This afternoon I was in a “conversation” with a friend of mine about what it means, as a Christian, to witness to others. We have two very different theological positions. And we are members of two very different Christian tribes. As a result, we also have two very, very different notions of what it means to witness to those God brings across our paths. I always appreciate my discussions with my friends who have differing perspectives than I do. It opens me up to ideas that I would normally run from and often reinforces convictions that I already hold. If all of the voices speaking in to your life sound the same, you ultimately do yourself a disservice to yourself and to others around you.
That being said, our disagreement was rooted in his argument that in order to witness to someone else, you must always offer a clear, spoken opportunity for that person to repent and be reconciled to Jesus. Basically, people have to give their heart to Jesus if witnessing to them is going to mean anything. I respectfully disagreed and offering the idea that often evangelism is less about an individual giving their heart to Jesus than it is about us giving Jesus’ heart to someone else…it’s not always proclamation, sometimes its the witness of your life in love and mercy and grace. This concept is sometimes called “relational” or “lifestyle” evangelism. I do believe it is important to verbalize the Gospel implicitly, but relational credibility is built over time and consistency and your verbal witness without your relational credibility is virtually useless to most we come across.
A while back, I wrote about an experience I had while living in Annapolis, MD that explains what I was trying to convey to my friend. I hope that my experience will serve as an encouragement to those of you that desire deep meaningful connection to people over the notion of initiating cold conversations with conversion in mind.
The simple act of consistent kindness is the key to many locks in this world…
PICKING UP THE TAB…
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of living in Annapolis, MD. If you have not had the pleasure of visiting, it is one of the most beautiful, picturesque places you could imagine. I compare it to living in a postcard with the ever-present sailboats in the area surrounding city dock, and the colonial architecture and imposing guard that is the United States Naval Academy dominating much of the downtown atmosphere. I miss autumn in Annapolis with all of its beautiful colors and smells and crispness. I miss sitting down near the City Dock around dusk watching the boats as they sauntered in and out of port. I miss the juxtaposition of the liberal-leaning St. John’s College with the conservative bastion that is the USNA (think Athens being across the street from Sparta).
Also…I miss 49 West.
49 West is a coffee shop/bistro located on the main street as you head down to the City Dock. It’s home to an eclectic mix of beatniks, intellectuals, young professionals, musicians, artists, tattooed non-conformists and other characters that bring a spice and vibrancy to a mostly conservative town. I would frequent 49 West because the food was excellent and the people watching was almost always epic. You were close enough to downtown to be in the middle of the action, but no so far that you were overrun with tourists. It was perfect.
Not surprisingly, the majority of people who call 49 West a frequent haunt would not characterize themselves as Christian or “churched”, but would describe themselves as being generically spiritual. You could often overhear philosophical discussions while eating or even religious debates from the Johnnies (St. John’s students) in response to their unique educational development. There was a certain existential search that is typical of any place that attracts artists, intellectuals, and generally, people who love the community that a bohemian coffee shop can provide.
One particular evening, I was sitting down to a meal by myself. It was a Thursday night, which was typically when the place would bring in jazz musicians to perform in the back room. It was always busy with people packing out every table, filling the room with laughter, discussion, and the clinging, clanging and chiming of good food being consumed. Thursdays were always full of life and occasionally…drama.
As I was eating, I noticed one of the female waitstaff walk very purposefully to the front door holding a receipt book. She walked out the front door and looked up and down the sidewalk for a moment and then came back through the door with a look of concern. I realized, with the help of context clues, that someone had walked out on their tab. If you have ever worked in food service, you know that this is not a good thing. Her manager came up to her and I could see that they were talking about the situation. He said something and you could tell by the look on her face that things had gone from bad to worse. I am guessing that the tab was going to come out of her tips. And then, as sometimes happens, I heard Jesus somewhere in the back of my skull…An inner conversation had begun:
Jesus Inside My Skull: Rick, pay for the meal.
Rick: Why don’t you give me a better paying job?
JIMS: Are you kidding me?
I knew that this was Jesus, because I am usually on the selfish side of money issues. As a matter of fact, I have found that if you have a thought or impulse that is obviously good in the moral sense and it makes you uncomfortable, then that thought is almost always Jesus’ idea. I typically question the origin or motive of a good deed when it makes me uncomfortable and it turns out that this discomfort seems to be a hallmark of a God-breathed notion clashing with my selfishness. So, I motioned for the downcast server to come over to my table, which was convenient because she was my server for the evening as well.
Her name was Sarah.
She asked if everything was ok and if I needed a refill. I let her know that the food was fantastic and then I asked her if I could pay the bill that was left behind. I cannot describe the look that came over her face. It was the kind of distrusting, confused look that emerges when a random dude is making a weak attempt at a flirting. I ensured her that I wasn’t hitting on her, I just thought it was the right thing to do. She looked up for a second and then turned around and walked towards the kitchen area without saying anything. I assumed that she was going to blow off my offer, so I started to eat again. After a few moments, she walked by my table and sheepishly slid the ticket near me…almost ashamed to do so. I looked up and she mouthed thank you as she walked away.
