Jesus said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”
The young man with tousled hair had courteously stood to let Bee pass by to the window seat, and me to that unenviable purgatory that is the middle seat. Wearied, I prepared for obliged conversation. Tiptoeing over his open backpack on the floor, I noticed that he had smuggled the same Chinese food carryout as I had from the food court onto the plane, and in a momentary lapse of judgment, the words “good choice” escaped my lips. Before I had even scant chance to locate my headphones, I found myself for the next two hours in steady (and delightful) conversation with Tristan.
Tristan, clearly from first word, was from neither Colorado nor Minnesota. This 24-year-old had been raised in Switzerland by British parents, but attended university in London. One day he packed his bags and made his way to the States, where he set out to simply vagabond about, hostelling and couch-surfing along in pursuit of favorite bands, new experiences, beauty, and exploration. His quest had no end date, other than when his funds ran out, and he would of necessity retreat back to his job in London.
As we spoke, I knew that the Question would come soon. I had subtly steered the conversation to delay it. As he answered my questions, we found a level of comfort. Then came the Question: “And what do you do?”
I told him. No reaction. He was positively unaffected.
If anything, Tristan was intrigued, his curiosity piqued, like one who had stumbled on some Smithsonian relic. He wanted my card. Turning it over, he noticed the title. “So you started the company, then?!” “No, it’s not quite like that.”
Totally unfazed and unthreatened, we talked for the next two hours about C.S. Lewis, the Chronicles of Narnia, of Christ images in Scripture, of the trials of Job (he had read both the Old Testament and the Koran as literature, and found the O.T. much more engaging—though some of it was “quite boring”). We discussed at length the counselors of Job, the mystery and chaotic nature of tragedy, and the wonder that when faced with meaningless chaos versus faith in a mysterious God, Job’s manifesto was, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!” I told Tristan I thought there was a good bit of theologian in him, and some in every person. We spoke of music and sporting events and politics and the Church, of Scripture references stamped on the bottom of “In & Out Burger” cups, and John 3:16 signs in the grandstands. “Oh, that one’s way overused!” He spoke of his love for his parents, and his girlfriend’s lack of love for hers, and that he quietly envied that her eventual grief would be much less than his.
Tristan accepted a ride from Bee and me to his hostel by the art museum near downtown Minneapolis. On the way he let us treat him to his first good American burger at Culver’s—only with the promise that next time he would buy a round of ale. He took pictures with us, and promised he would look more into Lewis. When we dropped him off at the hostel I got a convincing hug, and he planted a kiss to Bee’s cheek. Bee made sure Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Keller’s Reason for God were delivered to Tristan’s hostel room before he left Minneapolis for his next adventure. And, I have a new Facebook friend.
I feel like I just met our future.
What I mean is, Tristan to me represents the outcome of the full onslaught of Post-Christendom. But with that challenge also comes potential blessing and considerable opportunity. I was not his enemy. I was not the “moral majority”—not the icon of some fundamentalist root of his hurts, anger, or mistrust. I was just another traveler who shared interest in Chinese food, C.S. Lewis, and new forms of music. I felt like I had stepped across into Asia Minor, traveling with the Apostle Paul, not knowing whether ahead lay vigorous debate, the sincere curiosity of a searching heart, or a mob.
The overall confirmation of this encounter was, “Yes, absolutely, we have something to learn from many, and we have a gift to share with all!” At one point in our conversation, Tristan rather emphatically inquired for three rows ahead to hear, “So, you believe in Original Sin, then?!”
“Yes, I do,” I answered matter-of-factly. “Does that offend you?” “Not at all.” I think he just had never met such a person before, and I—and original sin—were objects of his sincere intrigue.
It is indeed a brave new world and time for the Church to be the Church, as alien to the world around it. On the one hand, Obergefell v. Hodges confirms a great shift of culture has occurred—the Christendom-sky is falling. But on the other hand, we know the outcome. We know God is at work, and the gospel still speaks and actually is advancing through trial (1 Peter 1:6-7). We know the answer is still Jesus. Always, only Jesus.
Our only true enemies are sin, death and the devil. Tristan is not the enemy, nor is your neighbor. They are created sons and daughters of God, whose lost identity and standing will only ever be known and restored in relationship with him by the gospel of Christ.
The Church is exiled to this land of opportunity to see this realized. Let us not be dissuaded. We have a gift to share.
Rev. Paul Larson is President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.