Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Jesus Freak Quits Reality, Part 1

As I was growing as a Christian, there was one thing that I really wanted to become: a missionary.  

Missionaries are cool!  Or so I, the Christian nerd, thought.   Perhaps you, as a young person or an adult have met real missionaries.  In this you might realize that by our cultural standards, missionaries are about as uncool as could be.  They wear twenty year old clothes, and many of them speak in a monotone, and once you have seen about twenty missionary slides, you realize you have seen them all.  Sure, nowadays missionaries might have power point with the slides that pop in and out in cool ways, but they are still the same slides full of people you don’t know.  Kind of like watching your uncle’s vacation slides.   (The only exception to this are medical missionaries.  They bring home the most intense, gross slides possible, and show them just before the potluck.  I think they do this so they could get more to eat.  Missionaries are always so skinny that it seems that they don’t eat enough.)

            For me, however, as a teen, missionaries were the coolest thing anyone could be.  Anyone can read about Frodo, or watch movies about Indiana Jones or play a Narnia video game, but these guys lived out adventure every day.  I mean, Jim Eliott, who died trying to present the gospel to a tribe who had rarely seen white faces before and was killed for it.  Then his wife, Elizabeth,  went back to the same tribe to teach them the gospel!  Wow.  Hudson Taylor was told that he was too sick to go to China, but he traveled there by boat many times in his lifetime and traveled to the interior where missionaries had never been.  Of course, he did get sick, but that didn’t stop him or his message.  Wycliffe Bible Translators go to tribes whose language is not written, creates an alphabet for them and translates a book in the new language—usually the book of Mark—and then teaches them to read and write using that book.  How cool is that?!  And missionaries to Muslims are the secret agents of missionaries—going undercover to Muslim countries to secretly present the gospel and begin underground churches.1  Awesome.  C’mon—just tell me that missionaries aren’t cool.  Kinda like extreme sports, but more religious, and more real.

            Since the missionary life was the most extreme, most interesting job in Christian ministry, that’s what I wanted to be.  Going to foreign countries, preaching the gospel, helping the needy, learning new cultures—that is the life!  Well, it’s a life, anyway.

            Of course, as with most ideals, reality will often splash cold water on a person to wake them from dreamland.  Yeah, missionaries have lives of excitement, but the reality is more often excessive stress and burnout.  Missionary agencies are full of concerns about insurance and safety.  Mission team leaders are interested in assisting their new recruits “fit” into the society, rather than allowing radicals for Jesus.  Let’s face it, real Jesus freaks just aren’t acceptable to anyone—not even the church.  The “mature” church wants to hone down the rough edges of the extremist servant of Jesus.  I—as an up-and-coming Jesus freak— often heard statements like these: “So, Mr. Kimes, while we appreciate your enthusiasm and your willingness to sacrifice, we have certain safeguards that we must insist you comply with if you are to be a part of this organization.”  “Steve, must you constantly insist on being a saint?” The final straw, however, came when a team leader wanted me and my wife to live upper middle class lifestyles in the midst of a poverty-drenched nation.  I guess the normal path of missionary work just wasn’t for me.

            After years of being led and tagged along by missions organizations (whom I deeply respect, by the way), I was cut loose.  God stopped me from pursuing that avenue.  So what is a Jesus radical to do when the focus of your service is set aside and you are cast adrift?  Well, I suppose you settle down to have some kids (of course, I didn’t have them—Diane took care of that part, with great personal sacrifice), get a job, live a quiet existence….  

I tried that.  I couldn’t stand the quiet. 

There was an entire church out there that didn’t understand God’s extreme message through Jesus.  They didn’t know about Jesus’ plan for the poor or the church’s part in it.  The majority of churches were preaching grace-without-sacrifice because they didn’t want to look at what Jesus’ message really was.  So what do I do?  Ummmmm… I know!  Of course! Pass out tracts in front of churches!

            There is an art to passing out tracts in the United States.  You have to assume that if you pass out tracts on private property, the owners of that property will have you thrown off, possibly having the police called on you.  This means that you must remain on public property—sidewalks, primarily. As one security officer colorfully told a friend of mine helping me pass out tracts in front of a Christian concert one time—“This”— meaning public property—“is your area.  This”—meaning the grass of the school—“is mine.  You stay in yours, and I can’t bug you.  But if you come over to mine, I will crush you.”  This means that many churches are out of bounds, because the main entrance of the church is surrounded by private property.  But there are many churches in which the main entrance faces a public sidewalk.  These are the churches you can pass tracts out in front of.

