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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Awkward Evangelist

This may come as a surprise to many of you who read this blog regularly...I am a terrible, terrible evangelist. There are those people who can't talk for longer than five minutes without their enthusiasm for Christ and the gospels bursting out of them.  Those who do this well do so in a way that makes you smile and feel their enthusiasm, even if you are not a believer.  Remember, please, that I have not always been a Christian.  I know what I'm talking about here.  Even when I was my angriest and at my most doubtful about the existence of a kind, loving God of any kind, much less the divinity of Jesus Christ, I encountered people whose belief and love for Jesus was loud and infectious.  Those people have a gift.

Unfortunately the kind of "evangelist" I normally come across is a different breed.  We'll call him The Awkward Evangelist.  You've all met him in one form or another.  The one who comes to your door and refuses to leave no matter how politely you try to encourage him to move to the next house.  I had one of these evangelical encounters recently at the train station in downtown Dallas.  My husband and I had struck up a conversation with the gentlemen waiting next to us.  He was carrying an instrument case and we started talking music.  He showed us his tenor saxophone, a beautiful instrument, black inlaid with gold, mother of pearl accents on the keys.  He pointed out the golden cross gracing one of those pearl keys, letting us know by that simple act that he was a Christian.  A few moments later, we were approached by a man holding water bottles out to my children and asking if they would like a drink.  After checking to make sure the tamper-proof lids were still intact, I thanked him.  He then asked if we would accept the religious flyers he was passing out.  We agreed happily and thanked him again.  He walked away.

At this point, I am fine.  The tracts had a simple breakdown of the gospel citing Scripture, an invitation to become a Christian, and information about his church.  My husband and I glanced over it, chatted a bit about the church's location, then put them away in our pockets and purse.  We continued to chat with our musical neighbor.  A few minutes later, our evangelizing friend was back, asking us if we'd had time to look over the information he'd given us and what we thought.  We said it looked great to us (or something to that effect) and told him we were already Christians.  There was an awkward silence.  He then turned to the man with the saxophone and said, terribly, awkwardly, "So!"

Let me pause right there.  If you ever, ever, ever have to preface your conversational direction with a loud and falsely enthusiastic "So!," just shut your mouth, walk away, and try again later.  It comes across strange, awkward, and not genuine.  I would never approach a jury in final arguments and say, "So!  What'd you think about that case?  I was pretty persuasive, don't you think?"  No, no, no, no, no!

Anyway, he asked our neighbor a few questions about the tract then he went in for what, clearly, he had been trained was the kill-shot.  "So,"  (AGAIN WITH THE "SO!") he said, "if you died today, do you think you'd go to heaven or hell?"  The saxophone player answered calmly, "Oh, I think I'd go to heaven."  The next word out of the evangelist's mouth was a dubious, "Really?"  I don't know what he planned to say next because I couldn't take it anymore.  I piped in, "Dude," (yes, I say "dude" a lot; I still say it's better than "so!"),  "that guy has a gold cross on his saxophone!  I'm sure Jesus can't wait to hear what he has to play on that thing."

I have the feeling some people are reading this and saying to the screen, "but, but, but!"  I know.  We, as Christians, are all under Jesus' directive to make disciples of all men.  I think how we go about this, however, is a varied process.  If I were a non-believer, the musician's simple act of showing me the cross on his instrument would have touched me.  Because he was a groovy guy, laid back and peaceful with an easy manner and attractive style.  My conversation with him, coupled with the receiving of a religious tract, might have made me check out a church, probably even the church the evangelist was working for.  But what happened next would have pushed me far, far away.  Back to thinking Christians were judgmental, creepy, and wrong.

Matthew 5:17 teaches that we are supposed to let our lights shine before men so that they would see our good deeds and follow God.  People should see our joy and our peace and wonder what we have that makes us that way.  To put it a different way, we should be about attraction rather than promotion.  Because God is calling everyone to himself; everyone, regardless of their background, their past or their present.  Everyone has a seed of longing for a relationship with the loving God who made them and we, as Christians, can either nurture that seed by our actions or add another layer of distrust, anger or misunderstanding.  And walking around telling people that they are going to hell, either because they aren't Christians at all or they aren't Christian "enough," doesn't really help our cause.

When our train arrived, I told our evangelical friend, "God bless you" and I meant it.  He is trying, God love him, and I am sure God will bless him for it.  I hope that someone he hands a tract to goes to church and finds out that God is real and God is love.  I hope some of his conversion conversations went a little better than the one I witnessed.  But he did not spread the gospel to me that day.  I did not see Christ reflected in him.  I saw Christ reflected in the kind eyes and easy smile of the saxophone player with a cross emblazoned on the instrument he loved.  God can use us, all of us, to reach people.  We need to trust Him to have us at the right place at the right time, using words the Spirit tells us to use in a spirit of genuine concern, interest, and love for our fellow man.  So let your little light shine (please note the proper use of the word "so") and, as much as it lies within you, live at peace with all men.  Let's set aside the awkward side-hug of a judgment-based evangelism.  There is no better way to spread the good news of Christ's love than to be loving, no better way to show His peace than to be peaceful yourself.  I pray God's blessings over every single person who reads this blog post and I hope it reads as it is meant:  to make you smile, to make you laugh, to make you think, and to let you know that you are loved, completely and with a warm embrace.      

