Man on Train
Some things seem so random they must be from God. Today, I was working on the Trinity Order of Worship for this Sunday while on the train from Princeton Junction to NYC. Somewhere between the Call to Worship and formatting the first song, a 40-something-year-old man in business-casual attire came up to me with his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Steve. Do you want to talk about the Gospel?" It was totally of the blue. Thinking he was trying to evangelize me, I said, "Sure, but you may need to know that I'm a minister and love Jesus." He said, "I figured that." I heard you talking with your friend (my friend, David Kim, waited for the train with me)...I wonder if you'd like to sit next to me and talk."
Now, people in NY are by nature suspicious people. Lots going on in NYC and there is little room for sentimentality. And when I'm in NYC I tend to be wary of being "played the fool" by others as well. But, knowing that the Order of Service can wait a day, I said, "Sure," grabbed by ticket stub from the seat compartment and moved two rows up to talk with him.
His name, as I said, is Steve, an immigration lawyer from Princeton Township. He is married with five children, young twins, and three children from his wife's first marriage. We talked about the upside/down nature for the gospel: how the Gospel is news not advice, grace not merit, and the reversal of the weak and the strong. He was curious about the reversal of the weak and the strong idea because he had dabbled in Buddhism for many years and there are similar paradoxes in that faith that intrigued him. He is not a believer in Jesus, but doesn't know why he can't believe. It makes "sense," he said. He wants to believe and could converse about the gospel as well as any well-read seminary graduate. He misquoted books and chapters, but understood the New Testament and had obviously read it many times. As the train rolled through Newark, NJ and Seacaucus Station (the last two stops before NY Penn Station), we talked about Bonhoeffer's concept of cheap grace and of Augustine's work On the Trinity. He asked me about Bultmann and Tillich, but he knew more about those guys than I do, and I worked to get us back on the topic of the Gospel.
"So, why are you good at repenting of your sins, but not your self-justifications, Steve? What's keeping you from believe in Christ? Why are your fearful?"
He said, "I know, I don't have any excuses, except....'I don't know!' I really want to believe but I can't seem to...." And then he changed the subject, "Do you believe in Calvinism?"
I said, "No. I believe in the Gospel but I believe that Calvin had it right and that we really are totally depraved, and without hope apart from the saving work of Christ. Why? Does Calvin seem hard to swallow?"
"Not hard to swallow; easy actually. He writes like a modern writer, not like a sixteenth-century Frenchman" (whatever that means, I wondered!?!). He continued, "But I have a problem with predestination."
"Why?" I asked. "What don't you get about being 'dead in your trespasses and sins?' (Eph 2:1). What can a dead man do unless he is given 'new life'?"
"I guess I'm weary of God being able to foreknow and elect some to eternal life?"
"Well, if there weren't things in the Bible that couldn't challenged you, then God wouldn't be God would He? Jesus would be a person you want, not a God you need. If the Bible could never challenged you, then you couldn't ever be corrected or rebuked or loved! Your Jesus would be a 'Stepford God' who was just a reflection of your own values. That's not a god you can worship because that would be idolizing your own values."
"That's interesting!" he said with a wry smile. "How did you come to believe?"
"The Gospel became more than just a historical fact when I was eleven. It became beautiful and good. Through a difficult time in my parent's relationship the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the reality of my sin and my need for Christ's righteousness to cover me. I believed that Jesus's righteousness was mine by grace through faith."
As the train pulled up to NY Penn Station, we exchanged cards and I remembered that I had one of the Tim Keller CD's that we give to visitors at Trinity. I gave him one of those and said, "You say you don't believe, but the Spirit is moving in your life, Steve. Be sensitive to His work. Remember, the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. The fact that you walked up and cold called me on the back row of the train to talk about the greatest news in the world says something about the Spirit's work in your life, don't you think?"
As we walked up the platform, he said, "Yes, I assume it does. Wish I knew what."
We shook hands and he said, "If you know anyone who needs pro bono immigration advice, give me a call."
"Thanks, Steve. Will do!"
We turned and walked in separate directions.