I could have killed him.
I know that's not very Christian of me. But seriously. I could have.
My father always taught us, "Girls, there are two things you don't talk about with friends if you want to stay friends: religion and politics."
But Zachary is an instigator. And when he, Amy and I joined his boyfriend's family for a Labor Day picnic, he said, "Ann, why don't you tell us why you believe in God."
I was surrounded by two atheists, one agnostic, a devout Catholic, two non-chalant Catholics, a Protestant and myself.
"I'm not really comfortable talking about this Zachary." The last thing Atheists want to do is hear from some girl about how God is real and Jesus is good and I wasn't about to offend our daily-mass-attending host with my protestant heresies. "I'd kind of prefer to not talk about religion or politics today."
"Go ahead," Dr. S said. "Do you feel hopeless in your job?"
"Yeah, hopeless. Look at these kids. I've got three atheists and an agnostic all of whom were raised in the Catholic church. Is there hope for religion with this new batch of youth? Is your job hopeless?"
HOPELESS? Pour on the pressure why don't you.
Then the Catholic Mother piped up and began talking about doing good and being good, and heaven and the unfortunate alternative to being rejected when we meet God.
The agnostic argued with Mrs. S. "I'd rather do things that are good or right because they make me feel good not because I'm trying to do something that will get me into heaven."
"You're so narcissistic," she replied to her son.
"Well, why don't you believe in God?" Zachary asked Dr. and Mrs. S's atheist daughter, further stoking the fire. "Why don't YOU?" She retorted back.
My face turned red. This was turning into a family quarrel and the Catholics and Protestant wanted me to provide some Christian enlightenment and the atheist wanted the conversation to end. Zachary just wanted to start a fight. He'd already tried to earlier in the meal when he brought up healthcare. The little shit.
I offered some alternative thoughts on heaven and hell (potentially not existing) while recapping C.S. Lewis' allegory in The Great Divorce. I spoke of Good and Evil and how I don't think that good deeds can be attributed to Evil, that I believe all goodness gives testimony to the Good God. I talked about how people today and religious leaders way back when pushed the prostitutes and the lepers (and the gays, Zachary added) to the margins of society to convince the Messiah to come. I spoke about how ideas and thoughts about the end times or the 2nd coming don't really interest me because, who really knows how that will happen or when? And maybe that's not the point...
"This intellectual elitism and atheism is just a fad, a bandwagon kids get on anyway nowadays. They don't think about anything seriously," the mother said.
The atheist left the table and went inside. The agnostic and his mother continued to argue. I put my face in my hands while Dr. S looked amused and finished his cherry pie, rhubarb/strawberry pie, and chocolate mousse pie all covered in vanilla ice cream and whipped cream with caramel and chocolate drizzled on top (that is one hundred percent NOT exaggerated). I excused myself and followed the sister to the kitchen.
"I'm sorry Zachary put you on the spot like that. It was wrong of him."
"I don't care," she said.
"Well, I do. It's hard to talk about religion because it's so personal. You mom probably thinks I'm a crazy non-Christian and I feel like I've not defended what she holds so dear. And that's okay to talk about, but then there's the really personal part, like none of the atheists even believe in what I've devoted my life to... you know? I mean, what if I said I didn't believe in Medicine? (Like Amy, Zachary and Dr. S, she's a doctor.) It's just sometimes very hard to talk about religion with people who think you're ridiculous and wrong."
"But it's good to talk about it with people when they're open and you can just lay ideas on the table."
"Yes, it is."
We talked for a few more minutes and before we were interrupted by the crowd from the picnic coming inside, I said, "You know... like... I believe you'll be in heaven. But that doesn't do you any good. Why would you want to go someplace with some God that you've rejected?"
"True," she said. "But I appreciate the sentiment."
And I appreciated her not treating me differently the rest of the evening. And maybe somewhere in all the raised heart rates of the ostricized rosery-saying Catholic mom, the atheist/agnostic children who rejected the priests and nuns who tried to train them and now their parents who were disappointed in them and the rest of us just trying to figure out what to say to bridge the gap without pissing off one side or the other while still being true to the Gospel as we understand it, maybe amidst all that, we did share a sentiment or two.
And maybe from me they heard words of a Christian who didn't condemn them to hell or say Catholicism is evil or try to convert them. Maybe not.
Different people need to hear different things. We're all in different places. And when you preach at a progressive Baptist church some people will need to hear what you have to say and others won't get much from your words and others may flat out disagree with you. But there's a common idea and bond in that community. But at our Labor Day table? I would have loved to talk to Mrs. S about religion by herself. Asked her how the ritual of the Catholic church forms her spiritual formation and what her favorite ritual is; told her about the prayer beads we made in our church. I would have welcomed a conversation with her daughter like the one we had in the kitchen on our own. Asked what she hated about going to Catholic school and what philosophers she likes to read. I would have been happy to talk about heaven and hell openly (and no doubt loudly) with Amy and Zachy on a blanket in a park or in the car or over a glass of wine (as we'd already done so many times this weekend), but all of us together... it was like I couldn't say anything helpful.
But maybe that wasn't the point either.
I guess sometimes it is really easy to talk about God and sometimes and really hard to (even if you're a minister). And sometimes it's hard to feel "different" whether you're an atheist, a christian or a catholic. Just depends on who else is eating at the table.
But we all were that day. All sitting around the table. And fortunately, according to my faith tradition, all are invited to the table.
Atheist, Protestant, Agnostic, Catholic, Back-sliders, Ministers and even Instigators named Zachary.
Thanks be to God.