In 1977, I was attending Baylor University while working an internship at Immanuel Baptist Church. With Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in the White House, our churches were determined to capitalize on his momentum by conducting door-to-door evangelism campaigns.
I participated in a local campaign through the neighborhoods of Waco, Texas, where my encounters went much like this:
I rang the doorbell and took a few steps back, hoping that the backward steps would be a reassuring gesture toward whoever opened the door.
The resident answered the door with a TV remote in hand. Hearing a baseball game in background, I wound up my pitch.
“Sir, I’m Norris Burkes from Immanuel Baptist Church, and I’m conducting a neighborhood needs survey. Would you mind answering just one question?”
“Well, I was just…” The man’s eyes darted toward the TV to check the score.
“Just a quick question.” I promised.
He paused just long enough for me to load my question.
“Sir,” I asked, “if you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”
Even as I asked it, I knew the question had all the trappings of something I’d learned in my Logic 101 class. It was a “complex question” — a semantic trick that’s posed to imply an unjustified assumption, along the order of the old-hat “When did you stop beating your spouse?”
My question was no more than an evangelical pickup line — and it presumed a boatload. It presumed the man should believe in the existence of heaven and hell. It demanded that the man know that God controlled both. And it anticipated that the ambushed baseball fan could only choose the choice I was presenting him.
Worst of all, the question showed little regard for the man himself. He had the right to ask me a few questions: Did I even care about him? Or was he just a potential notch in my ministry belt?
To be fair, the truth is often a conflicted conglomeration of yes and no. I did care about the man, but I wasn’t immune to the accolades I would receive for reporting the most converts for the day.
This Easter season has me imagining how Jesus might’ve answered my question if he had opened that door in Waco. “Jesus, if you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”
Like a skillful logician, I’m guessing Jesus might have countered my loaded question with one of his own, perhaps the same post-Easter question he asked his disciple Simon Peter.
“Norris,” he might have asked, “Do you love me?”
Perhaps I’d have been as hardheaded as Peter, and Jesus would have repeated his question three ways.
Each time, Peter answered, “You know that I do.” And each time Jesus dared Peter to “Feed my sheep.”
The command wasn’t a livestock reference. Jesus meant for Peter to care for people and all of their needs, not just to count the sheep for his own good and purposes.
Finally, I could imagine Jesus adding one last postscript for me: “Glad to hear you love me, Norris. Now, stop being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good and just follow me.”