God Can Use Us Just As (and Where) We Are

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ICON SET-08Each fall, my church set aside a specific week as Missions Week and as a kid, I thought it was big fun. For starters, the sanctuary was lined with dozens of colorful flags to represent the countries in which our church had a part in funding missionary work. That made going into “big church” look a lot like the opening ceremony of the Olympics and really, who doesn’t love that? But the real fun wasn’t in the sanctuary; it was in the lobby.

Picture it. You’re eight years old. You walk into the church lobby, something you’ve done multiple times a week for your entire life, and instead of finding the lobby you’re used to, you enter what feels like the World Showcase at Epcot. Where once sat fake plants and rogue pews now sat region-specific booths decorated to mimic the architecture of the houses where our missionaries might frequent and white people dressed in cultural garb from all over the world! Pueblos and grass huts and Asian temples full of music and props! For young eyes, it was quite the spectacle. Oh how I loved walking into each booth and thinking I was able to comprehend for half a minute what life was like in an African hut or a lean-to in the Middle East. Of course the construction paper grass and papier-mâché roofing weren’t anything like the realities of those places, but it felt wondrous to me.

Missionaries from all over the world came “home” to the States to speak to us during that week, popping up everywhere from our Sunday and Wednesday services to our home groups and Sunday School classes. It was all missions all the time and for a week, we felt like active participants in the directive to “go into all the world.” [Mark 16:15] The point was to hear the missionary’s stories, fill them with some good ol’ southern fatty foods, and send them back to their country with a lot of love and a full wallet.

To be fair, our focus on the mission field wasn’t relegated to only that week in the fall. Throughout the year, we kids collected money for missionaries in a Buddy Barrel, a yellow plastic container that looked like a skinny Barrel of Monkeys. On the top of the barrel was an orange lid with a slot where we could drop in our spare change and on the first Sunday of each month, we’d empty our Buddy Barrels into the offering buckets. This was usually a boys-versus-girls contest to see who could raise the most money, the prizes being awesome things like Super Ropes and Mr. Goodbars. I’ve learned most kids today don’t know what a Super Rope is, which is sad. Super Ropes are—and I’m going to try not to oversell this—the single greatest confection this side of Cadbury eggs. It’s three feet of red licorice that’s at once tough and chewy; the perfect play-with-your-food food in that it’s thick enough to swing around like a lasso but malleable enough to tie into square knots before you eat it. Moral of the story: We’d do just about anything to go home with a Super Rope so we cared a lot about missions. Buddy was a also cartoon character, a talking barrel, who told us about the importance of sending our allowance to missionaries. There was even a costume of Buddy the Barrel that appeared from time to time in Kids Church like a Super-Christian Mickey Mouse showing up for a character meet-and-greet. Suffice to say, Buddy, missions, and Super Ropes were a big deal in my little world.

But even Mission’s Week and Buddy weren’t the extent of the adolescent missions marketing tools employed by our church; there was also a missionary-themed take on trading cards. I already collected Marvel Comics trading cards and I had lots of baseball cards, but the cards from church featured missionaries instead of sports stars or superheroes. Each card had the picture of a missionary family on the front and information about them, the part of the world where they lived, and how to pray for them on the back. We won these Missionary All Stars cards in Kids Church by playing games and much like the Pokémon cards that didn’t exist yet, we had to catch em’ all.

When I was nine years old, I actually met two of the missionaries from one of my trading cards because my parents had them over to our house during a Missions Week. They were an older white couple who lived in Chile and over a dinner of chicken spaghetti, they told us about their lives. Frankly, I was more interested in the food because my mother’s chicken spaghetti is slap-you-in-the-teeth delicious, but when they showed us on a map where Chile was and explained how many hours it took to get from there to Dallas, I was fascinated. From there, it was helping-after-helping of interesting information for we kids who had no real clue what existed outside of our trips to church and our commute a few blocks over to Austin Elementary. I thought they were cool, globetrotting grandparents and I kept their Missionary All Star card in my keepsake drawer for as long as I can remember.

