Next time I won’t order the fish. That’s what I thought after he left. If I would have ordered chicken or steak or shrimp I would have gotten my food earlier, which meant I would have prayed earlier, which meant he wouldn’t have seen me. But he did, and like they say, that is that.
Lunch time for me is a sort of take-it-when-you-can thing that depends on how busy I am and how far I want to drive. Most of the time that places me inside a small restaurant downtown, just a few blocks from my work. Nice place with nice food. Very friendly, very tasty, and very quick.
So. The fish.
An extra ten minutes, the waitress said. “You sure you don’t mind waiting?”
The man came in five minutes later and was shown to the table across from mine. We smiled and nodded like friendly folk do, and I was fairly certain that would be the extent of our interaction. It wasn’t. Because soon afterward my fish arrived and I offered a very silent and inconspicuous prayer.
He was staring at me when I opened my eyes.
“So you’re a churchgoer?” he asked.
“Yep,” I answered. “You?”
“Never,” he said in a tone that seemed rather proud.
I nodded and went back to eating.
“Don’t believe in God myself,” he said. “Just seems like a waste. I guess that means I’m going to hell, huh?”
I’d been around long enough to know when I was being baited into a conversation I really didn’t want to get into. This, I thought, was one of those conversations.
So I just said “Not my call” and raised another bite of fish.
“Not your call,” he repeated. “That’s typical.”
I chewed and thought about the last little bit of what he said. It was more bait, of course. And it was still a conversation I didn’t want to have. But maybe it was now one I should.
“Typical?” I asked.
“Yeah, typical. You people like to use those pat little answers for questions you just don’t know or are just too afraid to face.”
“Like whether you’re going to hell?” I asked.
“Sure. That just bugs me. Christians say that God is love, but if you don’t go along with the program then you get eternally punished. That doesn’t sound like love to me, that just sounds hypocritical.”
I shrugged. “Not really. I reckon God’s spent—what, fifty years or so?—trying to get you to pay attention to Him. He’s arranged circumstances, given you a glimpse of things you don’t normally see or think about, even spoke to you. There’s no telling how many chances you’ve gotten to say ‘Hello’ to God after He’d said the same to you. But you have a choice. That’s how He made you. You can choose to listen or not, choose to believe or not, choose to accept or not. I take it that so far, it’s been not. So if you spend your whole life telling God to stay as far away from you as possible, He’s gentleman enough to do just that when it’s all over. So yes, I suppose if you keeled over right here right now, you’d go to hell. But it’s not me who’s gonna send you there, and it’s not God either. It’s you.”
He looked at me. I looked back.
“Alright then,” he said.
We both continued our meals. Ten minutes later he squared his tab with the waitress and left, pausing at the door to offer me a smile and a tip of his hat.
The waitress focused on me then, asking if I’d like more coffee or just the check. I asked for a check and an answer.
“That fella come in here a lot?”
“Sure,” she said. “He’s the preacher at the church next door.”
“He’s the what?” I asked her.
“The preacher.” Then she smiled and added, “Was he havin’ a little fun with you?”
“Don’t know if I’d call it fun.”
“He likes that,” she said. “Likes finding people who call themselves Christians and tests them. Sees if they know their faith or just accept it. These days we have to be ready to defend it, don’t we?”
“We do,” I said.
And that’s the truth. It isn’t enough to just accept our faith nowadays. We have to stand for it. And this is the truth, too—next time I go there to eat, I’m ordering the fish. Maybe he’ll stop by.