Everyone’s journey is full of crazy twists and turns. Sometimes these are the result of sudden events, like the death of our son, or the miracle birth of our daughter. Sometimes they are longer-term but just as wild, being raised by a loving but bi-polar father or stumbling into a community of radical Jesus followers while trying to pursue success and fame.
I doubt I could even retrace all the steps or identify all the decisions that ended up leading us here to Nicaragua. I’m guessing that someday God will show me the map (picture either a Family Circus cartoon of Billy’s travels or the Marauders’ Map, depending on your generation) and we’ll laugh and laugh. But I’ve been thinking about my encounters with God that brought us to this point in our lives. Here are some big ones:
In 1987, I started college in Claremont, California. I hoped to get my English literature degree, then get a graduate lit degree at UCLA or whatever prestigious program would take me, and go on to write best-selling, impacting novels that would do people some (vague) good and make me rich in the process. I did study English literature at Pomona, but a funny thing happened on the way to fame and fortune: I ran into Jesus. Specifically, I ran into some radical Jesus followers named Lisa and Lindsay. They invited me to Bible study and, fool that I was, I went, thinking that I knew all the Bible stories anyway.
But at the end of the Bible study, they talked about “applying” the Bible, which I’d never heard of before. How do you “apply” the burning bush or Noah’s ark? They were taking these stories awfully seriously.
So I hung out with this crazy community of folks all excited about Jesus and I didn’t know who God was or how God felt about me, but I knew that I was unhappy and they had something I didn’t have. I knew that they were the only people around campus who were kind to this culture shocked small-town Midwesterner who thought he was all that but wasn’t.
Lisa invited me to join an intensive manuscript study of the Gospel of Mark. For reasons I still can’t fully explain, most of which probably had more to do with being lonely and stressedout at college than wanting to learn the Bible, I joined the study. The other students in it immediately bugged the living crap out of me (Hi, Trish) because they clearly thought they knew everything while it was even clearer that I was the one who did (Hi, Trish).
Then a funny thing happened. I was going along each week,spending our three hours studying these words on the page, looking at Jesus. We had doing the study for about two
months. I remember sitting in this room in the library, looking at this paper with all my marks and scribbles and questions all over it, when suddenly I knew Jesus was looking back at me. He was alive and everything I’d been studying about him was true. I also knew I was a mess and he wasn’t very impressed with me.
That was my “conversion.” I told God I had made a mess of my life and, if he thought he could do any better give it a shot. Fortunately, God took me up on it. Something shifted and, though it’s been a rough and, at times, hellish ride, that something never shifted back. Until then, I would go along trying to remember to pray, sometimes forgetting about God’s existence for days and weeks at a time, and it felt like I was trying to convince myself that this fairy tale was real. Since that moment, God has been real in my life and I’m always aware of God (even when I’m not obedient).
Those crazy Jesus followers had us study the Gospels. We studied Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor and the poor. They introduced me to teachings by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tony Campolo. They taught me that if you need healing you pray for healing and that God revealed in Jesus Christ loves all people and commands us to care for the poor and oppressed.
“People, I want a church that changes the world, not from a position of power but from a position of love. I believe that we have to change the world but the weapons of the church are not the weapons of the world. We have another style, another way: it’s loving servanthood, it’s giving ourselves, it’s moving in, it’s caring, it’s loving, it’s redeeming not destroying.”
I heard Tony Campolo say this in 1988. Young and naive in my faith, I thought all Christians believed this and tried to live it. I thought all Christians understood following Jesus as this non-violent revolution of love and redemption to change the world. This was going to be an insane adventure!
The priest at the Episcopal church I worked at right after college would take homeless people into his home as house guests. Hundreds of them through the course of his life, and he was married with four sons. At the time, this seemed to me a normal things one might do to be with the poor. The church also fed hungry people, shared food and clothes, and sought other ways to show compassion. They called it “Matthew 25 ministries.” Made sense to me.
I went to Fuller Seminary and studied the Old Testament and the New Testament and Hebrew and Greek and preaching and communication and family systems. I took a great class called Women, the Church, and the Bible. I studied a lot and met many people who were putting together what following Jesus means. The challenge of seminary is to grow closer to God in the midst of learning about God. Fuller strengthened my understanding that God is concerned with both body and soul; any theology that seeks to save souls while letting children or the elderly go hungry does not reflect Jesus.
My first pastoring position, working with young adults in Colorado, would begin the hardest period of our lives, but I didn’t know that going in. Mine was a classic first year of pastoring: you make all the mistakes and find out what you don’t know. I thought it was pretty difficult. Then my father and our infant son died three weeks apart and the world went dark.
One of the few bright glimmers I have from time is meeting Danand Lynn. They love homeless people and help them get off the streets by developing long-term friendships with them. They call their ministry “Blanket Coverage” because they often begin
these relationships by covering up people sleeping out on the streets. We took a couple of trips to work with them in Portland. They were with the poor in a way I had not seen anywhere else. My story, Floyd, was inspired by my friendship with them.
