The honest hypocrite

The Bean There, Done That looks like any other coffee shop near a major college campus. Olive colored walls, dim lights, students hidden behind laptops sucking in the free Wi-Fi, college-style music playing from a worn out radio in the background, stools and rickety tables scattered throughout, a well-worn bulletin board with fliers for the next great social event or call to action plastered all over it. Yet this visual panorama isn’t what captivates the senses. No, it is the smell that draws you in. That rich, almost floral scent of coffee that permeates the place and sticks to your clothes for hours after you leave. This place smells like heaven on earth and that’s why Stewart comes here almost every day.

Stewart is a bit of a celebrity at the coffee shop. His stay at the university has been a bit longer than most (six years and counting) but that’s because of the multiple majors and minors that he’s been pursuing. Philosophy, art, psychology, even a little bit of Mandarin thrown in. He considers himself incredibly well-rounded and is not afraid to share his opinions with anyone. If you have an opinion and the courage to share it, the table in the back will become his bully pulpit for punching holes in your line of thinking. Not that he is unpopular. He actually has a little bit of following at the shop, a fan club if you will. The running joke is that Stewart has a cot in the back room and that his apartment is simply an ingenious ruse to throw the government off his track.

Stewart’s professors are usually patient with their little protégé. There have been occasional clashes with the more lecture and business minded ones, but most of the faculty enjoy his constant questioning and interjections, even entertaining more of it after class. He has been groomed by so many of the staff at the university that one would think that his matriculation is more of a tenure.

But now Stewart has a problem. Well, not really a problem – perhaps more of a puzzle inside of him that can’t be solved by mere analysis or clever reasoning. And it all begins with a girl.

Sara caught his eye the second she walked into his Governmental Ethics class last fall. Yes, he thought that she was beautiful, but not in the way that everyone gushed over the plastic Barbie-type sorority girls who would never even look his way. Sara was different. Earthy, trendy, not made up or pretentious. And, she was easy to talk to. Stewart had uncharacteristically given up his prominent seat in the middle of the class (that way everyone could be blessed with his verbose wisdom and insights) to move to the fringes of the room where the slackers normally inhabit. That’s where Sara sat, not because she wasn’t studious but rather because she had another class halfway across campus as soon as Ethics ended so she needed a head start as she dashed for the door.

And Sara was smart. Ever since he took the empty seat beside of her, the way that she could carry on a conversation and organize her thoughts captivated Stewart. She wasn’t afraid to speak up in class and she showed even more courage in often disagreeing with Stewart, intriguing him all the more. Yet in all of this she wasn’t pretentious or proud. Sara seemed real, authentic, relevant. She also possessed something that Stewart had never experienced firsthand before and the thought of it almost terrified him to the core.
Time in class with Sara wasn’t enough. He had to have more than Tuesday and Thursday mornings to get to know her on a more intellectual and personal level. She barely had time to utter the words goodbye when class was over so he began to scheme a way for them to be together apart from the academic world. Therefore, Stewart decided to invite Sara into his world.

She met him at the coffee shop around 6:00 on a Thursday night. Sara worked part-time in the library and also volunteered at a local homeless shelter, so free time was at a premium. Stewart had patiently worked out this schedule with her and it took a couple of weeks before it all finally played out. As he sat at his table waiting for her arrival, he noticed that his heart was beginning to beat a little faster and that his palms were moist. Did his breath stink? Was his hair combed? Hey, get yourself together Stewart! After all, this isn’t a date. Or is it? He couldn’t let anyone see him like this so he snuck off to the bathroom to splash water on his face and get his wits about him.

When he returned to his seat he saw Sara searching the room for him. There it was again, the sweaty palms, racing heart, anxiety that he had never felt before. Trying his best to shrug it off he moved rapidly across the room to reach her, desperately hoping that she would not disappear out the door before he caught her. Before he arrived at her side she turned and saw him, immediately flashing that comfortable smile that melted him all over again. For the first time in a long while, Stewart wondered whether he was he was about to embark on something that might be too much for him to handle.

“I’m not much of a coffee drinker but I’m willing to try something new. What do you think I should have?” Sara asked. Eager to regain his composure, and remember that this was his turf and second home, Stewart walked Sara up to the counter and began to explain the different varieties of coffees and teas and their methods of preparation. The barista could barely hide her snicker when she saw this softer side of Stewart, and the look that he gave her suggested the he desperately wanted her to ignore this lapse and respect his reign in this coffee kingdom. Sara settled on a Chai Tea latte (she had really enjoyed sipping Chai Tea while on a mission trip to India when she was in high school) and the two of them settled back at Stewart’s regular table, he with a double shot espresso in hand.

Their talk at first was pleasant and non-descript, yet Stewart wanted to know everything about her. What made her tick? Was she a deep thinker like he was? Did she care about the same issues he was so passionate about? Why did she seem so mysterious to him? Who was she?

