Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A conversion in the making?

God has set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11.

After preaching recently in a church I had never been to before I was button-holed by a member of the congregation. I’ll call him Ted: an older man, genial and cheerful, he wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that he was an agnostic.

Well, this is different, I thought to myself. Interesting…!

“So why are you an agnostic?” I asked. “Because of your God,” he replied, quick as a flash, with just a touch of aggressive emphasis on the word “your”.

Ah… As you will probably have guessed, it was the existence of evil and suffering that was Ted’s stumbling block. He felt that God, if he existed, had got the arranging of the universe seriously wrong.

Well, I did my best to give him some kind of reply along the lines that Christians have taken down through the centuries – while gladly recognising, of course, that I most certainly didn’t have all the answers. He seemed to appreciate an admission that in certain respects I too was an agnostic – the things I don’t know far outweigh the ones I do!

We didn’t have long to talk, but it seemed natural to ask Ted what he was doing in church that morning. Was this a one-off visit, or did he come regularly? What brought him, given that he didn’t believe in the God who was worshipped there? It transpired that at least three factors had combined to bring him.

First, the simple witness of a Christian person.

Ted runs a small shop, and one day he had got talking with a customer who belonged to the church we were in. This man’s conversation and manner impressed him, so when he invited him along to church he decided to give it a go. Why not? Nothing to lose.

Well, that was thirteen years ago, and he proudly informed me that in that time he had missed only half a dozen morning services – “I’m far more regular than most of these Christians!”  (This information was cheerfully vouched for by a woman who picked up on our conversation as she bustled by.)

Second, the impact of the church itself.

This was a good church, no doubt about that, but in essence what you would call simply a lively, local, evangelistic congregation. Not massive numerically, but with a healthy cross-section of ages (plenty of children running around) and a good balance of male and female. Warm and friendly. Ted had clearly been made welcome – fully accepted in spite of his agnosticism. You could tell that from the banter and cheery insults flying around.

I don’t think I can sum it up better than by saying the love of Jesus was in that place.

And then the third thing, and this is far more difficult to describe or express.

I’ve quoted Ecclesiastes 3:11 to try and sum it up: “God has set eternity in the hearts of human beings…” The precise meaning of those words is debated – the various translations reflect the uncertainty – but what seems clear enough is that we men and women have a deep-down hankering after something – or someone – outside and above ourselves.

We ask questions. We wonder about the mystery of life. We reflect on the passing of time, and on its inevitable consequence, death. Cats and porpoises, elephants and ruffed lemurs, ants and antelopes are no doubt endowed with a real intelligence, but they cannot store knowledge or debate questions, they do not wake up in the morning and meditate on the meaning of the new day. We can. And we do.

Ted told me he never prayed – yet he found what he called a “spiritual” lift in the services and the music. He was quite strong on that word “spiritual”; it was obviously important and meaningful to him. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore a little what he really meant by it.

Reflecting on our five-minute conversation, it suggested to me lessons that apply to all of us.

For one thing, can there be any doubt that here are plenty of Teds in all our everyday lives? Even that person at work whose only topic of conversation is last night’s telly, or the football, and who has those wearily second-hand opinions on to brexit or not to brexit – yes, even that man or woman may very well harbour deep thoughts. And God has placed us there to respond to them when the right time comes.

And neither we nor our church needs to be particularly special or “charismatic” or whatever-other-label-you-fancy: just natural, easy, humble, loving, kind, welcoming. Just Christlike, really.

Lord God, thank you for putting in all of us that yearning after eternal and heavenly things. Thank you that they have drawn me to yourself. Help me to have eyes to see the Teds I meet day by day, and to show them the wonderful, simple love of Jesus. Amen.

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