            Then you must consider the tracts themselves.  You cannot pass out the standard gospel tracts to churches.  Let’s face it, the standard gospel tract is just an evangelistic sermon that most Christians have heard a thousand times—nothing new.  Frankly more cliché than a message.  No, churches need to hear about the message of Jesus, which most churches have ignored as the gospel in exchange for a butchered, misunderstood version of Paul’s message.2  So I wrote tracts myself, speaking of the need to obey Jesus as our king, of giving to the poor instead of ourselves.  I wrote provocative titles, such as, “Do You Love Jesus?”, “A Letter to the Bride” and “Bad News for the Rich.” 

            Then, once every week or two, I’d go out about nine on a Sunday morning and pass out tracts to those who are entering a given church.  Most would accept the tract, thinking that it might be part of the service that day.  Often a representative of the church would come out and ask to see what I was handing out.  I gladly showed them, telling them that I am not in opposition to their church or their church’s message, but I am just attempting to assist their ministry.  I would always attend their church service, singing with them and being a positive, quiet part of the congregation.  Then I would stand outside again.  Sometimes I would bring my two year old son, who would help me pass out the tracts—after all, who could resist taking a piece of paper from a cute, hyperactive toddler? 

            Most of the time, after a church representative read over my tract, they would shrug their shoulders and say, “This looks fine.  I guess you can do this.”  But once it was different.

Not what my tract said
            I was planning on standing in front of a large church that I had not heard too much about.  They were non-denominational, and I had heard they were somewhat Charismatic.  I looked over my tracts and decided to pass out my “Bad News for the Rich” tracts.  After about fifteen minutes, a security guard came up and asked me to not pass them out in front of the church.  I refused, politely saying that I was on public property.  He left.  A church representative came out and requested that I pass out the tracts after the service, rather than before.  I shrugged and agreed.  Then I went in to participate with the service.  The worship music was powerful and loud.  Then the pastor taught a bit before the offering about the benefits the congregation would receive if they gave.  An offering was taken.  Then the pastor taught again about the need to give to the church.  Another offering was taken.  More singing.  Then the pastor came out again, insisting, imploring, demanding that everyone in the congregation give to the church for their new building project.  This money was not for the poor.  It was not for the needy.  It was to make this already wealthy church (and the pastor in his five hundred dollar suit) wealthier.  At the beginning of the third offering, I left, disgusted.

            I was in a church that taught prosperity and wealth to those who gave to their church.  I was angered and horrified that such churches could go so far apart from Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus taught “blessed are the poor” and “sell your possessions and give to the poor” not “give to the wealthy and you will be rich in your life.”  I waited outside with my tracts to hand them out in opposition to the messages I heard inside. 

            A man sat next to me and talked to me about what I was doing.  I explained it to him, and my anger at the messages inside.  He calmly, quietly, spoke about how he had been ministered to by those inside, how he had been healed by prayers there and how the Lord had spoken to him in the congregation.  He admitted that they were extreme sometimes, but generally they are good people. 

            Then the congregation started coming out.  I passed out my tracts, but few were glad to receive them.  Some took them, looked at the title—“Bad News for the Rich”—and handed them back.  Others refused to take them, one saying, “I believe in prosperity.”  I answered, sarcastically, “Really? I believe in Jesus.”  Another decided to explain heatedly why I was so wrong, and we entered into a brief argument.  And then, silently, a man handed me a card with a verse on it—Ecclesiastes 9:14-15.  There were no more people, so I left.

            After such an exhausting experience, I stopped at a restaurant to get me a sandwich and a drink.  I prayed about my failings in approaching this church.  I was angry, and allowed that anger to get the best of me.  I should be more humble.  And besides, I thought.  I was telling this church, as well as all the others, how they needed to give to the poor, and support the homeless.  But what am I doing?  Do I know even one homeless person?  What poor am I helping?  I quietly prayed to the Lord and asked him to lead to us a homeless person, whom we might assist with a meal on occasion.    Then I opened the Scripture to Ecclesiastes and read the passage—“A great king attacked a city with mighty army, but a poor man was able to save the city from within by his wisdom.” 

