After Sunday evening service, the week in May when we had introduced the orientation to 42 Seconds, the Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions, I walked out of the kitchen door to my car. Playing in the dandelions of the church’s back lot was a young child being carefully supervised by his grandmother. I thought I might try to have a polite and welcoming conversation over the joy the child had simply playing in a field of dandelions. I returned to our library and picked out a suitable children’s book to give as a gift.
I walked out doors and carefully, with a big smile, walked past my car toward the field and the boy. Without hesitation the grandmother scooped the boy up in her arms, turned her back to me and walked away determined to get away from me and out of that space as fast as she could. She never looked back.
I returned to my car, threw the book into the back seat and sat down in the front seat and searched my thoughts, my intentions, and my motives. It seemed a reasonable thing to do, but there was so much going on in that non-interaction than I had guessed at. I seriously underestimated her natural instinct to protect her grandson from a stranger. Maybe she was self-conscious about being on our property. I thought that being clearly recognizable as clergy and holding a book would be reassuring— but I am still a big guy and she wanted nothing to do with me. I was kind of hoping to report some grand “42 seconds” moment that could be a good example, but instead I got the “not even 42 seconds result.” Had I overplayed my opportunity or had I projected my agenda onto the situation? Was it about me and not her?
I have had a few more interactions with people this past month. I find that it is very hard to have moments to talk about Jesus. There is always sports in the air, such as hockey and basketball playoffs! The general political climate we live in encourages an argumentative form of discussion. Every TV not broadcasting a sport has one of the cable news channels playing. Even at the YMCA, Fox and MSNBC play nearly side by side and the content is continually a lot of talking and very little listening. I find the listening part requires a constant self-reminded intentionality. The moment I relax and “let go” I lose the discipline.
Given my vocation, I do attract some productive conversations and interest. It is very difficult not to over answer questions. The importance of nuances in theology just isn’t what the questions are about. Most people would wonder more about whether or not there are dogs in heaven than the doctrine of the Trinity. Actually, as these things are personal, the question is really will my dog be with me in heaven? It’s very clear that what is important to me is usually not important to them. That’s why the listening without an agenda is so important.
The difficulty that any conservative Christian church will have in interacting with the prevailing culture comes from an inherent clash of values. We all agree on love. But from that point on, Christian values turn to truth and sin and integrity. The culture we minister to values tolerance, equality and justice (in the human condition). Regarding homosexuality issues, a conservative Christian might say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” That is inherently insulting to a person who does not believe that consensual sex is a sin at all, let alone that one form is “right” and the other is “wrong.” In the assertion stated, all the LGBTQ person hears is one word, “hate.” It is our job to understand who we are talking to—the burden of communication is ours, not theirs. I can’t be unkind or intolerant and then be heard.
I had an Iranian Muslim neighbor name Miriam (Mary) who lived across the street from another neighbor who was very interested in sharing Jesus with her. The Christian got a Bible in Farsi and a basic Christian doctrine book in simplified English and helped teach our Iranian neighbor about Jesus. What finally came about before both neighbors moved is that Miriam said that she “believed” in Jesus. But while her mother was alive she felt she couldn’t travel safely to Iran to visit and also admit to being a Christian. I can’t verify the fear she had was true but I know it was true to her. The snappy answer is that Jesus very clearly warned his disciples about such things and encouraged them to follow Him despite such fears. So do I rebuke her for a lack of faith?
My answer is no. The Gospel is Good News. In places I won’t ever know about, by other Christians I will also never know, that same Good News may eventually nurture and embolden the faith of Miriam. It is not my job to judge her faith, especially in circumstances beyond my experience and understanding. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I have to trust that God is in charge and that the Holy Spirit will move apart from my desire to control it. (Perhaps He has already moved in the life of the woman across the parking lot…or will via another obedient human vessel.) When I reflect on the most meaningful moments in my ministry they are always when Jesus shows up in unexpected and surprising ways. Sometimes even when the “rules” say he shouldn’t. Reading the Gospels, we discover Jesus doing that a lot. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.