So, I picked up the ticket and looked at the damage left by the dine-n-dashers. Damn. I was already splurging on myself that night, so I could’ve really used a water-and-caesar-salad sort of tab. Not so much. These people had set out to eat very well without obligation or consideration for anyone else. Unfortunately we often gorge ourselves at the expense of others. I set out my debit card and she picked it up and brought it back to me with another earnest thank you written on her face. I started to sign the tab when Jesus started piping up again.
JIMS: Why don’t you tip her?
Me: Ok…what are you thinking? 10%?
JIMS: No. Actually I was thinking that you could tip her the balance of the bill. And then do the same on your bill. That’s what I was thinking.
Me: You are aware of what I do for a living right? I mean, because you are the one who called me to do it. Are you kidding me? I don’t think Dave Ramsey would ok this.
JIMS: Yes…I know what you do for a living and now let’s see if you’re serious about actually doing it. It’s what I want you to do because it’s the not just the right thing to do. It’s what I would do.
So, I did what Jesus asked me to do and I walked out feeling large in the heart and small in the wallet.
About 2 weeks later, I was eating an early dinner at 49 West on my day off. It was the first time I had been in since “Break the Bank Thursday”. I had a delicious Rosemary Chicken Sandwich, a slice of cheesecake and class of wine. It was pretty quiet in there that day and I remember enjoying the laziness of it all. After finishing up, I asked for the tab. My server Josh retrieved it and showed me the balance. I reached for my wallet and Josh stopped me cold.
Josh: You need to put your wallet away.
Me: Excuse me?
Josh: We know what you did for Sarah that night that she was left hanging, and that was really a stand-up thing to do. You just need to know that you will never have to pay for another meal as long as I am working here.
Me: Wow. I don’t know what to say. That’s not really necessary, but thank you. I really don’t mind paying.
Josh: One good turn deserves another. And I’ve never heard of someone doing something so nice for no reason at all.
It was a really amazing moment. One where you realize that God might really know what he is talking about after all. So I just assumed, like always, that God was teaching me to be generous so he could show me what real generosity was. I thought that this was going to make a great sermon illustration and that ended the lesson. It was at this point that Josh asked me a question that always makes me uncomfortable…especially when I really start to connect with a person:
Josh: So what do you do? Are you a student or a young professional?
Now, I am a pastor. I love being a pastor. I am proud to serve people in this way, but there are certain situations in which I feel that my job title will short-circuit my ability to connect with people who aren’t so high on church. This was one of those moments when I wished I could say, “environmentalist” or “mountain biker” or “real estate novelist” (pretty sure Billy Joel just made that one up). So, with more than a little anxiety, I looked at him and said:
Me: I will tell you what I do if you don’t judge me.
Josh: Huh? What does that mean? Wait…are you in porn?
Me: No! No…no…no. Think the other end of the spectrum. I work in ministry. I work in a church.
Josh: Oh. Really? Huh. That’s cool. Even though I’m not really into religion and stuff I can respect that. But I do consider myself a spiritual person.
JIMS: That seems to be going around…
We talked for a little while longer and Josh reassured me that my choice of profession/philosophy was cool with him, so there would always be a free meal waiting for me there.
Over the next few weeks and months, I would go to 49 West and enjoy the food, meeting new friends, and jazz music. I got to know most of the staff and they playfully referred to me as Preacher Man…which thrilled me to no end. Occasionally, someone would ask my opinion on philosophy or politics or gay rights and I would share what I thought about how Jesus would respond to all that stuff. Nothing too heavy…just honest community in diversity. It was a chance to share Jesus’ heart without having to bludgeon anyone with a 15lb. Bible. I enjoyed it very much.
And then, one day I found out why Jesus really wanted me to pay that tab.
I walked in one day and the cafe was mostly empty. I could hear the clinking of dishes and the chiming of silverware in the back, but there wasn’t really anyone around. I made my way to the back section to use the restroom when I saw Sarah, Josh, and another server whose name I cannot recall. I shall call him Simon. I could tell that something was wrong because Sarah was staring at the salt shakers on the table and the others were consoling her and rubbing her back. I smiled awkwardly and decided to mind my own business and went into the restroom. I came back out and Josh waived me over:
Josh: Hey…do you have a minute?
Me: Sure. What’s going on?
I walked over to the booth in the corner where they were sitting and I realized that Sarah had been crying. She looked very tired and very done with the whole situation..whatever that was. The guys informed me that she had a very messy brake up with her boyfriend the night before, and she was having a really hard time coming to terms with it. They also mentioned that he was kind of abusive and prone to putting her down and disrespecting her. She said that she knew it was wrong to be with him, but she felt so emotionally wrapped up in him she did not know how to stay away or move on or even function apart from him. They were trying desperately to convince her that her ex was toxic and she should cut her loses. So Josh, looked at me after a moment and said:
Josh: Rick, could you give her some advice? I mean, try to keep Jesus and the Bible and church out of it if you can. But you seem to always have good things to say and we are having a hard time trying to help her. She respects you and so do we.
