But no, I swear it happened like this. Setting: 737 flight, Southwest Airlines. Full plane. 4:35pm, Central Time. Two men, one empty seat in between them. I squeeze in. One’s reading a Matt Damon feature of Esquire, the other snacking on popcorn and engrossed in a book the size of a Victor Hugo novel. Not wanting to stand out or seem overly conversational, I slip out a book I’m reading – one that challenges the common metaphorical presentation of the Gospel. You know, the image that looks like this:
Anyway, so I’m reading the section of this book titled, “Crossing the Life Bridge.” So you get a taste of my state of mind, I’m relatively shy around strangers and can get completely engrossed in any book. This is why I nearly jump when I hear the popcorn-muncher say,
“Do you really believe in that God stuff?”
Just like that. Straight out of a Kirk Cameron film. Do people actually ask these questions?
Apparently, yes. And I wasn’t prepared. I literally gaped at him, increasingly ashamed that I was not prepared for the smoothest of segues into the Sinner’s Prayer at this point. I fumbled to offer him an explanation of the complex idea outlined in the book, soon to realize that it made no sense or difference to someone who wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of my faith. So I stopped short and put it aside – speaking a foreign language would only make both of us confused and awkward. I gratefully ceded the conversation power over to him, asking what he believed and why.
Listening was astronomically more successful than attempting to explain. As we talked about how his worldview was shaped, several more of those legendary statements came up:
“Even the Jews believe Jesus was a good man and prophet.”
“How could a good God let such bad things happen?”
“If Heaven and Hell are real, there’s a ticket to Hell with my name on it.”
I could provide a gentle reply to some of these offerings, but for the most part I just pressed further to see where the thoughts sprung from. Honestly, I was pertified to lead the conversation. I don’t think my heartrate was ever so high, even when I was doing Pacer Training in gym class. Every time I opened my mouth to respond, my brain was screaming to the Holy Spirit to speak through me – there’s no way I could pick out the words this guy needed to hear on my own. And I felt like I should know what to say. I mean, these are the classic non-believer-argument points that I had heard brought up hundreds of times in churches, tracts, and the Left Behind series.
But we just conversed. Talked with one another. I found out that his wife was from South America and she was raised Catholic, though that didn’t mean much to them. They had two children (whom they sort of raised open-mindedly Jewish), as well as an absolutely adorable new grandchild named Felix whom my seat-neighbor had just held for the first time. He believed that the way to peace and truth involved intermarriage of races, cultures, and religions. I shared with him tales of my niece, my own intercultural family, my studies in literature, and my concern that inter-faith marriages would be unstable due to a lack of common foundational values. We bonded over the idea that the world was smaller and richer in culture than we used to think. We discussed favorite books, movies we enjoyed, and the pros and cons of Southwest Airlines. He told me he enjoyed reading about different philosophies, though he was an atheist. I told him that (to me) Christianity was very much a philosophy of life and guidelines for loving people well. He said that he thought faith and religion did some people much good, though not everyone.
“I don’t know,” he began, “I tend to find myself enjoying the company of ‘sinners’ rather than goody-two-shoes religious hypocrites.”
“That’s funny,” I replied. “So did Jesus.”
After that exchange, we lapsed into a thoughtful silence. He went back to his novel, and I pretended to skim SkyMall as my mind raced and pulse raced, wondering if internal organs could sweat if one were nervous enough. As the plane made its final descent, he held his hand out to me and said, “Allen.” I gave him that $2 blank stare until I realized that was his name. After he repeated it twice, I caught on and shook his hand, giving him my name as well. I smiled and told him – honestly – what a pleasure it had been talking with him. He agreed – and I think he was being honest, too.