As I knelt to tie her shoes, a precious child with blond curls and bright eyes looked squarely into mine and whispered, “My mommy and daddy live in a hotel.” I gulped and replied with words wise and profound:
“Do you like your pink shoes?”
Of course, the truth is that I didn’t know what to say. My heart winced for this sweet foster child who leapt from the floor and twirled before the mirror in her sparkly silver skirt. She and her foster mom were our guests in the Mosaic Style with Love store, where foster children receive a personalized shopping experience where words of affirmation and blessing are offered, along with new clothes, shoes, and accessories.
In this instance, though, I couldn’t come up with timely words. I side-glanced at her foster mom who gave me a half-smile, an embarrassed “she-just-says-these-things” smile. Eventually the awkwardness passed as we admired the tip-toe dance of pink shoes and a sequin skirt.
A few months earlier, my friend and I were in eastern Europe, alongside women in the kind of crisis and poverty that rattles my sheltered imagination. Their social worker, a Christ-follower who devotedly pours herself into their lives, had planned a retreat and asked us to speak about the love of Jesus. As we worked through our rehearsed outline, she interpreted for us.
About midway through, a woman interrupted. I didn’t understand her words but they sounded cutting and irritable. Our interpreter explained her agitation: “I don’t see God loving me. I don’t feel God loving me. I’m waiting for God to love me!”
I gulped and I don’t remember if I said anything, profound or not. But another woman in the group – a woman whose crumbling home I’ve entered with disbelieving eyes, a woman who clings to her faith despite illness and poverty – spoke to her friend in their shared language:
“God is loving you right now. While you are sitting here, with these friends who love you, with your social worker who loves you. God loves you right here and now.”
After these two experiences in 2015, I don’t see “missions” – local or global – the same way. Perhaps not consciously, but I once viewed missions as an “us” and “them” enterprise. And “us” consisted of the ones with the spiritual answers, the resources, the polish and the shine. Maybe that kind of missional approach meets some temporary needs and provides a few feel-good moments. But can it create joy or sustain transformation for either “us” or “them?” It puffs up but it doesn’t build up.
I discovered, as I looked these precious souls in the eyes, that I have zero to offer out of an “us” and “them” mentality. My only offering comes out of an admission that we are together human and needful of grace. And what I offer oftentimes lacks polish or the timely word or the right answer to hard questions. But Jesus calls me to uncomfortable places where people say things that I don’t expect. They are honest. If I enter their experiences, why should they insulate me? And so, my own humanity feels exposed.
But while these scenarios were discomforting, I can’t name two more fulfilling experiences of the past year.
Lord, I thank You for the discomfort. Can I say, that in its midst, I felt the joyful awareness of standing upon holy ground? It’s here where I examine my heart and ask if I am willing to be broken, as a seed which gives life.
An “us” and “team” mentality spoils a missions effort by 1) implying a condescension that steals dignity and robs fellowship and 2) leading people to think that they must have it all together and/or 3) compartmentalizing missions into occasional good works without growth toward a missional lifestyle.
If it means that I am all the more aware of my frailty, my tendency to be tongue-tied, and my needfulness, then Lord, send me. And thank You for the amazing thought that you use us, not despite our brokenness, but surely through our brokenness. Your power is made perfect in our weakness.
I long for the fellowship of authenticity, as the “other” is human and vulnerable yet dignified, made in God’s glorious image. In truth, I don’t want to go on as an “other” – the one from the “right” side of town or the free, prosperous country who visits occasionally and returns safely to her sanctified bubble. This shared discomfort, between “others” colliding, gives us a glimpse of the incarnation – of Jesus becoming body in our humble, earthen mess.
In a world where people live in shady hotels and crumbling shacks, He came to “pitch his tent” (John 1:14). If Jesus incarnated Himself to birth in a manger, refugee status in Egypt, and to “have no place to lay his head,” surely we will experience Him in a new way when we identify with the “least of these.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” When we have a true perspective of our own poverty before God, without pretense or agenda, that humble spirit allows us into genuine fellowship with our brothers and sisters, and we see Him — in a foster mother, in an impoverished but grateful woman, in a social worker – those who pitch their tents and stay awhile. Missional living, after all, isn’t about “us” or “them” but about Jesus and His love being incarnated through human hands and feet.
Perhaps I don’t yet fully understand what personal transformations and sacrifices this kind of mission – this pitching the tent – requires of me. But an incarnational life requires an encounter with the Cross.
Here I am, Lord (Isaiah 6:8).
From Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, pages 104 – 105:
Compassion is something other than pity. Pity suggests distance, even a certain condescension. We can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves.
A compassionate person says: “I am your brother; I am your sister; I am human, fragile, and mortal, just like you. I am not scandalized by your tears, nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain.”
We can be with the other only when the other ceases to be “other” and becomes like us.
There are 400,000 children in the foster system in United States. Many children enter into foster homes with just a few articles of clothing and necessities. Christ-followers are called to “take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). The Mosaic Style with Love store is one way that members of Carmel Baptist Church are answering this call. Find out more [here].