There are times when I know that I know that I know I am having an ordained encounter. Some would call it a divine appointment. This morning happened to be one of those holy moments.
I had just doctored up my Starbucks coffee and was getting settled into a plush leather arm chair in the corner when I saw a guy sit down next to me in the other matching chair to my left. Sometimes I will lift my head from my book and say hi, other times I will keep my head down and mind my own business. For some reason I lifted my head, smiled, and nodded with a nonverbal 'hello'. One reason, come to think of it, was the salmon jeans he was wearing that almost glowed in my peripheral. I'm a color guy and happen to have salmon pants myself, so I had to greet this guy.
To say that I initiated this conversation would be giving myself too much credit. He was the one who opened his mouth and asked me if I had come from the gym. He saw my running shoes and shorts and put two and two together. I told him that I was going to the YMCA after spending some time reading and writing desperately trying to steer clear of a 'health and fitness" conversation...to no avail. I didn't let the exercise conversation go very far before I let him know that I only started working out a couple weeks ago and don't know diddly squat about it, really. He probably already new that since my shorts are actually swimming trunks. That's a dead give away that I'm a hack...an ignorant wanna be.
I think he sensed my honesty and vulnerability and reached out his hand introducing himself and asking me my name. His face was aglow and his interest in my life was palpable. He had the coolest glasses and when I shook his hand I couldn't help but notice this massive ring he was wearing. I inquired about it and asked if it had any particular significance. He pulled it off and handed it to me sharing the story of the group of bikers he rides with and the jewelry and accessories that this particular biker gang wears. He didn't strike me as a biker guy, but then again, I've learned you can't judge a book by it's cover after all these years.
I gave him back his ring and that's when he asked me what I did.
I don't know why, but I'm always reticent to just blurt out, "I'm a pastor". For every conversation it creates, it shuts down thrice as many. There is something stifling about playing that card...it seems to trump every other interesting thing that was naturally occurring up to that point in the conversation. I think a lot of it has to do with people's previous experience with church or a fallacious idea they have about pastors that they may have learned from The Simpsons. Whatever may be the case, it often is associated with previous hurt, usually by someone close to them that they trusted an felt betrayed by or used by. Whether it's real or perceived, it becomes their truth and that makes it true to them, so it's not for me to always know who the antagonist or protagonist was in their backstory...I just listen and try to understand giving them the benefit of the doubt. A cursory conversation in a coffee shop doesn't afford me much more than that. It's my best shot at meaningful interaction I guess is what I'm trying to say.
When I shared that I was a pastor and I was taking a sabbatical, I watched his countenance change. It wasn't that he was shutting down, he was just reorienting himself...at least that's what it looked like from the outside looking in. I told him that I had been in ministry for 20 years and my church felt it was important for me to take some time away to care for my own soul and the heart of my family so that I could be healthy for the long haul. He nodded his head in agreement and then went on to share with me that he used to be in ministry himself. This caught me a little off guard simply because the conversation up to that point hadn't a hint of that reality. Usually I can feel that sort of thing.
"I've sort of had to reinvent myself since then. I got a divorce and left the church."
Rather than bending the conversation toward pain, I decided to ask about what led him to ministry back in the day. He shared about his gift of music and how he led worship in the church. He said those 7 years were the best years of his life. He loved the staff he worked with and the church he served. We spent some time talking about the senior pastor of the church and how genuine and good he was. He truly felt so much gratitude for his time at that church.
In my mind my brain was telling me to circle back to the "reinventing himself" description he shared earlier. Some thing told me that would be a natural segue into what brought him to the present, the place where I was meeting him.
"What did you mean when you said you had to reinvent yourself?"
I thought he was going to talk about a career change...in fact, I knew that's where we were going next in the conversation. I couldn't have been more dead wrong or more shocked by the next thing that came out of his mouth.
"I'm a gay man and so my whole life changed in a moment."
He went on to describe how he had suppressed his desires since he was a little boy growing up in a Baptist home with awesome parents. I grew up in a Baptist home with great parents, for the record. As I asked him about what it was like for him to exist with a duality of identity for all those years, he teared up just a little bit. He said the thing he felt the worst about was all the people who he hurt in the process. I told him that usually when I talk to people who 'come out' there is an ache, but it's about how people have hurt them in the process. He acknowledged that with the nodding of his head, but reiterated that he felt bad about how much pain he had caused the people he loved. I wish I could have dug a bit deep into that, but he took the conversation in a different direction at that point.
He began to talk about how free he felt and how it took him a while to feel that freedom. But even as he talked about this freedom, he stopped and paused looking around the coffee shop.
"I just don't feel like I fit anywhere."
He waved his hand and pointed around the coffee shop.
"You mean, even here today you don't feel like you fit?"
"No. I mean, nobody is making me feel that way, but anywhere I go I feel some sense of not fitting in."
"Do you feel lonely a lot?"
"Oh, yeah. Very lonely. Don't get me wrong, I have a great relationship with my x-wife and my two girls. They are my greatest accomplishment in life. I was just with my daughter last weekend. I'm really blessed with some great family and friends."
We went on to talk about that feeling of being on the outside looking in and despite all his blessings how he feels displaced.
"There is no place for me in evangelical Christianity and I get that."
As I began to form a response to that statement, he turned and saw his client walk in. He got out of his seat and greeted him grabbing his stuff and taking it to a nearby table. As his client was getting settled in, he turned to me and reached out his hand.
"So great to meet you today, Jason. God bless you and your sabbatical."
"Thanks brother. So good to meet you, too."
And with that, I watched him climb into business mode and integrate back into the rhythms of the work week. Since I'm not working right now, it's interesting to watch people all around me grinding and hustling. When I'm in the rat race with them, I don't notice how all-consuming work can be. I saw him functioning in his reinvented life and wondered if he was ok. I just didn't have enough time or conversation to get at whether he was truly ok. I don't care who it is...I care about finding out if that person is really ok. For some reason I feel compelled to know that when I'm around people. It's a passion of mine. If they are, I want to know why. If they aren't, I want to know why not.
I never really got to find that out...we were just getting past skin deep and were slicing through the red meat when we got interrupted just short of bone deep. I had so many questions and I could tell he did, too. But life happened and he had to get moving on. I wish I got his name and number now, but I've got no contact info and since I'm 25 minutes from my home town there's a slim chance of ever seeing him again. Dang.
It was definitely the most intriguing conversation I've had since starting my sabbatical. He was a gracious and inquisitive man. He was so friendly and concerned for me. His words were so full of life and his storytelling was so interesting. His questions were so thoughtful and the way he listened so genuine. He carried himself with such poise and passion. In our 25 minute conversation, I found him to be truly remarkable. I feel like I could have learned a great deal from this man had I a bit more time to spend in his presence. He seemed like a wellspring of wisdom. I spend a lot of time with a lot of people, and he was a unique soul.
I will be praying for him today and I hope for the rest of my life as God brings him to mind. May God continue to pursue him with His relentless love.
God, keep bringing people into my life to grow my heart so that it's as big and beautiful as Yours.