While we were all taught not to talk to strangers, it seems new acquaintances develop and conversations abound when we are stuck with those strangers for a long time. Lengthy travel in planes, trains, buses or boats serve as prime moments for these brief encounters.
I have found these types of relationships to be quick forming and deeply transparent. Something about the temporary nature and inevitable separation from each other—usually forever—allows people to lower their defences and reveal their heart and soul. Two such occasions in my life occurred on the Spirit of Tasmania, the ferry that connects Tasmania with mainland Australia. I have taken the Sydney-to-Devonport ferry- twice—a 22-hour trip-. Both trips resulted in lengthy conversations that overwhelmed me with their depth and sincerity.
stepping stones of faith
My cabinmate on one trip, John, invited me to breakfast—a conversation that stretched for nearly four hours! We talked of his life as an antique dealer and mine as a church pastor. We were both sincerely interested in the other’s life story and asked many questions. He told of some antique finds. Once, he bought a dusty vase in a disused pub for two dollars. He cleaned, polished and then sold it for $9500 a week later!
While that was his “highest percentage” success, he said his most profitable was an accident. A church had closed and was to be auctioned. He wanted them to get a good price, so he attended and took the first bid to get the auction rolling. To his dismay, no-one else bid. He had accidentally purchased a church for $35,000.
He used the church to store antiques he couldn’t fit in his shop. When he decided to move to Tasmania, his adult children demanded he clean the valuable loot out of the church and sell the building. They were concerned that someone would break in and steal the collectables. Out of respect for his kids, he sold the contents and put the church up for auction—10 years after he had purchased it—and sold it for $345,000!
After we’d talked for awhile, John carefully worded a question, “Dave, can I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer, if it offends you. OK?”
I agreed. He then asked, “Does it make you mad that I am not a Christian? I mean, it’s your job to make me into one. And I’m not going to become one. So, does that anger you?”
I was stunned. Was this what people outside of Christianity thought of Christians and particularly pastors? Were we seen as so single-minded that our only reason for being friendly was to make others be like us?
Humbled, I responded, “Not at all, John. Life is a journey. We meet people, have experiences, make decisions and live as best we can. Yes, I would love for you to know Jesus. But, I think it highly arrogant to expect that I would be the one person to turn you into a Christian! Each person we meet in life is a stepping stone in our path. I only hope that our time together has taken you one step closer to Jesus.”
He liked that answer. “So, you aren’t expecting me to say, ‘Aha! Now I get it. I want to be a Christian too,’ and go to church with you next week?”
“No!” I laughed. “But, I must tell you something. I believe in God. I believe He answers prayer. And now I know your name, I’ll be praying for you!”
He surprised me by saying, “Thanks, Dave. That really means a lot. I will be thinking about this conversation for a long time.”
As have I, John. Thanks for being a stepping stone in my journey. I pray I was one in yours and not a stumbling block.
Another time on board the Spirit, I was reading my Bible outside the cafeteria. I felt someone staring at me and looked up. In front of me stood a father and his eight-year-old son. Robert and Isaiah were their names, I would later discover. Robert was almost glowing as he said, “Is that the Word, brother?”
I almost laughed, but held it back. “Yes. Yes it is!” I wondered what could come next, after such an introduction.
Robert quickly ascertained that I was a Christian and pumped me for my profile: Seventh-day Adventist pastor, doing my morning reading. He was impressed. I was amused by his interest in my spiritual biography. “Come, Isaiah,” he concluded. “Let’s allow the pastor to return to God’s Book.” And with that, they walked into the cafeteria.
Moments later Isaiah bolted back into my presence, “Would you please sit with us for breakfast? I’ll save you a seat!” I said that would be nice, closed my Bible and followed him into the dining area.
As breakfast ended, Robert said, “Pastor, would I be able to talk to you in private? I have a question.” I told him I would go to the lounge on the next deck and wait for him there.
I had barely sat down and Robert was across the table from me. “Can you prove to me, without using the Bible, that the Sabbath is still valid?”
I was intrigued that someone so enamoured with seeing me reading the Bible would now make such a request. But why no Bible? I wondered.
He continued, “I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been to a number of programs at your Adventist churches-- and some of your seminars. So, I’ve heard all the Bible proofs you use for the Sabbath. I want to know if it’s still valid. So, can you prove the Sabbath is still important to keep, on Saturday, in our time?”
This was a unique request: Prove the Sabbath, without using any of the Sabbath passages in the Bible. An answer came, “Robert, are you familiar with the call to tithing in Malachi?”
“You mean where it says, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into God’s storehouse?’” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s it. It demonstrates that tithing is more about God’s promise than our obedience. The text states that if God’s people give 10 per cent of their income—a tithe—He’ll bless them. It actually says He’ll pour so many blessings on their lives that they wont have storehouses big enough to store all the bounty! The Sabbath is like tithing. God promises, over and over in scripture, that if we honour His Sabbath, He will bless us. Robert, I would like to offer you a challenge.”
His eyes widened, “OK. What is it?”
“Keep the Sabbath for six months. Set it aside as a special day for God and see if He blesses you. I bet He will richly bless your life.”
Robert smiled. “My wife and I have been keeping the Sabbath for the past year, and God has been blessing us like never before!” Their own lives had provided the answer Robert sought.
Both conversations reveal how God works in people’s hearts. God is patient. He tinkers with the heart, day by day, revealing more of Himself, His love and His plan. While at times He may seem far off, God is no stranger to your heart or mine.
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