Why I Didn’t Try to Save His Soul [Guest Post]

Bartelt-park-edited

My kids scrambled over the single piece of playground equipment, filling the air with sounds of make-believe.

“There’s a fire! Come on! Let’s go put it out!” “Back to the station! Up the ladder!”

I sat on the edge of the playground area guarding the snacks and water bottles, and posting a peaceful picture to Instagram, hoping the depiction would rub off on my soul. I certainly wasn’t at peace.

It had been the kids’ idea to walk/ride their scooters to the park. I humored them because it was a nice day and we needed to be out and doing something instead of letting the overwhelming feelings of life cloud us.

Truthfully, I was hoping the adventure would distract them enough so I could have a few minutes of inner solitude to sort through all my fears and worries. I was grateful to discover we had the playground to ourselves.

So, there I sat, trying to find peace, occasionally checking social media on my phone while the kids played.

The solitude didn’t last long.

A dad and daughter walked up, and the girl, younger than my two, jumped off the little bike she was riding and joined in the fun.

The introvert in me silently prayed the man would ignore me.

“How’s it going?” he said, as he took a seat on a bench nearby.

I mumbled a reply that might have been friendly. I put my phone away so I wouldn’t appear rude. We both watched our kids from opposite sides of the park in silence. The kids soon came over for a snack, so I pulled out a bag of pretzel crackers and a container of dried cranberries and offered them the choice. The little girl looked at us, and even though I’m not always comfortable talking to strangers, I called across the park to her dad.

“Is it okay if she has some of these pretzel crackers?”

His face showed surprise.

“Yeah, if you want to give her some, that’s fine. It’s up to you.”

I offered, and the little girl took one then spit it out. I wrapped it in a tissue until we could find a garbage can. Then the kids were back to the playground, leaving me with the uneaten snacks.

I glanced at the dad who was smoking a cigarette now and checking his phone, and I thought about days past when I would have called this a perfect Opportunity (capital “O” intended) to share the Gospel.

Back when I was a new believer and part of a strongly evangelical, highly conservative church, I was trained for times like this.

I was taught that every person we met was a sinner in need of Jesus, and every chance encounter was a chance to rescue someone from the pit of Hell. And to not “make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5) was to risk that person’s eternal fate. After all, they could walk away from our chance meeting and get hit by a car and then how would I feel if I hadn’t shared the Gospel?

I lived most of my 20s thinking I was a failure when it came to evangelism. I’m an introvert, so talking to people I know is sometimes a stretch, much less starting conversations about Jesus with strangers. I would walk away from “divine appointments,” as they were called, feeling guilty and like God was surely disappointed with me. After all, hadn’t I just denied Christ before men? (Matthew 10:33)

And the times I did try to work Jesus into the conversation ended up awkward and sounded unnatural. But I thought that’s what it meant to be faithful—to steer a conversation toward Jesus even if it didn’t really fit the circumstances. I’d done my duty, even if nothing ever came of it. My conscience was clear whether the person ever came to know the Lord or not.

So I thought.

That day at the park, though, I didn’t say a word about Jesus. I let my kids play longer than intended, and I encouraged them to ask the girl’s name. I offered what little food we had. And I felt like Jesus was near.

When it was time to leave, the kids told their new friend good-bye. I offered a friendly, “Have a nice day” to the man, who countered with a “Hey, thanks for sharing those things with her!”

And I walked away with more gratitude and peace than I had when we arrived at the park.

I didn’t try to save his soul because I don’t know if that’s what he needed right at that moment. We all need saving again and again and again, even if we already know that Jesus has rescued us, but sometimes we just need someone to acknowledge our existence. To reach across the divide that often separates us and say, “I see you.” To model sharing instead of greed.

Those things–kindness, inclusion, sharing—are as much a part of the Gospel as the words we might say about heaven, hell, sin and salvation.

Please, don’t misunderstand. I have a high regard for those who are able to preach the Good News from street corners and platforms and pulpits and draw people to the Lord. And I desperately want people to know about the love of God that changes lives, about the kingdom that brings hope and restoration.

But I’m learning that God does not need me to save someone’s soul. That’s too much pressure, and I would fail more than I would succeed. He needs me to love people. To show them the Gospel through my actions. And yes, sometimes, to speak words of life and healing.

I didn’t try to save that man’s soul, and oddly enough, I don’t feel guilty about it.

I’ve imagined how it would have played out if I’d witnessed to him instead of just being friendly, and while it’s possible he might have walked away thinking more about Jesus, it’s also possible he might have walked away thinking I was just one more religious nut who didn’t really care about him.

