For years before I (suddenly and out of nowhere) became a Christian, my wife Catherine and I used to study and practice Zen. One morning we were walking toward our car after a night spent sitting zazen at a Zen center with a dozen or so other would-be Buddhas. (Zazen is Zen meditation: you sit; you close your eyes; you try to disconnect from your thoughts; you try like crazy not to sneeze, cough or itch; you endeavor not to panic about the fact that after about a half-hour your whole lower body is so asleep you wouldn’t flinch if your thigh suddenly got harpooned.)
As we were approaching our car, we saw that a guy who had just pinned a flyer to our dashboard was now doing the same to the car parked behind ours. He gave us a friendly wave. “I hope you don’t mind me leaving one of these on your car,” he said cheerily.
I unlocked the passenger side door so that Cat could get in. “No problem,” I said. But what he apparently somehow heard me say instead was, “Please come over and talk to us.”
“It’s for a nearby church,” he said, coming over to talk to us. He was maybe thirty, fit, and clean-shaven, sporting an orange baseball cap, a winning smile, and a slight gleam in his eye that was somewhere between a little too friendly and crazy. “It’s called Calvary Chapel. Ever heard of it?”
“I haven’t,” I said. I closed Cat inside the car. Tucked under my arm was my zafu, the round pillow Zenners use to sit upon whilst trying to merge with The Great Nothing/Everything. The guy nodded toward it.
“You folks study Buddhism there in the center?”
“We do, yes. Well, sort of. It’s Zen Buddhism. We like it. Been at it for a pretty long time now.”
“Oh, is that right? Do you find it helps you with your life?”
Whoops. Now entering Nutsville. “Actually, yeah. It’s been a really wonderful thing for both of us.”
“But you must know that it can’t give you what the Lord Jesus Christ can. The only way you can ever find what you’re really seeking is to open up your heart to the fact that Jesus Christ is your personal lord and savior.”
The thing about sitting zazen—especially if you’ve just done it for ten hours straight—is that it leaves you feeling like Lake Placid. So, in a voice so calming it would slip a rampaging werewolf into a coma, I said, “That’s great. I mean, I know that for a lot of people Christianity is perfect. We’ve chosen Zen. I’ve got a friend who’s a Hindu. My wife’s dad is Catholic. Everybody has to find their own way, don’t they?”
“But there’s only one true way, friend. And that way is through Jesus Christ.”
I walked around the front of our car to the driver’s side. “Christianity’s a really sound option, for sure,” I said. He stepped toward me.
“It’s more than just an option. It’s the only way. Anyone who doesn’t repent of their sins and declare the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior is lost to the flames of eternal hell.”
I felt a tight ball gathering in my stomach. With one hand on my door handle I smiled over the top of the car. “Well, that doesn’t sound like much fun. I hope that doesn’t happen to me!” Ha, ha, ha. Nothing like a little final destiny humor to lighten the mood when you’re being accosted in the street by a Christian zealot in an orange baseball cap.
“Oh, it will. It happens to everyone who chooses any but the one true way.”
And then I made the mistake I often do in life: I started talking too much. “I understand that Christianity works for you. And I think that’s outstanding. Your life must be so rich because of your faith. But must Christianity be the only way? Can’t there be other good ways for people to know and experience what you call God? Does everyone who chooses any other way but Christianity have to be wrong?”
He smiled and shrugged. “Hey, I don’t make the rules. You can fight against it all you want. But the fact is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins. The cost of not accepting him as your savior is the eternal damnation of your soul.”
Through the windshield I saw Cat, quietly gazing straight ahead. I knew she could hear us.
I pulled open my car door. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to hope that you’re mistaken.”
“Oh, I’m not, buddy.” He raised his voice a notch. “But you are. Both you and your wife are condemning yourselves in the eyes of the Lord by engaging in sinful idolatry.”
“All right; I’ll bear that in mind. There aren’t actually any idols in Zen, but I see what you’re saying.” I waved. “Thanks for sharing. Have a good day.”
As I closed my car door the guy moved to the front of our vehicle. He held up his hand like he was halting traffic. “Stop what you’re doing! Let the Lord into your heart! You please the devil with your sinful ways!”
“Jesus,” murmured Catherine.
“I’m gonna guess not,” I said. I started the car. “I’m gonna hope not. I wonder if I’m gonna have to run this fool over?”
“You’re lost!” cried the guy. But he also demonstrated that he hadn’t lost all touch with reality by stepping away from the front of our car.
“Repent!” he fairly yelled from the curb. “Accept the Lord! Turn your back on the devil! Rid yourself of your sin!”
I slowly pulled our car out and headed down the residential street.
“Well,” said Cat, “wasn’t that special?”
“Can you imagine being God, and looking down, and seeing that?” I said. “I wonder what Jesus thinks when he sees stuff like that?”
“‘Maybe I should become a Buddhist’?,” said Cat. “Or maybe, ‘I need to get some new salespeople. People who aren’t totally rude and intrusive? People who don’t think the way to attract people to me is to scream insults at them’?”
“Or maybe he’d just go, “‘That’s it. I give up. Time for the Apocalypse.’”
That the Christian with the flyers and the orange cap meant well isn’t in question. Ultimately, he was just trying to do his proselytizing job. But instead of attracting my wife and me to Christianity, he repelled us away from it, because his evangelizing was grounded in what all such efforts must be, which is a lack of respect. By proving that he had no respect whatsoever for our belief system, he proved that he could have no respect for us personally. And that could only mean that he did not, and would not, love us, since the best that love without respect can be is patronizing. He also eradicated any possibility of his loving us by driving us away from him: it’s not possible to actually and truly love someone with whom you have no relationship at all.
And by manifestly not loving us—by trying as he did to fulfill what Christians after the fact decided to call The Great Commission (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”)—our evangelizer broke what Jesus himself emphatically declared the greatest of all commandments: to love your neighbor as you love yourself. (See the Great Commission at Matthew 28:16-20, and the Great Commandment at Mark 12:28-31.)
By trying to sell Jesus that guy violated Jesus.
If you’re a Christian, please never forget that the whole point of being a witness is to answer questions that someone first asks you.
Photo via Dollar Photo Club.
John Shore, advice columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times (the major daily newspaper of Asheville, North Carolina) is the founder of Unfundamentalist.