He decided to open up that can of worms first, telling her everything that he could think of about himself yet struggling to be purposefully brief so that he could find who more about her. Sara listened politely and seemed genuinely interested in his opinions and beliefs. Did she agree with him or was she just being nice? What is wrong with me? Why do I care so much about what this girls thinks?

For what seemed like minutes (it was actually only a few seconds) Sara took her cue and began to tell Stewart about herself. She was the oldest of four children who was on partial scholarship while working to earn the other half to pay for school. College was her first experience being away from home and this year was much easier than the first. The sorority life wasn’t for her (Yes!) and she didn’t seem to have much time for social events between her work schedule and volunteering. But she was involved in at least one campus organization that she was truly passionate about. Which one? Intervarsity Christian Fellowship! Seriously? Those words didn’t actually roll from his tongue but his look of bewilderment bordering on almost anger must have caught her off guard. “Do you have something against Intervarsity?” she asked with a tone of honesty that did not betray any hint of being defensive. Stewart felt all of the air leave the room. He feverishly tried to collect himself and his thoughts before he gave his answer. He liked this girl – a lot – and he didn’t want to blow his chance on their first “date.” Surely she wasn’t one of “those” religious people, was she?

“They” and “them.” That’s what it is has been about from the very beginning. Stewart hated it when his parents used to drag him to church. It was boring to him and he never quite believed all of those stories those two old ladies used to feed him in Sunday school. Miracles, raising people from the dead, heaven and hell, none of that made sense to him. His junior high and high school years were filled with even more skepticism, with such brilliant thinkers as Nietzsche and Sagan fueling his animosity for religion and his thirst for rationalism and “real answers.”

The other kids that went to church were just stupid sheep. “Sheeple” he called them. Mindlessly following the beliefs of their parents and following a God who, if he really did exist, certainly didn’t care enough about this world to make it a better place. He was smarter than them all, making his decision too early for them to brainwash him. If they truly believed all of this God and Jesus stuff then they would be better qualified to argue with him and answer his seemingly endless questions about their beliefs. Truth be told it didn’t matter what answers they gave him because he still wasn’t going to believe. He simply wanted to hold them accountable for their belief system. What was wrong with demanding a little intellectual integrity?

College would be his proving ground. This place wasn’t ready for a mind like his, he knew, but soon enough everyone would know about him. It wasn’t that he saw himself as arrogant or even as intellectually elite, it’s just that while other high school students were thinking about sports or the prom he was engrossing himself in the rigors of pursuing knowledge of philosophical and scientific constructs. They were building up their social networks and bodies while he was busy building his mind. His pursuit was more noble and advantageous for the greater good. They were the posers, he was the real thing. This coffee shop had become his little corner of the universe where he was championing his system of beliefs that had no room for the supernatural. It didn’t take long for most dissenters to keep their opinions to themselves. No one challenged him anymore. Not until now.

The sweat must have been visible on his brow. Stewart couldn’t begin to explain why he was having so much trouble formulating an answer. Never before had he flinched to come back with a caustic response that would prove once again that his view was superior to all others. But he didn’t want to do that with Sara. Alienate her now and she would never come to his way of thinking much less want to go on another date with him. Scrambling, he quickly came up with an answer that would deflect the true depths to which his loathing of religion went, yet at the same time pierced his soul more than any other reason.

“Oh, I have nothing serious against groups like Intervarsity. I just can’t stand the hypocrisy that surrounds Christianity. I saw it as a kid, people acting one way in church and then living opposite to what they claimed to believe. If you truly say that you believe in something then your life should reflect those beliefs. I don’t function well with those who don’t.” There, he said it, and all with a believable air of decorum. But how would Sara respond to that? Suddenly how she felt meant more to him than it ever had before.

To his relief Sara didn’t seem to be thrown off by his response. In fact, she almost seemed pleased. Her answer even caught him more off guard. “I understand your feelings about hypocrisy within Christianity. It bothers me too. But what I’ve found is that when you truly believe in something then your life will reflect those beliefs. Hypocrisy is incompatible with Christianity. For those that don’t live what they say they believe, one has to wonder if they truly believe at all.” 

Wow. But wait, where was she going with this. Was she agreeing with me or was she posting yet another rebuttal to my theory? He had to know. This ran much deeper than just an attraction. Here was someone sitting across from him who was intellectual just like him, yet was she claiming to cling to an untenable system of beliefs?

“So, you’re a Christian?” The words tumbled from his mouth almost as much as an incredulous statement as they were a question. Again Sara seemed unfazed. “Yes, I am a Christian, but perhaps not in the sense that you understand a Christian to be.” Okay, exactly who is this girl and who does she think that I am? Christianity holds no weight, period. What kind of Christian is there other than the deluded kind?