Me: Well Josh, that’s hard for me to do because Jesus and the Bible and the church are why I see life the way I do. But I will try to be generic but I can guarantee it.
Josh: We appreciate it man. We just just don’t know what to say to help her.
This is where life becomes very sobering, very quickly. Each of us that believes in Jesus has a tremendous opportunity to speak healing and hope into a world that is so damaged with sin and human frailty. These three trusted what I had to say about their lives. That is an unbelievable honor. Our words can create and destroy if we are not careful, and I just did not want to blow this opportunity to justify their trust and encourage their own, “spirituality”. So I just started by asking Sarah a simple question:
Me: Sarah, do you feel like this guy really loved you?
Sarah: I’m not sure what that means.
Me: Well, I believe that love is seeking to put the needs and feelings of the other person ahead of your own. It’s something that desires to give itself away. Not just a physical thing, but a real deep sense of wanting what is best for the other person. Is this what he gave you?
She sat there for a moment and to quote John Mayer, played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shakers. You could see the obvious struggle in her own mind between what she knew to be true and what she felt to be safe. Finally after a couple of minutes, she answered:
Sarah: I don’t think he did. I think he loved himself too much to love me.
JIMS: Rick, tell her about what love is. Tell them all.
Me in my Skull: Workin’ on it…
Me: Sarah, do you ultimately want love? I mean do you want to be with someone who will seek to put you first? Do you want to be with someone who you love and respect so much because you are so grateful for how they actually want to fight their selfishness for you.
Sarah: Yes…even though I don’t deserve that. (Her shoulders started to shudder as the emotions spilled over on all of us)
Me: Then can I show you something?
I knew that there was a Jesus/God/Church stipulation on my advice, but I knew that God desperately wanted to show these kids of His the real breadth and depth of love. So I walked back out to my Jeep and grabbed my Message Bible. I flipped over to the oft-used 1 Corinthians 13 passage. You know, the love section that everyone reads at weddings? I was pretty sure that she had never read it before, and I just wanted to show her what she was missing with this guy and maybe missing in her life in general. So I sat down and laid the Bible down next to me. Now the beauty of this was that most MSG Bibles have a cool, hip covers, which are great for covert ops.
Me: I am going to ask you to read something. Is that ok?
Sarah: It’s the Bible isn’t it?
Me: I cannot confirm or deny your suspicions.
JIMS: Niiiiice. Maybe I should have called you to be a comedian…
Fortunately there was a bit of laughter to break the tortured tension. She nodded in approval and smiled painfully through her work mascara streaked eyes and I slid it over to her. The passage had already been highlighted in my copy, so she immediately began reading:
1 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. 2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. 4 Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head,5 Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, 6 Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, 7 Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. 8 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. 9 We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. 10 But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. 11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. 12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
She sat there reading, and I could see her heart breaking and mending at the very same time. Her eyes welled up again and her chin started to quiver as she finished the passage. She looked up at me and shook her head side-to-side. Then she started to look back down at the floor. I wanted her to know that this was waiting for her. This is the love that was waiting for all of them.
Me: Sarah, this is what love is…this is what you deserve. If this isn’t what your ex tries to look like, move on and move up.
She started to weep quietly and nod her head in a I-know-you’re-right, sort of way. Josh slid the Bible over to himself and read the passage. I could see his eyes absorbing what was on the page and his heart drinking it in. He looked up after a moment and said, quietly awestruck:
Josh: Wow. I didn’t know the Bible was written like this.
He then slid the Bible down to Simon and told him to check it out. Simon read it and said:
Simon: That is the most $#*%ing amazing thing I have ever read. Is the whole book like this?
It was as surreal a moment as you could possibly imagine. Now, I would like to tell you that all three of them dropped to their knees and gave their hearts to Jesus. After all, that is how we normally measure a successful witnessing opportunity. Turns out, that often it is less about an individual giving their heart to Jesus than it is about us giving Jesus’ heart to someone else. We sat there for a few more moments, and I asked to pray with them. They allowed me to, and I asked for strength and love and courage for Sarah. I often pray with my eyes open, and they just stared at the floor taking it all in.
I realized I had bought far more than an abandoned meal weeks earlier.
I went into 49 West a couple dozen more times in my remaining time in Annapolis. We would have a few more discussions about life. I ate a few more delicious meals and heard some great jazz music. I think about my friends there from time to time and hope that they get around to reading the rest of the book. I pray for 49 West & someone who is willing to pick up a burden that is not theirs with no agenda other than loving people.
Often, we miss, or even worse, dismiss the prompting of Jesus in our hearts. We talk ourselves out of the simple obedience that leads to those real encounters in which Jesus literally uses us to be Himself with skin on. If you would have told me that I would be sitting in 49 West with its wait-staff exploring the mystery and beauty of God’s perfect love, I would have called you crazy. Because that is what it is. Jesus asks us to be a little insane. Believing that you are worth Jesus to God is by it’s very nature, non-sensical.
But, so is paying a debt that is not your own.
JIMS: Hmmmm…sounds like someone I know.