I was pastoring a church in Wenatchee, WA. Well, not pastoring it, exactly, not in the sense that verb usually means. I had been hired part-time to help with the preaching in an elder-led church. I was recovering from the death of our son and my father and just returning to ministry after the dark years, my version of a dark night of the soul, the train wreck I refer to sometimes.
It was a church full of loving people, all of whom had deep relationships with God. We started preaching through the Gospel of Luke. I was very excited about this, because I thought this would be a great springboard to move us into ministry with those suffering and struggling. But it didn’t. My understanding of Luke was not shared by a significant portion of the congregation. When I tried to preach on Jesus’ teaching about wealth or discipleship, I was corrected. I didn’t know how to lead the body toward working with people in need, and I didn’t really have a position of influence to do that.
Then one of the elders, who was a dear friend (most of these people with whom I was disagreeing were good friends), suggested that I look at taking a course at Regent, which is the seminary at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I decided to take a two-week intensive on the prophet Amos. Oneof the other elders generously loaned me his VW camper van.
The class was powerful and unlike anything I’d done before. The professor taught it in the rough part of Vancouver. I had never had so many people offer to sell me drugs in my entire life as I did in that two-week stretch, walking to and from class every day. We were given a tour of that part of the city that was very different than any tour guides would offer. We studied how God had Amos prophesy against Israel because of how they’d treated their poor:
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
I heard a poet/social activist/prophet named Bud Osborne share about living on the streets, surviving heroin addiction (he’d been in recovery for many years) and knowing Jesus there. Words I’ll never forget from Bud were, “We want to save people from addiction and the street, but for we’re not saving them for Suburbia. That’s just as lost. We’re saving them for the Kingdom of God.”
God used the class to drive two things home: God really does love people in poverty and I needed to make changes in my life to follow Jesus in this area. I was still talking about how I believed this part of the Gospel but I wasn’t doing anything. Faith without works is…what’s the word? Dead. After the class was over, I spent one more afternoon in Vancouver so I could sit and pray and try to listen to God. I prayed, “Help me either to lead this fellowship toward ministry with people in poverty or get me out of here so I can obey you.”
What happened next is a long story and I will give you the short version: I started a young adult discipleship ministry. The folks at Wenatchee Fellowship were strongly supportive of this move. We started taking groups of young adults on short-term trips to Nicaragua to work with House of Hope, a ministry rescuing women and girls out of prostitution. That was a big step in the right direction
Our little teams built a couple of homes for women at the ministry. We developed some relationships and loved some kids. We raised significant money to help House of Hope. It also had the limitations that these short-term trips do: they are a step out of regular life, instead of integrating into our daily world; we are more visitors (or, worst-case, tourists) than neighbors; it’s easy to do this work, which takes serious time and planning and energy and money, and feel like “Check! I’ve done that.”
Some people are now against short-term work like this. I’m not, I just think it’s crucial we recognize what they are and what they are not. Most people who commit to long-term international work working with people in poverty begin with a short-term trip. But it can also be a very expensive self-indulgence that makes us feel like we’ve followed Jesus to serve and develop relationships when we’ve mostly just had a travel experience. My prayer was always that our people would be changed by the experience and invest themselves both in House of Hope’s work and local ministry to people in need.
Keeping the short story short, after our 7th trip to Managua, I felt God say “It’s time to stay.” My wife, being the most amazing person in the world, responded to my suggestion (with fear and trepidation) “What would you think if I said God might be leading us to move to Nicaragua,” with “Great! When?”
I will add one more anecdote that might fill out this picture. I’m not including all the amazing works God did to get us here or the nine signs he gave me.*
I remember walking in a poorer part of Wenatchee, where i didn’t want to live because it felt dangerous to our children and I was fearful and protective after Isaac’s death. I was talking with God about this. Kim had expressed interest in moving into one of these neighborhoods and I was discussing it with some of our ministry partners. I asked God, “Why would anyone do this if it’s optional?” And God responded, very clearly, “It’s not optional.”
We now live in a much poorer place than that. It probably isn’t more dangerous, though that depends. There is a whole separate conversation to be had about how God protects us when we follow Jesus. I’m not naive on that count and we are cautious here…and I do believe God protects us.
Kim once said, “I understand that God doesn’t call everyone to live with the poor, but isn’t it strange that every Christian feels called to live exactly as far as they can afford from the poorer parts of town?” That wife of mine…
These are my encounters with God that helped form my understanding of discipleship and led us here. I offer them in case they help. Honestly, I am striking a balance with this post. God works with each of us individually and I am not suggesting that my journey with God is better, more righteous, or a “higher standard” than anyone else’s. Grace doesn’t work like that and I am all about the grace. At least I want to be.
AND, Jesus tells us that he is present with the poor, he identifies himself with them, and teaches his followers that we will always be with them. This can look many different ways in our lives; there may be limitless possibilities to how God can make us partners in the Kingdom. But I don’t understand discipleship to Jesus without some active response to our neighbors in poverty–the two billion or so of them.
I’d love to hear your story and where you are with God in your journey to know Jesus in his distressing disguise.
*Seriously. Nine. Counting Kim’s response, which was one of the two clearest signs of confirmation to me. I’m a slow study and require a lot of encouragement. God is patient with me.