One of my longest-running friendships is an unlikely one at best. He and I have been through much together. We shared a house as roommates. We exchanged jabs in a fistfight, and we have supported each other through the loss of people close to one or both of us. We have done some pretty crazy things – some of which we have agreed never to speak of.
Today it is a long-distance friendship, but a friendship nonetheless. What makes it so unlikely is our differing worldview. I am a pastor and fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ. He is an atheist. Despite our opposing positions, we have a deep mutual respect for each other. In fact, he once said that if anyone could convert him, it would be me.
Here’s the funny thing and where I lose “street cred” with my religious counterparts … I don’t make it my goal to convert him every time we speak. As a matter of fact, it is never my goal to convert him. Whenever we speak, we simply listen to each other. I ask him questions about his life, his work, his struggles, his music playing. I ask him how he’s doing and appreciate what he has to say.
In my younger days, before I had made a significant commitment to follow the life and teachings of Christ, I was put off by those who felt it necessary to lead me to a decision for Christ. This is probably a misread on my part, but I always felt I was just a potential notch on their belt of religious activity.
In hindsight, I do believe they genuinely cared about me. The problem is that concern never came through back then. As a result, I dismissed who they were and what they were trying to offer me.
Today, as I do my best to be faithful to my calling, I keep those early days in mind. The Christian faith teaches of the necessity of Jesus as the means of atonement and reconciliation to God. I believe that with all my heart and consider that basic tenet of my faith as a nonnegotiable. At the same time, I recognize there are others who don’t believe that and – like the younger version of me – no amount of telling them will change that. Only God can change hearts.
Jesus had a habit of limiting how much time he spent with the religious people of his day. He found himself drawn to the poor, the sick, the partying revelers, the down and out. He was himself accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he spent so much time with drunkards and gluttons. In the process, he changed hearts and souls and lives. He related to people where they were and offered them a glimpse of a better version of themselves. (Everyone is interested in a better version of themselves.)
So, I simply relate to people, like my longtime friend, and stay true to my faith while accepting them for who they are. I do my very best to convey to them how much I appreciate them and care about them. And I really do care about people – that’s the key, because people can tell when it’s real and when it isn’t. In time, an opportunity will present itself and I will ask a pointed question, and then pray that the Spirit may indeed move in the hearts of both of us. Until then, I will enjoy the friendship and trust the rest to God.
The Rev. Randall Monk is the lead pastor of Ekklesia Faith Community in Grovetown.