat for his vacation. Rather than find an excuse to wash his hair or walk the dog or anything to avoid being potentially proselytized by the preacher, Tom waded in with one question after another about the state of the church, the inerrancy of the Bible, church abuse scandals, and the aforementioned gem of a question I started this article with.
And he wanted serious answers. Not dusty rote recited preacher speak; but real, direct, serious answers.
I don’t know if you have ever been in the position to have to defend your life’s work and personal beliefs at the same time but for ministers, it ends up being part of the territory. Some people bring their questions, criticisms, past negative experiences, and pain to you as a minister in one form or another and expect answers to explain it all. Usually though, it’s just a question or two that needles at them on the subconscious level. For Tom this was somewhere between a cross examination of the Christian faith and a mad dash through various ideas, philosophies, and schools of thought. In which case, we got on quite well. When Tom turned to me after a ten-minute barrage of questions and answers, and said, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” I had a good idea what he was after. For Tom, this was an issue of proving the physically, logically, unscientifically impossible as a foundation for religious belief.
The early church was built on the Resurrection of Jesus; the idea that their Messiah, the anointed one of God, had come and taught and healed and been murdered but by the power of God, raised from the dead to new life. With all our other discussion and this idea in mind, I turned to Tom and told him that of course I believe in resurrection, I see it every day. The lawyer in Tom took over, “Explain,” he said. I went on to tell him that I see resurrection everyday in lives that have been broken by horrible pasts or simply poor choices of direction reborn/resurrected to being new lives lived with joy and purpose. I told him of my own experiences of being changed and growing to the place I am now, far from where I am going but certainly far from where I was. The conversation went on for a while longer there and then again as we were both getting our families ready to leave a while later.
This encounter stuck with me for several reasons. First, it was a reminder of how much we as a church need to learn what we believe well enough to explain it. I don’t mean spout out ‘Christianese’ at people with our plethora of buzzwords like missional, doing life together, being saved, child of God, and others. I mean using simple, basic, everyday terms to describe the difference that following the life and teachings of a first century rabbi makes in our daily lives. Second, it was a reminder that relationship is at the core of everything we do. I could have tried to convert Tom (to use some Christianese) but I though it better to get to know him as a person and find some connection to build on. Some people may argue that I missed a chance to ‘save a soul’ (more Christianese) but I saw it as disciple making. I’m interested in seeing people become life long followers of Jesus not just momentary members on the church rolls. To me, I have the chance to walk with Tom on his journey and let him walk with me (especially since Charlotte is close by).
What we believe is immensely important. But our ability to find a way to share it with others in a lasting, fruitful, relational way is of equal importance. Buzz words and church speak comes and goes, but real lasting relationships, with God and with others, are the building blocks for the Kingdom eternal.