ICON SET-08Paul was the Bible’s great missionary. The back third of the Bible is basically a batch of letters he or his colleagues wrote to the churches he’d visited in order to spread the news of Jesus around their world. He served as an odd hybrid of traveling preacher, remote pastor, and shit-stirrer and as such, he had one of the fullest, most fascinating, and most complicated lives of anyone in the Bible. From his opening act of being a Christian-killer [Acts 8:1] to his singing “Praise the Lord, I saw the Light,” on the road to Damascus [Acts 9:3], his arch is one of the more dramatic of all the Bible’s heroes. He went from supervillain to superhero in the course of one road trip. That’s amazing. Paul’s was a life full of stories but among his many episodes, I was most interested in one specific adventure with a dude named Silas. Hearing their story in Sunday School, I pictured them as the biblical Rescue Rangers, a Chip and Dale-style duo spreading hope to the masses while singing “Moving Right Along” like Kermit and Fozzie as they traveled the world. The reality wasn’t nearly as Disneyfied but I still think it’s interesting.

When the story begins, Silas hadn’t been Paul’s ride-or-die for very long. Paul and his previous BFF, Barnabas, had an epic falling out because Barney wanted to bring a third dude along on their traveling ministry circus and Paul was super against the idea. No new people. We’re enough. As Jack McFarland once said on Will & Grace, “I know you’re new here, and, um, we don’t want you to think we’re really cliquey and don’t let anyone in our little group, but, um, well, we’re really cliquey and we don’t want anyone in our little group.” Barnabus stood his ground though and pushed to add another merry man to their team but rather than having a rational conversation about why that didn’t make fiscal sense, Paul got pissed, threw a fit, and stormed off. I imagine him pointing at Silas as he walked away, “You. You’re with me. Let’s bounce.” So Silas left with Paul and Barney was left behind. This is Real Housewives plotline that would easily fill a three-episode arch and at least half a reunion.

“You never listened to me!” Barney would shout across the couches.

“I don’t owe you an apology,” Paul would say sternly. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”

Okay that last part was Horton from Horton Hears a Who but you get it. Paul wasn’t budging on the issue, so much so that he’d rather continue without Barney. So that’s exactly what he did.

One morning during a sit-down stop on their tour, as Paul and his replacement-BFF Silas were headed to “the place where they prayed,” they ran into a slave girl who was possessed by a spirit that enabled her to tell the future. In reality, she was less a slave and more a soothsaying prostitute for the men who owned her, doling out fortunes and bringing in a lot of money for her masters. I get it. Psychics are big business. If you’ve ever been to Mardi Gras, you know this is true.

This girl developed a tendency of following after Paul and Silas, shouting about how they were servants of the Most High God and they’d come to tell the people how to be saved. Every day as they walked to their prayer time, she followed after them shouting this same phrase over and over. This tells us two things. The first is that Paul and Silas weren’t preaching on street corners and were, instead, going to a specific place in which to pray each day. The reason for this comes later in the story. The second thing is this girl and the spirit within her could see the God in them anyway. Her constant shouting eventually got the best of Paul and one morning, frustrated and needing her to stop, he turned to her and commanded the spirit inside of her be exorcised, “in the name of Jesus Christ.” [Acts 16:18]

The spirit immediately jumped ship and left the slave girl alone and powerless. In any other case, freedom from demonic possession is met with a joyful end—the darkness is expelled and the light has returned—but this slave girl’s pimps were furious she couldn’t make money for them any longer. As such, they apprehended Paul and Silas and drug them before the authorities. The charge against them: our Rescue Rangers were said to have been teaching and perpetuating customs that were illegal for the Romans to practice.

The Romans were particular about the semantics of their laws—they were not to worship or teach about gods that weren’t already within the public consciousness—so when Paul evoked the name of Jesus Christ to dispel the spirit from the slave girl, they argued that as far as the Roman tradition was concerned, Jesus qualified as a “new god.” This comes back to the reason Paul and Silas weren’t preaching on the street and why they had a “place where they prayed.” It was illegal to condone a god that wasn’t already established in their pantheon (Greek mythology pun!) of gods.

The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses have long fascinated me. Whether it was the animated story of Hercules going from “zero to hero” or the made-for-TV movie version of The Odyssey, I couldn’t get enough. I had a particular affinity for Hermes in The Odyssey movie. His hair was curly and full of gold glitter. I liked that. He was also fit with the build of a swimmer whereas I was roly poly with the build of a pug puppy. Anyway, for people who worshiped such an enormous cloud of deities, each with their own disciplines and areas of focus, the monotheistic concept of there being only one God wasn’t in their comfort zone.