Friday, August 3, 2012

Promises, Promises

I make promises to my kids.  Not just the regular kind of promises borne from constraints on time and/or budget ("We can't go to Chuck E Cheese today but I promise we'll go Friday") but big, important promises too.  Like, "I promise that I will always love you no matter what" and "I promise I will always be proud of you."

My promising habit started with Eddie.  It started even before he was born.  I was tremendously overcome with the awesomeness of being the incubator to a brand new life and I started straight away promising him and myself all kinds of things.  I wrote them down.  I promised to remember that he was a privilege and a blessing.  That he was here to teach me just as much as I was here to teach him.  I promised to listen to him, to respect his spirit, to love him enough to allow him to follow his own path and not try to force my ideas of what it should look like onto him.  I promised to remember that God made him just the way he was and not to try to change him.

Those promises ended up being harder to keep than I had anticipated in those giddy days of pregnancy.  Because he was born sick and wanted him healed.  It was hard to remember that God made him just the way that he was, that his body was flawed for a purpose.  Instead I wanted to just to freak out, pray and fight to fix it.  But I reflected on those promises I'd made and I changed my mind and waited for my heart to catch up.  I respected him just as he was, I praised God for him just as he was, and I celebrated him.  I told him I would fight with him as long as he wanted to fight but, if he ever wanted to let go, that this was going to be okay too.  It wouldn't change anything, not how much I loved him, not how indescribably proud I was to be his mother, nothing.  And I kept making promises.

I promised if he would fight through those first crazy weeks and months, those days of hardship, surgeries, chest tubes and IVs, poking, prodding, and heart-wrenching pain, that I would make it worth his while.  I told him about the beautiful world God had made, outside of the NICU walls.  I showed him videos of the sun and the sky, of grass and trees, animals and bicycles and I promised him we would see all of it.  That if he would just stick it out, keep fighting even when it was all too much, when it hurt too badly, when he was just exhausted, that I would do everything in my power to make the rest of his life beautiful.  I whispered this promise to him on the days I was able to hold him and even more fervently on the days that I was not, when he was forced to be motionless, hooked to what seemed a million machines, swollen and sick with infection.  I would rub the tiny stress lines that appeared between his eyes, kiss his knees and toes, and tell him I would do it all for him if I could but that, since I couldn't, I would make up for it later, anyway that I could.  I told him that he was Superman.  And he was.

Eddie made it out of NICU and I did my best to make good on my promise to him.  I showed him God's beautiful world and worked to make sure he saw me laugh much more than he ever saw me cry.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but I did it.  Not perfectly.  There were bad moments and hard days.  But he had fun.  He saw grass, trees and bicycles.  He went to the zoo and the circus.  He smiled and laughed.  We picked out fruit from the farmer's market together, played on the playground, danced in the kitchen, and celebrated silly everyday moments, everyday.  He ate chicken nuggets, popsicles, and crayons.  He lived his life and he saw that it was beautiful.

I was making plans for his second birthday celebration when he died.  The assumption people make that I was in some way prepared for his death isn't entirely true.  In the few days before the day of death itself, I felt it.  Felt a finality in my spirit, an urging toward seeking God's peace.  I don't know if that makes any sense to those reading this, but I can think of no other way to describe it.  But on this day, five years ago, I did not know that my little superman had only a week left to live.  That he was exhausted after the long, hard fight and ready to go home and rest.  That I would be called upon to fulfill my promise, respect the path that God had laid out for him, and let him go.

I did it, somehow, impossibly, and by the grace of God.  That chapter of my life drew to a close.  Life didn't stop though.  There were still promises to be made and kept, no less important.  I didn't get to bury my son, crawl in a hole and stop living, literally or figuratively.  Because there was another brilliant, beautiful Baby Boy on the way and, soon on his heels, a magical pixie-like Baby Girl.  And they deserve no less than their big brother.  I have promised to show them this beautiful world that God has made and I'm going to do it even when it feels like it is going to kill me.  Sometimes, especially around this time of year, it would be so much easier to turn on the television and parent in cruise control, wallowing in loss and self-pity.  I choose differently, because I promised them better; they deserve better.

So these days are filled with sprinklers and roly-polies, paint and petting zoos.  Trips to the Asian market to buy fish served whole, silver and shiny, watching with wonder as the man slices off heads and opens bellies.  With life:  mushy, messy, smelly, sticky and wonderful.  Because life is no less beautiful without Eddie in it; it is more beautiful for his having been here.  And I am going to experience and enjoy every single moment of it.  I promise.