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COMMENTARY: Tour de Faith: different eyes Eric Van Meter, Aug 25, 2010
Eric Van Meter
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series.
Four days into Tour de Faith 2010, I woke up in church, thanks to a Chinese man named Carmelo.
Were this a physical awakening, I would not be so surprised. I’ve slept through parts of sermons in my lifetime, only to be roused by well-placed elbows or closing songs.
Add to that the dozens of nights I’ve spent on church floors as part of mission trips and I’m quite used to finishing my sleep cycle in sacred space.
But awakenings of the spiritual variety in church have been far rarer for me. Yet that’s exactly what Carmelo did with a simple statement inside the sanctuary of one of our host congregations.
“I’ve seen places like this on television, but I’ve never been inside one before. This is cool.”
I started to argue that we had been inside a worship center earlier in the trip, one of those multipurpose rooms so typical in newer church buildings. He had technically been in church several times.
But how do you explain that distinction to someone with limited English and no religious background to speak of?
For that matter, how do you explain anything about church to anyone?
Taking in beauty
Carmelo is a man who is comfortable with silence. While my brain locked up in existential crisis, he strolled serenely through the sanctuary. He ran his fingers along the smooth wood of the altar rail, checked the pews for comfort, admired the shine on the offering plates.
I shuddered to think what view of church Carmelo might have seen through the movies or sitcoms we export across the globe. Even someone as critical of the church as I get a little bent out of shape at the Christian caricatures out of Hollywood.
But Carmelo gave no sense of judgment as he pulled cushions from the kneelers and made a mattress on which to lay his sleeping bag. He simply lay down, and in moments was asleep.
“I’ve never been inside one before.”
I’m fairly certain that my Chinese friend meant that as a simple declarative statement. He had never been in a traditional Christian sanctuary before. No surprise there.
What caught me off guard was my own reaction. From some part of my pastoral brain I heard voices of colleagues and professors from the past. “Evangelize this guy! Bring him to Jesus! Get him converted.”
And immediately after that, voices of my more jaded friends: “Leave him alone! You of all people should know the kind of disappointment he’ll face if he gets involved in church life. Don’t be patronizing, and don’t proselytize.”
My reactions were incompatible, and neither satisfied me. I am not so naive as to consider salvation the solution to a problem, nor am I so worldly as to think that I have no responsibility to share the stories of Jesus.
There had to be another way, right?
I wrestled with how to talk to him about the sacredness of this space, of the goodness of the Jesus way. But how?
Carmelo had no crisis for me to solve, no doctrinal questions for me to answer. He had no great sin and no addictions that I was aware of. I knew him as a polite, helpful, genuinely good person who served without reservation and often suffered without complaining.
I didn’t have to look too hard at Carmelo to see Jesus. In fact, it was almost harder not to see Jesus in him. If that was true, I owed Carmelo the same respect I would the Lord himself.
My conscience wouldn’t let me share my faith in an over-simplified, Roman-road way. Neither would it allow me to keep silent altogether. While my friend enjoyed the sleep of the innocent, I sat miserable in intellectual idle.
Until I finally woke up to the mistaken assumptions that had clouded my thinking.
I had approached Carmelo’s statement as something demanding a measured response, one that would be most likely to achieve the desired outcome. Even though my brain rejected the notion, my attitude suggested that the fate of his very soul depended on what I might say to him.
I thought I needed to convince him of the beauty of Jesus.
But he already knew that, at least in part. Carmelo did not need convincing, and I did not need a foothold for spiritual conversation. In fact, the clearest window to open dialogue—our shared sense of wonder—had already been opened.
“This is cool!”
With new eyes
With this in view, the sanctuary took on a different feel. I retraced Carmelo’s steps and paused over the things that had caught his eye. But instead of wondering how I might explain their use, I saw them as doors to mystery.
Wooden rails, where heads were lowered in deep prayer and need.
Offering plates that held whatever gifts of gratitude we could offer for such a life as this.
Candles that shone the light of Christ.
A cross that told of sacrifice and resurrection.
I began to want to share these things with Carmelo—not because my faith obliged me to but because I truly wanted to share with him how beautiful the bride of Christ can be. I wanted to point and say, “Look! Isn’t that amazing!”
I had a chance a few days later. Our group gathered on the beach just after sunrise for a time of meditation at the ocean’s edge. When we’d finished, we took Communion together. As far as I know, no one had told Carmelo what he might expect, yet no one thought twice about including him in the circle.
Chalice and paten. Body and blood, given for us all.
Later that day, on an endless road with little shade, Carmelo pulled up alongside me on his bike.
“Thank you,” he said. “I want to thank you all so much for inviting me on this trip with you guys. This is very, very cool.”
It is, isn’t it? The chance to share not just our beliefs, but Jesus himself. Far better than the church-as-a-product evangelism we feel pressured to sell.
This way of life, this practice of seeing Christ in all and through all, this dance we’re caught up in is a beautiful thing, one well worth sharing.
Very cool, indeed. Thanks for the reminder, Carmelo.
The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark.
Click here for the third installment of Tour de Faith