“So, what makes you think there really is a God and he isn’t just a social construct created to fill a need?”
It was the logical question for her to ask. Raised in a conservative church and steeped in Biblical literalism, now that her critical mind had been awakened, the house of cards she had constructed to contain her faith was crumbling. If she could no longer believe what she had been taught about the Bible, how could she believe in God, who, for her, had always been somewhat synonymous with the Bible?
She had asked me to meet her for coffee. For someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I’ve been meeting quite a few people for coffee lately. It’s a comfortable venue for younger adults, so I'm glad to meet them on their own turf. I realize that coming to the pastor’s office for a conversation may be a little too churchy. And I’ve come to expect that meeting a young adult for coffee means I’m in for some serious brain pickin’. They’ll sit across from me, gently stroking their paper coffee cups with their fingers, asking me the questions that are keeping them awake at night. Basically, these are the same questions that keep me awake at night. And they consistently challenge me because I can’t hide behind a pulpit, or offer pat answers, or toss theological jargon around when I speak with them.
As I sat with her, I was thinking about another young woman I met for coffee/brain pickin’ just a few days before. Like this woman, she wasn’t a member of my congregation and she was smart as a whip. But the woman I met with a few days prior had no faith background at all and she came to me mystified by a church culture that was so far removed from her experience. Now today, my brain picker was the exact opposite. She had been thoroughly indoctrinated with all the “right” answers. It occurred to me that both women were blank slates so far as faith was concerned, but in different ways. One was a blank slate that had never been written upon, and the other’s slate had been completely covered in writing that she had erased. Both were sincere in their search. And both made me squirm a little, like a bug under a magnifying glass catching the sun’s laser sharp heat.
“What makes me think there really is a God? Well, that’s a good question. It depends on the day you ask me. I don’t always believe in God. But, I guess here’s where faith comes in for me… I know that God doesn’t need me to believe in him. God is. And I trust that even when I don’t know if there is a God, God is never going to stop loving me. That’s what I trust in. My feelings come and go. I can’t trust them. What I believe comes and goes. But I trust that God’s love is bigger than all that.”
“How do you know that God loves you?” she asks me.
Now, the stock answer would be some verse from the Bible like John 3:16. But that’s not how I know God loves me. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe anything just because the Bible says so; it has to ring true by my own experience. And I couldn’t lie to her. So I said, “I know God loves me by the God glimpses I experience in my life. Again and again, something will happen in my life that reminds me that I’m not in charge, that God is. And my experience shows me that God is loving and good and I can trust that. Often it’s something little, but if I’m paying attention, I experience God’s love. And it always seems to come to me through other people.”
It may be heresy. I may not have been approved for ordination if I had answered in this way, but it’s what I have experienced in my life. It’s the God glimpses that get my attention. That’s where I start. I don’t find truth in the Bible just because “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I find truth in the Bible because it resonates with my own experience of God.
So, we’re sitting there in a Panera in the suburbs at lunchtime. The table next to us is about two inches away, which means that your neighbors can’t help but hear your conversation. And, wouldn’t you know that a man sits down at the next table right about the time we’re talking about salvation, which, of course, I explain in a way that my brain pickin’ friend seated across from me has never heard it explained before. Apparently, my neighbor is disturbed by our conversation because he gets up in a huff and moves to another table.
Then the conversation comes around to hell. Do I believe in hell? she wants to know. In the course of my explanation, I mention Rob Bell’s new book that has raised the ire of so many evangelicals. I ask if she has read it and she hasn’t. Well, neither have I and, for that reason, I’m a little sorry I brought it up. But I tell her that he seems to have something to say about the existence of hell that has a lot of people all riled up and she might want to check it out.
Right about then, two men sit down to eat at the vacant table next to us and I hear one of them say, “Pastor Nancy…” I look over and see a young man, also not a member of my church, with whom I had a similar coffee/brain pickin’ meeting a couple of years earlier. I recall that he is a Rob Bell junky and think --- this is too good to be true! So I explain to him that we were just talking about Bell’s new book, Love Wins, and I ask if he could tell us a little about it. He looks toward the man sitting across from him and explains to me that he is having a business meeting and really needs to take care of that, but if his lunch companion doesn’t mind, he could give us a brief synopsis. The guy sitting across the table looks a little surprised, but nods his consent.
Now, this is pretty amazing! Here I am sitting with this woman, for some reason talking about a book I’ve never read, and all of a sudden this guy appears who may be one of the only people I know who has actually read the book. Just a little weird.
So, after the book report is finished, the man turns to his business associate and apologizes. Of course, they were sitting close enough that I could hear their exchange. “I hope you don’t mind,” he tells his business associate, “… church stuff.” He pauses and takes a sip of his coffee. Mixing church and business can be a little touchy, I know. But then I hear him ask the man sitting across the table, “Do you have a church you go to?”
“I go to Christ Lutheran,” the man replies. And I about fall off my chair. The young man he is speaking with, his business associate across the table, also is a member of Christ Lutheran. They work together and they had no clue they went to the same church.
And all the “what ifs” start clicking through my brain. What if I hadn’t come here to meet this brain pickin’ young woman on this day? What if she hadn’t asked me if I believe in hell? What if the first neighbor hadn’t moved to another table? What if the second neighbor hadn’t sat in that chair? What if it had been someone else? What if I had never met him for coffee two years earlier and learned about his faith journey and his interest in Rob Bell’s writing? What if I hadn’t remembered that and hadn’t asked him to tell us about the book? What if he hadn’t asked his associate if he has a church? If none of that had ever happened, the two men never would have come to Panera for lunch that day and they never would have learned they were a part of the same faith community. Too darn weird.
I smile at the young woman seated across from me. “How do I know there’s a God? This is exactly what I was talking about.”
Did God make all that happen? I don’t know. Does it prove to me that there is a God? I don’t know that either. But it was one of those God glimpses that bring me to the conclusion that the question isn’t something I need to spend a lot of time worrying about. It used to keep me awake at night. It doesn't any more.