Dawn’s dullness was smudging the eastern horizon as the ferry continued to plough northward through Bass Strait’s darkened swell.
Docking in Melbourne was still hours away; well before the icy breeze would ever consider blowing around me, instead of through me, during my stroll along the outer deck.
Stepping back inside for warmth, I noticed someone paying token attention to the flat-screen’s overnight news.
He glanced up, a smile suddenly creasing his apparently Middle-eastern features. He motioned for me to sit down, and his husky-accented reply to my greeting verified my guess about his origins: “My name is Abraham. I am from Iraq, and I’ve been in Australia for ten years.”
We started to talk; moving with that openness among strangers which travel sometimes induces. True, you may unearth a con“talk”tionist – whose chatter can tie you up in knots - but people’s closest friends may rarely hear the ideas or hurts that they reveal in these moments. And from a lifetime of working with people, I’m always interested – without seeking salacious details or nursing any fantasies of replacing Oprah or Letterman.
Abraham continued by opening up the pain option: “My family was Christian, and I was pressured into studying for the priesthood when I was only twelve years old.
“I studied so hard, but I saw the ancient scrolls from other religions, about Creation and the Flood. Their details were so similar, but their beliefs were so different to what church dogma demanded me to support.”
I felt honoured to be listening to a man who had actually seen scrolls that my studies had only referred to. But disappointment darkened his face …
“I don’t believe in God now,” he continued, “I’ve seen too many gaps between doctrine and practice. And I had too many questions for my lecturers, because they just parroted their dogma back to me!”
“Abraham,” I replied, “you and Jesus would get on so well!”
“What do you mean?” he asked, edging forward ever so slightly, with his eyes widening.
“Well, God is far less religious than most people think. In fact Jesus’ greatest opponents were religious leaders who tried to keep religion safe. But Jesus opened his heart to everyone; especially to those who were being shut out by rituals and regulations.
“Your heartache for consistency is just like his challenge to them; because he taught consistency and he lived it. And knowing him is the key - like they say in business – ‘it’s not what you know; but who you know that matters.’ Which is just as well,” I was forced to admit with a smile, “because there’s so much I still don’t know!”
We started to discuss our families, and the highs and lows of leading them into a world that’s full of threats and opportunities. I invited him to consider the possibility that God may be behind the disarming trust that our children and grandchildren reveal as they look into our eyes; in the light of Jesus’ warning: “unless you become like a child you will not enter my kingdom.” (Matt 18:2)
There were no background angelic choirs, but the refreshed glimmer of warmth in Abraham’s eyes indicated that God might be dissolving some of those objections that had broken his youthful trust. I felt no need for arguments, for his memories of a time best left behind needed no reawakening.
Our meeting was completely unplanned, but I’m sure it was no surprise to God.
What Abraham and I discussed often arises in my preaching. But this conversation – admittedly between two tired minds – ushered in vital factors like feeding openness, interest and credibility with courtesy and respect. Or for me to simply listen to Abraham’s story instead of checking my progress through my notes!
For unlike at church, he couldn’t come back next week. And taking up an offering was totally out of the question!
Here was an unexpected opportunity to help Abraham to reconnect with a big God whose love was still all around him; a God worth believing in rather than a small one that needed to retreat into rituals or to be protected by tight-minded bullies. It was also another reminder for this preacher to keep his ears open.
Was Abraham convinced by my questions or my approach? I don’t know; but I know that God was feeding his search for truth that will integrate his whole life; and that he used - and stretched - me in the process.
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