I wouldn’t blame him. I’m a Christian and I sometimes wonder the same thing.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, but I hope he walked away that day thinking maybe there’s still some good in this world.

That, too, bears witness to God.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALisa Bartelt is a child of the flatlands fulfilling her dream of living near the mountains. She loves reading, writing and listening to stories—true ones, made-up ones and the ones in between— preferably with a cup of coffee in hand. Wife, mom of two, writer, ordinary girl, Lisa blogs about books, faith, family and the unexpected turns of life at Living Echoes (http://lmbartelt.wordpress.com).

Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

For the One Who’s Still a Long Way Off

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son,
threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20

So you’re taking the long way back, hobbling along, still a little amazed, actually, to find yourself heading back to that place you left so long ago.

Back then, you were young and drunk on the idea of independence, on your plans, on your dreams — your inheritance burning a hole in your pocket. And, besides that, you were sick to death of the whole damned thing, not sure what you believed anymore or why you’d ever believed it. Not sure if you belonged anymore in that house, among those people, the ones bowing their heads in prayer one moment and whispering side-eyed in the foyer the next.

You weren’t sure, even, about Him. The Father whose love sometimes felt like it might crush you, flatten you into something smaller than you wanted to be. Love as familiar and bland to your tongue as the bread you’d eaten every day of your life. And from the threshold of that doorway between past and future, the world looked like a buffet…a hundred thousand things that you’d never had a chance to try. And you found yourself ravenous.

If you’re being honest, it’s not like you’re particularly ready to go back. This isn’t how you saw this playing out. You thought this would all work better, and who can imagine, at first, the fragile nature of success? Who would think that it’s just a soap bubble getting bigger and bigger until it could almost swallow you whole. And then. Pop.

You’re going back, frankly, because you’ve run out of options. Because you never could manage to outrun your past, because it kept creeping up on you as you lay in the hollow of your despair, wishing things had turned out differently.

Go home, go home, go home, the phantom lullaby sang in your ears, and it was so familiar and soothing, that eventually you found yourself thinking, What the hell. What else am I going to do?

And so here you are, taking the long way, dragging so much baggage that you can hardly keep going. Failure. Resentment. Pain. Anger. Doubt. Distrust. It feels like a long way from where you are to where He is, and you don’t even know what it’ll be like when you get there.

Is it as bad as you remember it? Is it as good?

What is waiting for you at the end of this grudging acceptance? And Who?

A hundred miles away. A thousand. It might as well be a million for all you can imagine, and each step feels hard as you lift your leaden, heavy feet and walk.

You are not as far away as you feel.

You have turned, barely, in the direction of home.

So little. The least and the most that you could possibly do.

It’s exactly enough.

Somewhere far away from where you think you are, the Father is waiting, watching. He sees you who are a long way off. He comes running.

And, after all, who can outrun that crushing Love that, in the end, makes us so much larger than we ever thought we could be? That Love that has been waiting, watching all this time for you to run to the edge of the world and then turn, finally around.

I’m not saying it’s not a long journey. Anyone who has ever run away knows this. Anyone whose heart has calcified from sadness to anger to cold, stony cynicism knows that it’s a hard road home. But also, it’s so much closer than you think.

Because the Father is running toward you, His eyes full of joy and tears and all the love that’s been yours all this time. He will walk you home to where that same bread will taste familiar in your mouth and fill up your emptiness. To where you will finally understand that it was always enough.

You are still a long way off, I know, but I want you to know that he is coming anyway. Maybe you can’t see him yet, but he is sprinting, laughing, calling your name across the void.

He is closing the gap with raucous, echoing grace.

The Transition Time

spring ducks

I’ve been home from Armenia long enough now that I should be over the bulk of the jet lag…but I still feel like I’m lagging. I can hardly stay awake past nine; I can’t get up early to write; I can’t manage to get much of anything checked off my to-do lists. I’m slogging through my days, staring off into space a lot, forgetting a lot of really basic things, like brushing my teeth.

A week and a half later, I’m still just a little out of step with my own life.

There is an entire gamut of emotions that I imagine I should probably feeling after a trip like this: guilt over our excess and our waste. Newly realized devotion to changing the world…or at least changing our spending patterns. Quiet wisdom gleaned from those heavy, precious moments in the homes of Amasia.

I feel none of that…which makes me feel like, possibly, I’ve done this whole thing wrong.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather.

Daylight Savings came and brought with it the dry, brown beginnings of something that we’re tentatively calling spring. 

