Greg smiled, "I don't have a dog in this fight."
Immediately Tom pulled his yellow legal pad from beneath his chair and started to write while he mouthed "dog--in--this--fight."
"Go ahead Greg, what were you saying?"
"Well Tom, I've avoided these arguments because frankly . . . I'm a universalist." The look of confusion on Tom's face prompted Greg to continue, ". . . meaning that I really believe the gospel is for all men and women. Jesus came to die for all sinners and to save them all. How could God be loving and send some, if not most of his creation, to an everlasting hell. It just doesn't make sense."
"Can you logically show me where scripture says that?"
"Sure. There are many places in scripture where you can get the notion that the Gospel is for all. I can bring you a book that goes into the argument in great detail. But for starters, the verse you cut out says that 'For God so loved the world.' It doesn't say that 'For God so loved the baptized or the few elected.'"
Tom smiled, "Puzzling isn't it. And father?"
The priest with the kind face smiled but sat quietly for a minute. "Tom, I tread these waters gently. I see my mission from God is to bring peace. These types of discussions often brings nothing more than hurt feelings and discord. I consider myself a lucky man to have friends like Michael, Greg, David and of course Debra. It is sometimes better to leave your divisive views to yourself."
Tom quickly responded, "Father, respectfully I must say, there's just too much at stake for me to pretend that we all like each other or are in perfect agreement. Don't you realize that there's a whole civilization waiting on the information that I bring them. So," then Tom looks around the table, "I ask all of you to feel secure enough in your own value that you don't get offended and emotional when someone contradicts your beliefs."
No one said anything so Tom added, "You see, you people build belief systems around yourself . . . indeed they may start with some logic . . . but then they become self-sustaining to help you feel more approval from your peers, approval of yourself and eventually feel approved by God for believing a certain way. But I want to boil these arguments down to the logical level . . . so we can discover truth, not just to prop up our own belief systems in order to keep us feeling a bit more secure. This conversation is vital. I want to shake you to the point that the truth comes out."
No one spoke, so Tom quickly ate his last bit of tomato and looked at them . . . then he continued again, "Is that what the Gospel is really about? Where God does this giant stamp of approval and you never, ever have to worry about feeling secure again? That's what we've been waiting for and that's why this Gospel is so seductive to us."
"Tom," said Father Randy, "I can tell that you are from a different place from us . . . while I'm not so sure that place is extraterrestrial, it is certainly different. For us, it is important for the maintenance of peace that we respect each other's traditions and beliefs."
Tom just stared in anticipation, so the priest continued.
"So, in my tradition, people are saved through the institution of the Church. We believe that it was to Peter that Christ gave the keys to the Kingdom of God. So it is though the sacraments of the Church that people are saved . . . and by the grace of God. But this doesn't mean that I don't respect David, who believes things much differently than I do. Likewise I respect Greg who believes very differently than David or Michael. This is the peace of Christ I feel I must bring to the world. That is my occupation, but especially to those of my own flock."
Tom smiled and shook his head. "Again, I say this with the utmost respect for you earth dwellers, but for me, coming from my culture of logic, I do feel like a Jane Goodall trying to communicate with the Apes. The peace that you seek is a shallow, plastic peace. It is totally unthinkable to our people that you would suspend logic, just so you can give an appearance of peace by avoiding the really important topics of life. In Teyvak, we have deep discussions all the time, in logic, and sometimes there are great disagreements. But we would never take it personal. Our self-esteem is not one with our beliefs. So a good argument can totally persuade us to take on a different view. But here, on earth, you people have become so entrenched in your insecurity that it is virtually impossible to change your mind though logical arguments."
David was looking irritated, "So who are you calling fools? Is it just the Christians, Americans or all earthlings?"
"It is all people of the earth-cultures, or at least all the people we've studied. It is certainly not just the Christians. Actually, it is like a spectrum on a circle. The Christians on one extreme side, I guess what Greg would call the 'Evangelicals' and all deeply religious sects are right next to the most distant people on the other side, the hard-core atheists. They both are the most insecure and are both most deeply invested in their beliefs because they are the most insecure in their sense of value. The atheists believe that they must project an intelligence above all others, and part of that system is believing that only most intelligent don't believe in God. But it has nothing to do with intellect but cultural conformity . . . they just happen to be part of the atheist culture."