Not Ed, but not that far off
            Late that afternoon, Diane, Ian and I were waiting for a bus to take us to our home group of our church.  My wife was pregnant again with our second, but she was doing well enough to go with us3, and make the long walk after the bus line petered out.  An older man came up to us and told us that he had just gotten out of the hospital and needed some change.  His name was Edward, and he was homeless.  I explained that we were just going off to church, but that I would be glad to have him over to our apartment the next night to have dinner with us.  He took our address, we got on the bus, and who knew what would happen from this.

            It is important to note my wife’s exemplary character in this.  Not only was she not offended or put off by this invitation, but she was in full support of it.  In our first month of marriage, it was Diane who invited a mentally ill man, just out of prison to stay with us until he got his own place—to my own chagrin.  Frankly, between the two of us, she had the bleeding heart.  I was a cold conservative, just stuck doing what Jesus told me to do.  So she was pleased to see me taking the initiative here, so she could be assisting those whom she wanted to help in the first place.  So we wrote out our address and invited him to come over sometime.

            About two in the morning, we received a phone call.  A bartender was closing his shop and Edward was still left.  The only address Ed could give him is the one we gave him earlier that day.  He was wondering if he could drop Ed in a taxi, dropping him off at our place.  We were young, foolish and full of energy (at that point).  Reluctantly, we agreed.  

            Soon, Ed arrived, drunk, unable to walk on his own and incoherent.  We allowed him to collapse on our couch and spend the night.  We soon regretted that.  For in his sleep, Ed yelled at the top of his voice as if he was in a war, screaming out obscenities and horrors which we could not see.  Diane and I hardly slept all night. (Our son, Ian, on the other hand, began his training of sleeping through loud noises, a necessary skill that is significant for his well-being to this very day).  Concerned that he would wake our son in the night, and for our own sleep patterns, the next morning we invited Ed back for dinner, but disinvited him from spending the night.
The next day, Ed came knocking on our door, smelling strongly of Red Dog wine.  He claimed he needed something to eat.  We offered him food, and a listening ear or two.  He came over, from that time, almost every night, and eventually brought some of his homeless friends in the neighborhood.  Soon, we were known for offering free meals, any night of the week, for those who needed it.  We invited the homeless to our dinner meal, and we were soon giving food to folks every night of the week, except Thursday, when we went out to have time just with our family—which soon included Nikki, our second child.


1. There is controversy about missionaries to Muslims.  Some think that we shouldn’t be evangelizing to a religion so close to us.  Some think that it is cultural hijacking.  Certainly at times missionary work truly is cultural imperialism.  However, most missionaries are today trained to separate the cultural from the spiritual.  All Christians can agree that Jesus is something that needs to be communicated to others.  While the Qu’ran does have some good information about Jesus, most Muslims do not.  It is reasonable to go to another culture to give them the opportunity to experience something that could change their lives for the better.

2. This can be seen especially in relation to behavior and lifestyle as taught in the New Testament.  The modern Protestant church is, for the most part, deemphasizing the need for any lifestyle demands in the Bible, except for the most general guidelines, which, conveniently, match Western middle class values.  Jesus and Paul, however, are firmly in agreement with Jesus that faith requires an accompanying lifestyle.  And rather than being fuzzy ideas about “love” Jesus and Paul’s ethics have specific teeth.  The issues of oppression is only one issue dealt that they deal with, and they don’t often connect with the “family values” that most Republican preachers claim that the New Testament teaches.

3. Diane truly suffered through three pregnancies.  Her “morning sickness” was twenty four hours a day for months.  Her second pregnancy truly was easier, but the first and third were horrific.  Kind of like a really long bout of illness.  Which is why one of our earliest names for our firstborn son was “flu-bug”.

4. “Tweeker” means one whose life is about taking methamphetamines.  This is an almost bi-polar lifestyle, with lows in which one is desperate for pleasure and highs in which much is done but nothing is accomplished.  Not most tweekers are thieves, as the media often assumes, nor are they dangerous.  However, it must be admitted, they tend to be self-absorbed.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this story. Can't wait for Part II. (Would have posted to FB but evvidently I did something wrong by posting five different New York towns spelled without an least that is when I got told I was banned and admonished to go back and read their rule book. Sigh.)