The snow is gone, and it’s been warm enough to sit outside on the deck in just a sweatshirt. This weekend, Andrew dragged the patio furniture out of the shed, and a few brave-hearted ducks flew back in, even though the bulk of the pond is still ice.

I don’t know how to feel about this weather. The last two years, we’ve had blizzards well into April. Winter, that cruel tyrant, is notorious for letting the first little seeds of hope begin to sprout…and then quashing the whole thing with ice and swirling gray snowstorms.

It’s warmer now, but the grass is still brown and the trees are still bare, and it’s only March. These transitions between seasons tend to be complicated and drawn out and full of heartbreak in Minnesota… and I’ve been here for more than a third of my life now. I’m just too jaded to hope that the worst is truly behind us.

*

On my trip two weeks ago, I wrote a lot about Armenia’s beauty and poverty and glory. I told you a little bit about the genocide and about that old beautiful church. But I don’t think I conveyed fully how in transition it is — particularly in the Gyumri area, where we spent the bulk of our time.

It wasn’t all that long ago, really, that the 1988 earthquake crumbled so many lives, killing 25,000 and leaving another 50,000 without shelter. And then, just a few years later, communism fell, and Armenia found herself on her own in the rubble, without the support she had grown accustomed to.

Transition.

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t understand extreme poverty. I have no personal context through which to filter the experience of the family living in a shipping container, spending their days searching for twigs and branches to keep their home warm. (This is me, tuning out the story of the parents’ struggle, doing puzzles with the children. Kids, I understand. Puzzles, I understand. Poverty? Not at all.)

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

But I do understand transition. I know about how long it takes, how painfully slow it feels, how you alternate between hate and nostalgia for The Way Things Used to Be.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus is the Solid Rock when the world you’ve lived your whole life in has cracked beneath you into a thousand pieces. You can’t tell if everything is still half-broken or if it’s half-repaired, and hope is a scary concept when life has been full of false starts and crushing disappointments.

Is it clumsy and irreverent to make this about me? To draw upon the metaphor of this country’s journey as a mirror for my own? Or is it worth seeing how the same we all are? That underneath the reasons and the dressings and walls and curtains, our hearts are made of the same stuff?

It happens in different ways for each of us, but at some point or another, the world we know shatters beneath us, and we’re lost in the endless gray chasm between What Was and What Might Be.

Transition

*

On our second day in Amasia, we met an old couple with a young son. I was taken by them all, but especially by the father, Andranik, who reminded me so much of my Grandpa-in-Law that I had to physically restrain myself from looping my arm through his and snuggling in.

If it were still the old days, he’d be retiring now. Instead, he’s shuffling with his wife and son several miles each way to clean other people’s  barns. “Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, and what do we earn?” he asks. 600 dram  — about $1.40 a day — for the whole family.

In the interview that the staff wrote up for us the week before we came, Andranik said, “I have lost my faith. I cannot believe in anything.” He said, “It is our time to die, but we are still living.”

But that day when we visited, he seemed to fill up the small shack. We crammed inside, and cameras kept flashing, and he looked proud as he pointed to the things he had made — a church delicately crafted from paper, a wooden carving, some photo-shopped pictures of his grandchildren. He showed us his goats. He stood tall and he smiled. He seemed to me larger than life, even in the smallness of his situation.

I told him he reminded me of a favorite grandpa; he said that I was his favorite granddaughter. I got my hug.

“He seemed more hopeful today than he did in the interview you wrote up,” I told the translator as we walked the snowy path back to the bus.

“It was you guys,” she said. “I think he was honored that you came to see him.”

And it seemed stunningly simple, miraculous that it could be true.

Of course. 

We can’t always ease each other’s transitions, but we can enter in to that lonely, gray space. We can stand under the sagging roof. Smile and listen and see and do our very best to understand. And in doing so, we bestow worth and beauty and honor. In doing so we say, You are worth seeing. And in doing so, we remind one another that there is something to hang on to. Something to believe in. Something to hope for.

Photos by Laura Reinhardt

Photos by Laura Reinhardt

*

Today it’s gray and the wind is harsh and cold and keeps flipping the lid of the recycling bin open.

The winter is a tyrant, slow to leave, constantly overstaying its welcome, and who knows when spring will actually finally come? Who knows how much longer we can take it?

All we can do is sit together in the dwindling cold, pull our sweatshirts tighter, and help one another wait it out.

You Don’t Have to Care About Everything

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

I almost didn’t come to Armenia.

I spent a lot of years as that person who tries to Do Everything and Be Everything, and I know what it feels like to burn out. I know what it’s like to overcommit — to feel like you have to overcommit to the world in order to really love it like God does.