He took a slow sip from his now lukewarm espresso before speaking. He noticed that she had barely had any of her Chai and found himself concerned with whether or not she liked the drink at all. Wait! Don’t get off track. “So what kind of a Christian are you?” Surely he wasn’t going to hear anything he hadn’t hear before. All of this talk about Jesus and relationship with God was old hat with him. What more could she bring to the conversation?

“Stewart, a Christian is one who is a follower of Jesus. My goal isn’t to be religious or even a faithful church attendee. And I’m prone to the kind of hypocrisy of which you speak. But the standard I strive for isn’t to be like other people; it’s to be like Jesus. He saved me from my sin and gave me hope and purpose that I could never find on my own. I live the way I do not to earn favor with God but rather because God has shown His favor to me through the cross. Everything I do and say is with gratitude for the salvation that I have received through Christ.”

Hope. Purpose. Favor. The cross. Salvation. All of these were words that numbed the brains of the religious people that Stewart knew; yet when Sara said them they sounded different. Was it because he was attracted to her that he somehow wanted to buy all of this? Or maybe it was the fact that she did live a life that backed up these Sunday teachings that he learned as a kid. One thing was for sure, he had not run into many people that possessed this kind of peace that Sara seemed to have. He was almost envious of her.

His freshman year roommate convinced him to come to church with him once. Stewart didn’t want to go but it seemed that his great mental acuity was keeping him from gaining many new friends, so what did he have to lose? He would go, hear the same old crap he had always heard, see a bunch of sheeple following a hypnotized shepherd, and then he would have no problem poking holes in all that garbage. It didn’t seem to bother him at the time that what he saw and heard was unlike anything that he expected. He was so hardened against religious things that nothing was going to change that. Yet the words of the pastor seemed to ring true in his heart that day and those around him didn’t seem to just be going through the motions. They were taking notes, carefully reading the book in their laps. Mind control did not seem to be taking place. These people seemed to really believe. But it was just an act, right? All religion was the same. Right?

His mind raced back and forth from that day freshman year to the present moment with Sara. Why was he now feeling so conflicted? Had he so repressed his feelings with rational thought that he was incapable of processing anything that required more than just knowledge to accept? He vividly remembered on numerous occasions explaining his rationale for believing that the origin of the universe could be proven scientifically, even when his mind was conflicted with his inability to explain where matter came from in the first place. This wasn’t a leap of faith like those religious zombies had to make. The whole of science made so much sense. What was the problem?

Until now there had not been a problem. Stewart had carefully skirted any potential potholes in his intellectual road with further reading and commiseration with those who shared his like-minded worldview. Then came Sara. In the brief time that he had known her he had sensed something about her was special, different, intriguing. And now she tells him that she is a Christian and suddenly what she is saying is starting to make sense. She doesn’t appear to be a hypocrite. Maybe he could debate her into the ground with all of the inconsistencies of the Christian faith and that would solve the problem. But what solution – or even relief – would that really give to him? Certainly it would not assuage the war that was suddenly raging in his heart, conflicting him on all sides.

It felt as if the room was now empty except for him. Here he was, confronted with a reality that he had spent his whole life trying to disprove if not altogether avoid. The hypocrisy angle was getting weaker by the second and his desire to offer yet another humiliating blow to those gullible in the faith was nonexistent. These simple words from a girl who seemed as real and authentic as anyone he had ever met were now branded onto his heart. What in the world was he going to do?

Coming back to reality, Stewart rather suddenly and politely excused himself to go the restroom. He washed his face again and tried to get a grip on himself, but all he could think of was if his life had any true meaning. Why was he here? Was there more than just this life and reality? Can science really explain everything? Why can’t all my years of study and learning help me right now when I need it the most? God, if you are real, what am I supposed to do?

He wasn’t sure if he asked that last question audibly or not, but those words shook him to the core. Had he just really called out to a God in whom he claimed not to believe? An unexpected thrill of exhilaration coursed through his body. He slowly made his way back to the table, suddenly unsure of how much time had passed since Sara answered him with those haunting words. She was still there, smiling that simple smile and finally sipping on her latte. Never one to give in to the opposition so soon, Stewart changed the subject to talk about their Ethics class and Sara diplomatically obliged the change of course. An hour passed, one filled with laughter over the professor’s obvious hairpiece to their personal views on topics ranging from just war and abortion. While their opinions tended to differ fairly radically, he found that she didn’t judge him or seem to mind that his views were so diametrically opposed to hers.

Glancing at her watch she noticed that it was almost 8:00 with an hour of calculus study lying ahead for her. Although he normally stayed at the coffee shop until closing, Stewart muttered something about needing to study as well and he slowly walked with her until they were out the door and onto the sidewalk. The night air was crisp and cold, betraying the fact that it was only early October. There was an awkward pause, a moment that he desperately wanted to fill. Sensing that he was squandering an opportunity that he might not again regain, he asked her when and where the Intervarsity group met. “Friday nights at 8:00, Mackey Hall room 121.” “Cool, I’ll try to make it,” he said. And he meant it. 

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