Saturday, November 24, 2007
If you ever need to know anything about the Cancun, Mexico, airport, I'm your man. Our nation's embargo against the island nation of Cuba ensures that the journey to Cuba will always be interesting, in a boring sort of way (please note that I have never in my life set foot illegally upon the soil of Cuba, but have always followed the laws both of my nation and of theirs). One cannot sit at a computer in Dallas and purchase an airline ticket to Havana with one's Visa card. Travel through a third nation is usually required (although I did go once to Santiago from Miami), and purchase of the Cuba-bound ticket takes place after leaving the United States, and by cash. I like to go through Cancun. Spend the night at a cheap Mexican hotel, arrive at the airport first thing in the morning, wait for the ticket counter to open, wait for your religious work visas to come in by fax, pay for your tickets, check your luggage, clear security, and wait for your plane to come. It's all very simple. It also takes about six hours, most of it spent sitting, studying the people, shops, amenities, and ceiling tiles of the Cancun airport. As for me, I'd rather talk to somebody than look at ceiling tiles. Thus on the day in question I struck up a conversation with the older gentleman sitting just across from me. I'll call him Saul (not really his name). There he sat, Israeli passport in hand, waiting for exactly the same flight that we were taking. He was incredibly intelligent—I soon learned that he is the inventor of a revolutionary piece of technology that you all use every day (even if you don't know it). A famous man, stuck here with me in the Cancun airport with nowhere to go. Sounds to me like a great opportunity to present the gospel. It isn't that difficult to steer the conversation to faith when you're talking to an Israeli citizen. Saul was an atheist, but he had grown up in an observant Jewish household. Curious about this birthplace of my faith, I had several questions that I wanted to ask Saul: Suppose I'm an honest, hardworking, nonviolent, democracy-oriented, Jewish-state-supportive, Christian Palestinian…can I achieve citizenship in the State of Israel? Do you really think a two-state solution offers a viable hope for reconciliation in Israel? (Well, you get the gist of things.) We had a fascinating conversation for more than two hours while sitting out in the public concourse. I told him about my faith in Christ…told him what our team was going to Cuba to do. I told him about the gospel. We talked about the war-torn Middle East, and he gave me an insider's perspective (this guy had also invented several military-oriented devices). Then, the visas came in on the fax machine, security opened up, and my team went back into the gate area. In a few minutes, Saul also cleared security, walked into the gate area, sought me out, and sat next to me. Our conversation resumed. Saul eventually said, "The reason we have so many problems in the world is that Muslims, Christians, and Jews don't realize that they are all praying to the same God." "You mean, the One that you don't believe exists?" I smirked (not that I commend to you the idea of smirking as evangelistic technique). "Well, you've got me there," he replied, "but if these three great religions would acknowledge that they all serve the same God, then they would set aside all of this fighting." "Ah," I said, "you mean loosening our doctrine for the sake of peace?" "Precisely" "But you know, Saul, that doesn't work—never works," I answered. "Different varieties of Christianity realize that they are worshipping the same God, yet the Roman Catholic bunch spent centuries killing off people who believe like I do. Sunnis and Shiites worship the same God, yet they manage to hate and kill one another nonetheless. People kill one another because we are sinners, not because we are uninformed." But, I told Saul, there is another way. I explained to him the Baptist ideal of religious liberty. Within our church, we try to be all that God wants us to be. We believe that all people are sinners. We believe that Jesus has died to purchase our pardon. We believe that God has given us voluminous instruction in the Bible as to how we ought to worship and live—enough to keep a person busy for a lifetime pursuing growth as a Christian. We're zealous; we're passionate; we're strict sometimes; we fail often, but we will not water down what we believe to make it match how we sometimes act. However… …We believe that God has given no person the right to coerce another person's faith. "If I will not permit you to say no," I told Saul, "then your yes is meaningless." We will not convert people at the point of a sword or the tip of a gun. Rather, we put before people the gospel of Jesus Christ and we freely say with Him, "Let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." "So you see, Saul," I concluded, "I do not concede that all people worship the same God. There is One God. He loves all people. He loves me. He loves you. He invites you to worship and serve Him. You face the choice. If you choose to accept Him and serve Him, you will be my brother. If you choose to reject His offer, that does not make you my enemy. I will have no urge to explode incendiary devices in front of your house. I will not berate you or disparage you. I will still enjoy your company and will still consider you my newest friend. But I will accomplish all of this without taking you into my church, embracing your atheism, or watering down at all what I believe and hold dear. I believe that strife comes from failing to do what the Bible teaches, not from being too strict about it. And I invite all people to join me in worshipping and serving the Prince of Peace." Saul did not receive Jesus that day. We visited for at least another two hours, and then our flight boarded. His concluding comments to me: "I visit with Rabbis and religious leaders in Israel all of the time. Their beliefs are much closer to mine than yours, which are a strange version of Christianity that I've never encountered before. Yet, for all of the distance that separates us, I feel much more comfortable talking about God with you than I ever have with anyone else." Those final words gave me hope that the end of our visit was not the end of God's work in Saul's life. When last I saw him, we were in Passport Control in Havana. Something apparently wasn't quite right with Saul's paperwork, and he was having trouble getting into the country. I continue to pray for Saul, remembering the spark of interest in his eyes, praying that God will visit Saul with His grace, and that when I see him hereafter, Saul's papers will be in order, and he will have no trouble at all getting in.