A mob formed, as one tends to in these stories, and the city official had Paul and Silas stripped down and beaten with wooden rods; an overreaction by anyone’s standards. After they were good and bruised, the officials put our Rescue Rangers in prison and the jailer was ordered to lock them in the inner dungeon and to clamp their feet into stocks.

Paul and Silas’ imprisonment is often correlated solely to their preaching about a God their evil oppressors didn’t want them to preach about but that’s really the “church answer.” A “church answer” is the sort of answer we Super-Christian kids gave to sound uber-spiritual. For example, when our Sunday School teacher would ask, “If your friend on the playground knocks you off the monkey bars, what should you do?” The answer you wanted to give was you should pick yourself up and knock them into next week, but the “church answer” was that you should turn the other cheek and pray for them. This sort of answer dialed up the wattage on your halo.

No, the real reason Paul and Silas were detained was economic. It had more to do with causing a loss of income for those slave owners than about saying Jesus’ name in public. Powerful people tend to lash out when their power is threatened or diminished and that’s the crux of what happened here. The preaching claim was just the loophole in which to snare them. Still, it was the marriage of that loss of income and Paul’s momentary disregard for the religious law that landed them in shackles.

Biblical-era prison wasn’t a great place to be. There were no TVs, no free hours outside to play touch football, and no groups of diverse women in orange jumpsuits to make you laugh. There also wasn’t a funny but slow Deputy Fife to keep you entertained. Prison meant stone and chains and rats and illness and the innermost part of that prison would be the darkest, the dankest and the most rat-friendly. Prison sucked.

Even so, around midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God while the other prisoners listened. This was an odd choice in that the setting for their worship service was in the aforementioned prison of horribleness but also because talking about Jesus is how they wound up in that mess in the first place. But they didn’t care they weren’t supposed to be singing about Jesus and they didn’t seem to care about whether they’d ever get out of that prison. So they sang. In the most hopeless, painful, and uncomfortable of situations, they sang. Take that one to the bank. No matter what’s going on in your life, sing.

But their impromptu worship service didn’t last long because a massive earthquake began to shake the stone prison all the way down to its foundation. The seismic jolts and shifts caused the doors to come unhinged and swing open as well as causing the prisoners’ chains to come loose and fall off. Talk about a concert bringing down the house.

The jailer was obviously shaken awake and when he saw the open doors, he naturally assumed the prisoners made a run for it. Who could blame him? But rather than confronting the shame of his failure to keep all the prisoners locked up, he pulled out his sword so he could kill himself. Where’s Brené Brown to give a talk on shame when you need her?

Seeing this, Paul shouted, “Hey! Don’t kill yourself! We’re all still here!”

There’s a lot about the Bible that doesn’t make earthly sense and I’m cool with that but why isn’t this prison full of newly-unshackled prisoners—none of whom sprinted toward freedom—listed among the greatest miracles in the Bible? It goes against all human fight-or-flight instincts. Even the Orange is the New Black girls bolted when given the chance to swim in the lake and they had it good inside their penitentiary. The jailer was so dumbfounded by every prisoner staying in their cells that he asked Paul and Silas what he must to do be saved.

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And he did. And, in another biblical example of restorative justice, the jailer was so moved, he washed Paul and Silas’ wounds before having everyone in his household immediately baptized.

I love that tucked into this miracle story about being freed from prison by a God-timed earthquake, there’s the message that God can use us no matter where we may find ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we’re chained in prison, climbing a mountain in Peru, or cycling in Portland, there are always opportunities for us to be a light to others.

The next morning, the city officials sent the police to tell the jailer to let Paul and Silas go but when the cop told them they were free, there was no Braveheart freedom cry. Instead, hothead Paul told him, “They have publicly beaten us without a trial and put us in prison—and we are Roman citizens. And now they want us to leave secretly so they don’t look bad? Absolutely not! Let them come themselves to release us!”

When the police reported this, city officials were alarmed to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. So they came to the jail and apologized. They then brought them out and begged them to leave the city. When Paul and Silas left the prison, they returned to the home of Lydia where they met with the local Christ-followers once more before heading out toward their next stop on their ministry tour.

