Talking about faith

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The five safest conversation topics seem to be the following (in no particular order): common friends, hobbies, what one does for a living, vacations and sports. It's hard to fall into a verbal minefield when these particular matters come up for discussion. Sports, however, have an extra cache. Not only are sports a safe topic for conversation, but they can ignite discussion between people who previously were total strangers.

This past week at the SEMO District Fair my wife and I were walking through the various concessions on our way to the car. I was dressed casually, sporting a Pittsburgh Steelers ball cap. The Steelers, due to my origins in western Pennsylvania, are my favorite sports team. As we walked past a cotton candy stand, a male voice called out to us, "Hey, I like your hat!" We stopped and turned. A man about our age was wearing a T-shirt touting his favorite team, the aforementioned Steelers, the reigning Super Bowl champions. (OK, that last phrase was gratuitous, I'll admit.) We engaged in relatively brief but spirited banter about our team's chances during the fledgling season. The conversation drifted to our origins back in the Keystone State. We then parted, perhaps never to see one another again.

As my wife and I got ready to retire for the evening, she said to me, "If you had been wearing a cross on your cap rather than a team logo, nobody would have said anything." She's right about that.

Faith, the most important topic any of us could ever discuss, is strictly off-limits. The reasons seem plain. When it comes to sports, we may argue over a football coach's decision to kick a field goal rather than press ahead for a possible touchdown. We may sally back and forth over the merits of the designated hitter in baseball. We may bicker about whether basketball referees are negligent for no longer calling traveling penalties on players who fail to dribble on their way to the basket. We may advocate for our positions with passion but always pleasantly. We may think the other guy is wrong, but deep down, we understand what we quarrel about ultimately doesn't matter. When something doesn't really matter, if it doesn't go to the core and purpose of your life, it becomes a safe topic of conversation. The fate of the Steelers each season, even as devoted a fan as I am knows, doesn't really matter.

Faith never has been safe to talk about. Faith goes to the meaning and purpose for living and to our eternal destinies. What else could possibly matter more? All Jesus had to do was read from a scroll of Isaiah and proclaim himself a prophet and the people in his hometown nearly threw him off a cliff as punishment. (Luke 4:14-30) It is safe to say that comments about the oppressive heat of a Palestinian summer would not have engendered such a reaction.

I long for a time when I can talk with folks from fellow Christian "tribes" and those from other religious traditions -- and do so as passionately and pleasantly as I can discuss the Steelers. I fear that day won't come -- not on this side of the mortal coil. But we live in hope. Maybe someday.

@body_no_indent italics:Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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