take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 3): devotion to street kids

Street boys at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

“Street boys” at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

In the last two posts (this one and this one) I described what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, how they think, and one of the most important things they do, which is hospitality. This final post has more to do with what I learned about how missionaries feel.

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” -Charles Spurgeon

As we think about this together, ask yourself where your own mission field is or could be, and who the target people group in your life is or could be to which you want to devote yourself as a missionary.

Paul said to the people in one of his mission fields,

My little children, I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! Galatians 4:19

Dedication to a people group or mission field–such as the streets we live on–always starts with prayer: prayer in the Spirit, in the will of God, for those people, like the prayers of the apostles for their churches and Jesus for his disciples.

…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… Colossians 1:9

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened… Ephesians 1:16-17

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. Philippians 1:9

What begins to happen as missionaries pray for the spiritual enlightenment and redemption of their people groups is miraculous. The deepest longing of their hearts becomes to see those people see the beauty and desirability of Jesus Christ, and to be transformed by the vision. Like Paul in the “anguish of childbirth,” missionary devotion becomes deep and dedicated. Their devotion becomes so sharply powerful that they can begin to lose themselves in an endless search for the perfect program, strategy, curriculum, or ministry model that will finally open the “eyes of their heart” and bring true change to their people group.

One of two things follows: emotional “burn-out,” or a re-centering of each missionary’s life and ministry around Christ’s gospel. The truth is that the beautiful paradox of Christ on the cross is the only persuasion strong enough to melt a stony heart, and the only argument cogent enough to convince a skeptical one. Wise missionaries realize eventually that their only task, ultimately, is to display and explain Jesus Christ, and to affirm and sharpen the vague but universal sense we all have that everything is wrong and that we need a Savior. In other words, it is to tell people to “repent and believe,” making sure they know what that means.

In Honduras, I learned a lot about “street kids” and children (and grown-up children) from abusive homes. If they get rescued from their environments and are put in loving and healthy settings, they tend to follow a pattern. They get the “itch” to run away from home, usually back to Mom, as if to check if anything has changed with the people supposed to love them. Usually, nothing has. Then, they run back to the streets, too ashamed to face their caretakers or adoptive parents, until street life becomes so unbearable that they sheepishly come back home and repeat the cycle.

Every missionary is persuading spiritual street kids and prostitutes to come home, be loved, sleep in real beds (as it were), and not run back to their natural father, the Father of lies, only to discover again that he only binds and steals from them. We are persuading them, and our own selves, that our adoptive Father really will meet us, running to us, with open arms, again. The lies in street kids’ minds about love and God go very deep–as they do in every human heart.

Praise God, because transformation really happens. It is not a myth, though it is usually undramatic. People slowly begin to think about what God wants when they make decisions. They start learning to appreciate the beauty of Scripture. They are moved to prayer by the story about Jesus dying. They feel hope from the story about him resurrecting. They run away from home less often. They start praying for other runaways. They talk about grace and are startled to find, after a while, that they too have become devoted. They are missionaries.

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another king

…they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also… and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. Acts 17:6-8

You are living under tyranny. Brainwashed into trusting the systems put in place around you, you are convinced that the way you are living is “normal” and “natural” and even “necessary,” meanwhile oblivious to your progressing self-destruction. You are a willing subject of a totalitarian regime that steals not only your money and freedom but also your humanity and identity. You sit by, applauding your emperors, blind to their nakedness; boasting of your health, insensate to your cancer; admiring your wealth, ignorant of your destitution.

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Revelation 3:17

Then, probably without invitation, some people come along and start speaking to you of another kingdom–another king. At first these messengers come across as mild and perfectly harmless. They are not exceptionally charming, connected, or well-spoken. They never announce themselves. You simply find them in your life, by your side, still there when the others have left. Sometimes they whisper in your ear, sometimes they shout through your window. They often seem physically afflicted and in need, but they pay no mind, though without an ounce of self-delusion. They simply do not believe in the systems and norms of the world anymore. They do not even seem to trust their own perception or opinions. You soon begin to feel that they understand something you don’t.