ICON SET-08I’ve never felt called to be a vocational missionary—as a kid, I did think I was going to be a Children’s pastor but by high school, that was a past-tense ambition—I however have been on one proper foreign missions trip.

I’d just graduated from high school and my church partnered with other churches to go to Mexico and share God’s love with kids through the lens of soccer. We were assigned a neighborhood in Ensenada where we could set up a pop-up Vacation Bible School of sorts and a blacktop became our chapel, soccer goals our pulpits, and soccer balls the message. Being that soccer was not my spiritual gift, the kids took great pleasure in scoring on me when I attended the goal. Mostly, I think the kids showed up because they were curious as to why a group of gringos had fútbols y dulces.

On the first day, a young boy no older than seven sat next to me on our blacktop pew. He had eyes like a Pixar character, large and animated, and he took a liking to me. Actually, he took a liking to my hair. Not only was I a tall gringo, but I had long tangerine-hued blonde hair. I’d begun highlighting my hair because that’s what the guys in N*Sync did and eventually, after so many touch-ups, my brunette hair had turned blonde. The kids acted as if they’d never seen that hair color before and rarely was there a moment when they weren’t running their hands through my bowl cut. Julian and I got along famously, like an older brother looking out for his little bro, and each morning he’d run up to me and give me a pint-sized hug before scurrying off to play soccer with the other kids. We’d sit together to listen to the translator and the puppets talk about God and about taking care of each other, and then we’d kick the soccer ball until it was time to go home.

On the last morning at our blacktop church, we staged a water balloon fight for what was an aggressively hot summer day. We spent hours filling balloons with water for the kids to throw at us and it was a fun way to spend a morning. Water fights are always a good idea. Afterward, completely soaked, Julian tied unfilled balloons into my blonde hair—something the kids thought was hysterical. I’m sure they were calling me a big gay blonde balloon man in Spanish, but I let them and we laughed together as I ended up looking like a voodoo doll; a head covered in colored balloon dreads. When the translator told the kids it was our last day, Julian began to cry. Then, as our team tossed out soccer balls and told the kids who caught them they could keep them, he cried harder. He was too small and the bigger kids had scooped them all up, and though he’d had his hands on one, another of the older kids had stolen it away. The rest of the kids ran off to play and as tears streamed down his face, he began to run toward home. As he ran, he shouted things in Spanish I couldn’t understand.

In the bag we’d brought, there was one remaining soccer ball that hadn’t been given away. I grabbed it and shouted “Julian!” He turned around, his Pixar eyes even wider than usual—like a puppy with shelter face—and they were red from crying. I held up the ball and motioned that it was his. His expression changed from sadness to shock and he ran toward me. I handed him the soccer ball and he wrapped his arms around my legs. “Gracias, gracias, gracias!” he said, clutching the ball as if it were made of diamonds. I helped break down the puppet stage and once our supplies were packed in the van, we said our goodbyes. I knelt and hugged Julian, sad I wouldn’t see him again. He asked me something in Spanish I couldn’t understand to answer, and he picked his soccer ball up and ran to his mom. As we drove off, I could see him showing off his new ball to her with an exuberance only a seven-year-old can muster. For Julian, on that day, God’s love looked like a soccer ball.

Since then, I’ve developed complicated feelings about youth groups full of white kids popping into another country for a few days to dole out God’s love before leaving to go sightseeing. Beyond the impractical lack of follow-up required for someone to really learn who God can be in their life, it also establishes an us-versus-them hierarchy that’s not healthy and can become deeply embedded into how we see the world. They’re “the poor” and we’re “the blessed.” They’re “in need of saving” and we, on our All-American pedestal, are the ones to save them. That’s an icky dynamic and I can’t bring myself to be a part of it anymore.

However, one of my best friends happens to be a vocational missionary today. (Isn’t life one long series of ironies?) We met interning at a church together and when I went back to Texas to finish college, Madison moved to Hawaii to join a program that’s been training and equipping missionaries since my mother was a kid. Since then, she’s traveled-to and lived-in countries all over the world. She’s learned new customs and languages and neighborhoods but mostly, she’s learned that the key to sharing God’s love is to love people just as they are.