I spend a lot of time at work in the ethereal space of The Internet, and I know the weight of having the pain and tragedy of the world in your Twitter feed, in your Facebook feed, in your face all. the. time. 

I have become, over these past years, a big believer in finding your few things. The overcommitted, over-busy, fractured, distracted life is not one that I want to live, so I zero my energies in on the few things that I am doing. My family. My writing. My small, church women’s group. And within these three spaces, I’m focused almost completely on doing the quiet, intentional work of making others feel seen.

That’s it. With two young kids at home and a book deadline, that’s all I can handle right now.

And it means saying no to things that are really good and beautiful and necessary. Volunteering at the local junior high with at-risk youth. Working with the Breaking Free organization in our area to help end human trafficking. Sorting things from the lost-and-found at Dane’s kindergarten. Writing compelling pieces about hot-button issues. Organizing food drives or clothing drives or serving in the church nursery. These are all things that I say no to so that I can say yes to my few things. The ones I feel like, right now, are what I’m meant to do.

Armenia wasn’t one of my few things.

I’ve never had a “heart for missions,” though for a long time, I pretended I did to impress that one boyfriend. And though I feel the weight of world hunger and extreme poverty, I am not the strategic thinker who can implement change. I am not a social worker or a teacher or a doctor. I’m a chronic homebody who struggles in other cultures. I’m not even a people-person.

But World Vision didn’t ask me to build wells or houses or do street evangelism or fix a broken system.

They asked me to see. They asked me to write. They asked me to do my few things in this new and far away place, and so even though everything in me was screaming, Stay home! Stay home! Stay home!, I got on that plane and I came.

*

I know what it feels like to be a Christian in a land of privilege. I know the constant pound of guilt that well-meaning organizations tend to drive into your heart. Give more! Do more! Be more! There is so much need! You have so much wealth! Care more! Care more! Care more!

I feel it too — like my heart is already holding as much as it can. Like it’s already broken, like it’s falling apart because there is so much to care about it and, if I’m honest, there’s only so much I can care.

After the first few days here in Armenia, this is how I felt: numb. Defeated. Discouraged. There was so much need in that mountainous Amasia area, where World Vision projects were just getting started…and I felt my heart closing up, steeling itself against my own powerlessness.

But today.

Today we sat in a room of bright-eyed Gyumri youth while they told us about the projects that they have been implementing in their city and its surrounding villages in the past couple of years. School supply collections. Puppet theater. Easter food baskets for needy families. They built a library where there had not been one. They built an ice skating rink so that kids would have something to do in winter. One day, they all went out on roller skates and traded apples for cigarettes across the city, trying to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

And it occurred to me as I sat there in the room: I don’t have to care about this.

They don’t need me to take this on. They don’t need me to make Armenian poverty one of my few things. It’s okay that I’m not passionate about building an ice skating rink or roller-skating for cigarettes or puppet theatre. Because these are their few things. They are passionate about this. They are passionate about their city and their country and their people. I watched them, these beautiful kids with fire in their eyes, and I felt the most freeing sense of peace.

youth

What World Vision has been doing all these years in Gyumri through the child sponsorship program is helping people take back control of their own lives. And they don’t need me to care in that exhausting way that I’m used to having to care about things. They just need me to see them. They need my $35 a month so that they can make those Easter food baskets and run their health care seminars and buy school supplies and take back their city.

I always suspected that giving money was somehow less noble, less spiritual, less holy than being there. Than really caring. Than offering my sweat, blood, and tears to a particular problem or issue or crisis.

But what if, in some cases, it’s exactly enough?

Maybe I can release myself from the pressure to feel everything, and instead send my money off each month with a prayer and a blessing, full of gratitude for the power and creativity and passion of the people already working here.

Maybe part of the work of community is affirming and supporting each other’s few things while reserving our limited energy for our own.

*

This morning, I stood in the home of a local family whom World Vision has helped to transition from extreme poverty to total self-sufficiency. Their little boy stood in the middle of their newly built living room and sang us a song. It was gorgeous and haunting and wild and brave.

I sat there, listening with tears in my eyes, and I recognized something new: I don’t have to be a voice for Armenia. Armenia has her own strong, beautiful voice. She always has.

I am here, and it is not my thing, but I get to be part of it in a very small way. It’s a privilege to sit very still and listen to this sad, hopeful, beautiful song. It’s a privilege to clap madly and blink back tears.

And then, it’s okay — it’s right — to go home, to keep doing my few things, sending my small token of love across the sprawling ocean, one month at a time.