…we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men… to the present hour, we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

The stories your strange friends tell you about their king strike you as even more unfathomable. This king is a conqueror without an army, a master of nature who hungers and thirsts, a virgin friend to prostitutes, and a penniless friend to white-collar thieves. He answers questions with questions. He defies authority and practices courtesy. He is abrasive. He is meek. It seems that no one in the world understands him.

There was again division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said [of Jesus], “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” John 10:19-21

Finally, you find out that this supposed king, when he was still young, was brought to court by some religious zealots and sentenced to a humiliating death by the political powers who strutted the earth in his day. You would normally expect that the premature death of the leader of such a young movement would be its end. Yet your friends talk about his death as if it accomplished a purpose of extreme importance, as if the king himself planned the whole thing, even. You would like to brush this off as self-deception, but every piece of the story also seems to indicate that this king was in fact witnessed alive, walking and talking, three days after his burial, and many more times afterward.

Jesus answered [Pilate], “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:11

This king is clearly like none you have ever heard of, nor is his kingdom one you can find on a map. For the strangest reason, in light of what you have heard about him, everything you once cherished as admirable and rich now begins to appear to you rather cheap and pointless, actually. You find yourself thinking that your emperors are really quite powerless, your gold really quite dull, your lovers really quite boring.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 4:8

You find yourself in terribly difficult position. You are straddling the precipice. You have seen through the pomp and emptiness of your entire world, your entire basis for understanding the universe. All your former thoughts of safety, wellness, self-control, pride in your country or family–all were illusions. Nothing more than mirages of water in a desert of pure sand.

You have heard talk of revolution. You have been told about another king. You have heard him single you out by name, as it were. You realize that to join in will mean utter upheaval. Your friends won’t get it, your family won’t like it, your bosses won’t tolerate it. All your plans must change.

But you can’t get this other king out of your head.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46

What will you choose?

prayers to Jesus in Iran

[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of the seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32

“see how the farmer waits”

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. James 5:7-8

It’s the “information age,” the “age of technology.” Technology is fast and easy, and it makes things fast easy, and if using it requires patience, it’s bad technology. As a result, we as a culture are obsessed with instant satisfaction.

God, meanwhile, is the God of eternity. He never began, and will never end. Patience is an elemental part of his character. It’s not surprising, therefore, that nearly all the Bible’s metaphors for ministry and living as a Christian are agricultural – rather than technological.

Not long ago, everyone easily understood farming metaphors. In today’s America, only farmers, or people who garden, have even a sense of the patience agriculture requires (although when compared to the work of ancient farmers, their idea of it is relatively small, too). Farming means backbreaking labor, careful planning, long periods of waiting, and dependence on many uncontrollable factors. It’s an organic and messy process, and growth is slow. Imagine plowing, then planting, then waiting for, then harvesting crops on dozens of acres of land, without any kind of technology. Try watching a single seed grow, even.

The fact that the Christian life is like agriculture is good news for all of us, especially us ordinary people. The work of ministry and evangelism is called “planting seeds,” and the process of growing in holiness is called “bearing fruit” ; we can expect them to be slow. God is not like your boss, demanding instant results, and firing you if you don’t turn them in on time. He is not the CEO of the corporation, he is the “Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38). God is beautifully, and incredibly, patient with us, the laborers in his vineyard.

It is good news, but it ultimately requires much more effort. It means that evangelism, relationships, and life in general as a follower of Christ need care, work, and attention over long periods of time. Lifetimes, even. There is no room for quick, clean, “talk to my pastor,” “come to this conference,” or “read this book and you’ll get it”-type ministry. Dealing with people means working hard to build trust, and getting to the core of real issues. It means intentionally pursuing people with whom relationship is not easy and not giving up on them when they do not produce quick results. The same goes for how we deal with ourselves.

The fact that agriculture is the common metaphor for Christian life and ministry means that we cannot succumb to our culture’s “instant satisfaction” mindset. Patience and diligence are crucial in applying the faith. God’s character of  unchangeability, patience, and trustworthiness is what makes our effort worth it, and our hope reasonable. Without that, we are blindly plowing fields and planting seeds with no reason to imagine that the rain will ever come, or that the seeds will ever grow.

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully… He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 2 Corinthians 9:6-10