Currently, she lives in Turkey, an Islamic country that couldn’t be more opposite from her upbringing in New York City. I mean, come on. A single black woman moves to Turkey with other single Americans and she’s expecting to reach a people who believe men and women shouldn’t even dine in the same room as each other? How is it possible that this girl from Washington Heights is going to change those people’s worlds?

Turns out, it’s possible one cup at a time.

I don’t mean that in a saccharine “her cup runneth over” sort of way, rather, it’s been possible one cup of coffee at a time. In her visits back to the States, Madison told us about what being a missionary looked like for her. It doesn’t look like street corner preaching or a basketball court VBS. It doesn’t look like Missionary All Star cards or youth groups gaslighting people by handing out the salvation message on tracts with titles that read “Do you Choose Heaven or Hell?” or “Don’t Be Left Behind.” It looks like coffee shops and dinner tables. As a matter of fact, she’s there to open a coffee shop; to create a space where people can gather and meet; where anyone can share and get to know one another. She isn’t trying to be Paul and Silas, singing miracles down from Heaven in the middle of a mosque. In a way, she’s more like Lydia, the one who provides the room and the space for God to do whatever God is going to do in the lives of the people who gather there. Those people, the people who gather, are Christ-followers and Muslims, they’re Middle Eastern and they’re American ex-pats, and for her, God’s love doesn’t look like a sermon or an altar call. God’s love looks like a latte.

When I was in high school, our youth group grew so large we needed a bigger space to accommodate everyone. As such, we moved into the sanctuary of the church. It was a big deal and a welcomed change from our overly-cramped room upstairs in the church. With that move came all sorts of new opportunities, one of which was space to set up a coffee shop in the lobby. The plan was that this “Java Jive Coffee House” would open up a couple hours before the service and then remain open for a while after the service ended. There wasn’t a Christianese spin to it, the cups weren’t covered in Bible verses and there weren’t wandering pastors on the prowl for students with whom they could blabber on about Christ’s love. It was coffee and conversation; coffee and homework; coffee and guys with guitars.

One of the senior girls in the group organized the experience and I became her de facto assistant. I arrived at church as soon as school was over in the afternoon so I routinely set up the coffee bar, brewed the brew and made sure the beanbags were evenly spaced around the lobby. It didn’t take long before a sense of ownership began to creep in and those hours listening to songs like “Java Jive” sung by The Manhattan Transfer became my favorite part of each week.

I fell in love with that makeshift, pop-up, space-specific coffeehouse. I learned hazelnut is a far superior flavor profile than vanilla when it comes to coffee and I also learned burnt coffee really sucks. But the most important thing I learned was that all people really need is a place to come together. Through doling out a few dozen cups of coffee, I was witness to the power and freedom of connection.

I saw strangers become friends. I saw old friends reconnect. I saw loners go from hermitting in a corner while reading a book to walking in the doors and being greeted by handfuls of friends. I saw tearful conversations and a whole lot of laughter. There was a lot of light in that room. So, when I see Madison doing the same thing in Turkey (except her coffeehouse is the real deal), I get it. I understand the mission in her mindset.

In Madison’s story, I’m reminded of another missionary moment. When Jesus was in Samaria, around noon when the sun was really scorching, he sat down at a well. A Samaritan woman came over to draw water from the well and when she approached, Jesus asked her for a drink. Jesus, as a Jewish man, knew his people didn’t associate with the Samaritans but he struck up a conversation with this woman anyway. She needed a little hope and she found some over a glass of water. [John 4:4]

When I was a kid, the moral of Paul and Silas’ story in prison was: If you trust God, no matter where you are, the walls that block you, trap you, or tower over you will crumble. That’s still the case today but it doesn’t have to sit in the context of this larger-than-life story full of spirits and earthquakes and musical numbers. Sometimes, I think the directive, “go into all the world,” reads too much like a crusade. It’s placed in a missionary context because for most churchgoers, going equals missions while staying equals church ministry. But what if we read it as “go into all our world.” What if the world we’re meant to go to is the one we’re already in; the one around us right now? God is still tearing down walls today. It may not look like prison walls physically shaking or Jericho’s walls a-tumblin’ down, but the walls that exist between us, person-to-person, can come down and sometimes, all it takes is a cup of coffee to exorcise the darkness from someone’s day.

Paul and Silas’ story can be found in the book of Acts.