No, it's not a joke. There's no punchline. Last night in Durango Colorado, it really happened. I'll explain.
A few weeks ago, my friend DJ threw out a crazy idea. "I wonder if we could get more interaction in town if we invited people of different belief systems to a forum?" he asked.
I almost jumped out of my seat.
How historic would it be if we could actually hold a forum with people who would normally find disagreement in belief systems?
We initially met at our local coffee hang out, The Steaming Bean, on Main Street in Durango. The current head of the Atheist Association, Kathleen, her right hand guy, Mark, myself, and my friend DJ decided to have coffee and talk about the possibility of a forum where we could learn what others believe in our small mountain town.
We exchanged e-mails, set the date, and started planning.
The event was set to happen and I just have to tell you, Last night was nothing short of AMAZING.
We started the evening in the Irish Pub, a local hot spot in Durango. We got there early, exchanged introductions, and set up the room for our friends to come to exchange ideas. Kathleen brought her group, the skeptics. DJ and I brought our group, the Christians. And my friend Ted came to represent the Western Buddhist tradition.
DJ started, "We're not here to debate, objectify, or demean anyone's views..." he went on to set up the conversation to try and cut the tension a bit. What a guy! He was perfect to smile and say, "we're here to learn about one another and make friends."
And then we started on what would turn out to be a three hour discussion about God, Morality, Meditation, and why we live the way we do. Each panelist told their own story about how they came to believe the belief system they held to be true, and I was overwhelmed by the sense of honesty in the room.
Kathleen did an amazing job explaining her position as an atheist, and in the true sense of vulnerability, laid all her belief cards on the table.
Ted took the Buddhist position and told us how his meditation practice has transformed the way he thinks about the world.
I took the Christian position.
For those who wonder, how can this even happen, let me explain a bit. It wasn't a conversion type meeting.
I didn't focus on the trinity, salvation, sanctification, justification, or any of the doctrinal issues. I just told them how my journey of faith has led me to "Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and Love your neighbor as yourself." Just like Jesus.
After each panelist told their story, we had about 30 minutes of questions afterwards, and then it got really interesting.
For the next two and a half hours, we peeled off and had individual conversations about faith, belief, non-belief, meditation, and the role of belief systems in our lives.
I wish you could hear the laughter, the banter, the collective "AHHHH that's what you mean" conversations happening in the room. It was heavenly, almost like life is supposed to be. Several people sharing a meal, talking about real life issues that matter, and no one was trying to push on anyone else to be anything more than they are.
After we finished I looked down at my watch, "Wow, where did the time go?"
And then I got a phone call from a friend. All night, He was sitting in the room taking it all in and when I answered the phone he started by saying, "I just want you to know, tonight I'm proud to be a Christian. The model of grace and the humility to accept people for where they are...Thank you for doing it right."
I almost cried on the way home.
As I reflect on the night, I'm struck by a couple of ideas.
1. Sometimes we just need a safe place
Many of my Christian friends will read this and ask "How many atheists did you convert last night?" And for that, I'm sad.
I'm Not sad that I didn't present an alter call at the Irish pub, but I'm sad that we've been trained to think the only way to have a friendship in this world is if we "evangelize" our neighbor and sell them a God they can't live without.
I said clearly in my time as a panelist, "I would love nothing more than every person in this room get baptized tonight and follow Jesus, but I know that's an individual decision we all have to make."
The overwhelming value of our meeting last night was that we now have a face with people who are in a different belief system than we are. I can look down the sidewalk and see a friend coming toward me, and instead of seeing that atheist who is supposed to lack all moral fiber in his being, I know them.
I think we started a SAFE conversation that might turn into something much more valuable for all involved.
2. Belonging is important to everyone
As I was packing up to leave the pub late last night, the atheist group stopped me and said, "You should come to our meeting! We'd love to have you."
They invited me to THEIR CHURCH!!
I'm honored that someone I've been formally trained to argue with, would feel comfortable enough to invite me to come and spend time with their group. And I started to reflect...I wonder if that's how Jesus did it?
After all, in his day, tax collectors, Roman guards, Jewish leaders, and samaritans; all invited him to come and be with them. He had something that put people in a comfortable place so he could develop friendships with them. When He had something to offer, he gave. And when he knew the time to sit and listen, He opened his heart to be WITH humanity no matter what background they came from.
I guess as I get older, I'm less and less concerned with traditional quantification of relationships today as presented in our Christian way of thinking, and I'm very interested in living how Jesus lived.
Last night, I think we lived a way that Jesus lived.
And at the end of the evening we shook hands, hugged, and re-affirmed how much value each person brings to the table of peace not merely because of their belief system, but because they're human.
Last night, an atheist, a Christian, and a Buddhist walked into a bar...and they left better friends than when they arrived.