Yesterday I went to lunch at Taco Bueno. I sat down, unwrapped a taco, said a brief prayer, and tucked in. I noticed there were a ton of high school students there, as well as several adults sitting together near me. I figured the students were on their lunch break, and I assumed the adults were too-- maybe they worked together somewhere in the area. About the time I was wrapping up, one of the adults approached me with a flyer in her hand. "I just felt like I should give this to you," she said. It had several "big" life questions printed on it-- things like, "Does God care that I exist?" "Why do good people suffer?" etc. She explained that she was a Jevovah's Witness and wanted to assure me the Bible contained all the answers to the questions we have. This was a new experience for me. I was just having lunch! And now out of nowhere a stranger is asking me questions about salvation and the Bible.
Does she not see my Custer Road United Methodist Church nametag?
Does she not see the "Rev" in front of my name?
Is she deliberately reaching out to me because I am a United Methodist pastor?
How do I respond to her? I study the Bible nearly every day for one reason or another; I have all kinds of experience, expertise, and knowledge-- do I just unload on her?
How can I best represent my faith, Custer Road Church, my denomination, and my calling in this conversation?
Will the nametag help, or hinder, my conversation?
Maybe she has a need I can address or help her understand?
She started firing off questions:
"Do you know who is in charge of this world?"
"Do I know? For certain? Well, I believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all, so I would say he is in charge."
"Do you know the story of the temptation of Jesus?"
"Didn't Satan offer him all the kingdoms of earth? How can he do that if he is not in charge?"
"Well, what if the temptation was a lie? What if Satan was trying to trick Jesus into affirming power he did not actually have?"
"Do you believe we are in the last days?"
"You mean is the world ending?"
"No, I do not believe that."
"You don't? We're seeing school shootings, natural disasters, it's never happened before."
"It has happened throughout history. Evil is part of our existence. Our faith in Christ gives us strength and courage to face the future without fear. Jesus said over and over again, 'Do not be afraid.'"
"But the Bible talks over and over about kingdoms ending and a new kingdom taking its place. Ezekiel/Micah/Revelation..."
"Yeah, but those texts were written about specific kingdoms, and the loss of the nation of Israel. They point to a hopeful future when God will make things right again. And in the case if Israel, it happened."
"Well, if someone came to you in need of answers what scriptures would you point them to?"
"I usually go to the end of Romans Chapter 8, where Paul assures us that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."
"When you speak to people, do you speak on your own behalf or God's? Do you interpret the scripture or let it speak for itself?"
"I believe God has empowered me to interpret the scripture through my experiences and education. Everyone interprets the scripture. I've listened to you now for about half an hour. You have interpreted the scriptures several times, referring to your Catholic background and how you became a Jevovah's Witness. Your interpretation of scripture caused you to make that decision."
She smiled and said, "Well, I just wanted you to have [the paper with the questions and a few scriptures]."
"And I am glad to take it, but I reflect on these questions literally on a daily basis, so if you would rather keep it to give to someone else that is OK."
"No, I really want you to have it."
And she left.
A couple of her friends had moved to a nearby to be resource suppliers for her arguments ("I left my Bible in the car-- can you go get it?" "Do you have the other book?") One of them said I was very gracious in the conversation, and that she could tell I was a pastor by the way I had listened to her friend. She said, "We may disagree on a few things but I can tell you are a good person." I thanked her, threw away my trash, and left. I was utterly exhausted-- like I had been to the gym or something.
I have thought about this encounter often over the last 24 hours. Why approach me? Because I was alone? There were a ton of high schoolers there but no one made any effort to speak to them. Do they hang out at this place regularly? For the record, I had Chinese for lunch today, not tacos-- and not because I was afraid of Jehovah's Witnesses. I hope they had a thoughtful approach to evangelism-- that the goal is more about transformed lives by God's grace, rather than more scriptures memorized by more people. I know that among United Methodists evangelism is an extremely rare spiritual gift. Maybe approaching loners eating tacos is not the most effective approach to make disciples, but we need to be out where people are-- rather than waiting for them to come to us. When we encounter people and we are clearly wearing our "Christian team" uniforms, we need to be gracious, loving, and ready: "Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it" (1 Peter 3:15).