David commented, "Well I agree with you on that point."
Tom looked back to his right, "But David, do you hear what I'm saying? You are just like them. But your insecurity is about morality rather than intellect. You are deeply invested in your sense that you are more moral than . . . say Greg here, because he is a homosexual."
The table had a great sense of uncomfortable-ness move over it like a dense fog over the Golden Gate Bridge.
David looked angry but it was Greg who finally spoke, "Damn. I can't get my head past how you figured me out. I mean, I'm not a closet gay as I have many gay friends who know the real me, but I had never given this group any notion of my sexual orientation because I knew it would mean the end of our friendships. That's why I may be the only one sitting at this table who really believes that you are who you say you are."
"Tom," immediately added David as if he hadn't heard a word that Greg had just uttered, "I'll be honest with you. I'm growing a bit weary of the criticisms that you keep throwing my way like hand grenades. I have a very open mind and God has shown me His truth from His word and I've listened. I once was an agnostic and have come along way . . . most of that by logic and much of it by the prompting of the Holy Spirit."
Tom was shaking his head in almost, what the earth dwellers would perceive as cocky way, "David . . . let's talk in reason and a deeper honestly than you are comfortable with. Of all the people here, you are the most insecure. You, in the depths of your heart, feel unclean. That's why you pull the Gospel up tight around your neck to help you feel safe. You want only a very small people to be the forgiven because you want a high bar for the saved. The reason you want a high bar is because you want so much to feel justified and you just can't. So, you raise the bar ever so higher so you can be one of the few. Spiritual elitism can give a false feeling of security. But then, in the lonely places, in your bed at night, when you lie awake with only your own thoughts to keep you company . . . even you feel unworthy. You pull the Gospel up so tight around your neck . . . that it strangles even you. That's why so many hard-core Evangelicals abandon their faith . . .because their faith becomes so quilted . . . that they smother."
Debra had been watching in awe. She normally was a very talkative woman but she was enjoying this conversation more than any she could remember in recent history. Finally she spoke once more, "This is incredible. Totally incredible."
Not meaning to draw attention to herself, Tom turned and looked at her and smiled, "Debra, in the same line of thought, of this group . . . I suspect that you are the most emotionally secure and most open to discuss the logic of an argument without feeling threatened."
"Well thank you Tom, but I don't know if I deserve that appraisal. You can just ask my church board and they would tell you I'm pretty darn insecure at times."
Tom smiled. "Debra, I really want to hear more about your views on the Gospel next week. I seem to trust your perspective the most."
Everyone sat in silence with smiles. Michael hadn't said a word in an hour and surprised everyone when he quickly excused himself, "I'm sorry folks, I'v really enjoyed this but it is almost noon and I need to go to the hospital up in Newberry to visit some folks."
Tom responded, "Noon!? Oh, I'm so sorry for keeping everyone so long. Next week I will try to keep it more brief." As Michael walked towards the door Tom continued, "I will summarize what I now know about the Gospel. There is a wide perception of what the Gospel means. To those like David, it means that those who follow a strict code are part of the Kingdom. To Michael, I think he agrees with David but with a little less conviction on the list of rules that is followed to prove that you are part of the Kingdom of God."
Then Tom turned to his left, "And the good father here, the doors of the Kingdom is controlled by the Church, meaning to him at least, the Roman Catholic Church. I'm looking forward to learning more about Debra's views but I suspect she believes more the Gospel that Michael does but with more grace and then of course Greg believes in a wide, universal Gospel and the Kingdom is synonymous with all of humankind. Interesting. Have a good week my dear friends."
The stranger picked up his briefcase and walked to the door, stopping to pay his portion of his breakfast bill . . . a plate full of fresh tomatoes and a tall glass of ice cold tomato juice.