Now I want to share a little more about three particularly intriguing spiritual conversations that I had during our Ottawa mission project. Before we began the big Canada Day outreach, Sequoia’s associate pastor, Aaron Richert, shared a brief devotion with us, drawing from Colossians 4:3-6. This passage provided a perfect perspective for the type of mindset that we wish to have prior to engaging in conversational evangelism. “Meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ…that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Throughout the course of the week, I found that God did indeed open doors, partially I believe, because I was expecting opportunities for sharing my faith to occur. Paul reminds us in these verses from Colossians to approach non-believers wisely, and with a witness that strives to achieve a Holy Spirit balance. On the one hand we of course should always testify to the grace of God, which, as 2 Corinthians 12:9 states, is all sufficient, and perfect even amidst our fallen nature and weakness. Yet at the same time our speech is to be “seasoned with salt”, directing us back to Jesus’ instructions to His followers in Matthew 5:13 to be the “salt of the earth” However we may connect with someone, and try to relate to their particular background and perspective, we must not forget that we have to remain true to the Gospel, even though that often goes counter to the values and culture of the of the world around us.
My first in-depth spiritual conversation took place late in the afternoon on Canada Day. As I was eating dinner, I began chatting with a woman at my table. She lived in the neighborhood, although this was the first time she had come to visit Barrhaven’s Canada Day celebration. After some initial small talk, the conversation turned naturally to why I had come up to Canada from Alabama. When I began to ask a little about her religious background, and she happily opened up. It soon became apparent that she was very intelligent, and had studied a lot about the major world religions. Her current beliefs made her a classic example of a proponent of “New Age” spirituality. She professed to endorse a mishmash of various religious traditions, all coexisting with a common theme of relative truth, and the mindset that all faiths were in the end equal paths to the same goal. She believed in reincarnation, and so there would be presumably many possible lifetimes to “find the right path” and no particular hurry or sense of urgency. Everyone was essentially a “fragment of god”, and negative concepts that spoke to our human weakness, such as sin were simply “learning experiences”, rather than true offenses against a just and holy God. She admired and recognized Jesus as a “good man” and an “ethical teacher”, but not necessarily the only way to God.
I didn’t say too much at first as she shared all of this background information. One of the things that had been emphasized during our evangelism training was the importance of listening, and not trying to counter someone’s assertions (however much we may disagree with them) too early on in the conversation. By giving someone the respect to have a full hearing, we allow for them to become comfortable and we then earn the right to correspondingly share what we believe. But after listening for a while, I then began to explain to my New Age acquaintance where I disagreed with her on several points (to say the least!). First, I talked about how logically-speaking, all religions couldn’t really be equal paths to the same truth, since they contradicted each other. I explained also that while I believed we were made in God’s image, this did not mean that I was a “fragment of god” and certainly not “my own god”. The world had been created by God, but He was separate from and transcendent above His creation, rather than literally being a part of it. I further tried to explain to her how emphatically I believed in the reality of sin, and had experienced its results in my own life. I talked about only being able to overcome my brokenness through the power of Christ, rather than my own strength. Finally, I talked to her about how Jesus Himself had spoken of His exclusive access to God, and had thus not left us the option of just calling Him a “good man.” We found some common ground at least in the fact that she claimed to draw great spiritual strength from prayer/meditation, and several times she also mentioned the fact that she didn’t think we had met by accident. We concluded the conversation after almost an hour on a positive note, as she agreed to go home and read the Gospel of John, which I told her was my favorite book in the Bible, and one which might serve to give her a clearer idea of the distinctive and unique nature of Jesus’ teachings.
A few days later, during Feet to Faith, our service project which took place at the Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing site, I struck up a conversation with an older lady while I was doing some gardening in front of her house. I had noticed some Buddhist prayer flags and a statuette in a back garden, and she said that was her garden. I told her that I had become familiar with Buddhist prayer flags because I saw plenty of them around when I was visiting Boulder (haha), and then I asked her to explain a little more about Buddhism. She didn’t really go into much detail on the doctrines, but focused mostly on how she felt that Buddhists cultivated a healthy respect for the environment, much like Native American/First Nations spirituality, which she also appeared to admire. It appeared however that she wasn’t just dabbling in Buddhism, given that she talked about having been practicing since the late 1960s, and she also mentioned that she spent time every year at Buddhist retreat/meditation centers. I realized that I probably would not be able to convert her just based on this one conversation, but I did want to get more information about perhaps what had caused her to turn to Buddhism in the first place. Asking more questions about her background, I learned that she was a former stewardess, and had traveled widely. She also said that she had once been married, to an abusive husband. I don’t know if he had been a Christian, and I didn’t ask, but I did tell her about Jesus’ power to forgive, and how at FBC we had started Celebrate Recovery, a ministry which helped people to put painful addictions and past problems behind them, and move on in the power of the Holy Spirit. Knowing that Buddhism teaches their devotees to follow an intense path of self-effort, I also tried to emphasize to her how dependent I was on God’s righteousness, knowing that my own would never be good enough to please Him. Also, I responded to her love for the environment by countering the perception some people seem to have that Christians don’t care about nature. I reminded her that since God was the author of all life, to respect and care for the entirety of His creation was one way that we honored the Lord. Interestingly enough, during the course of the conversation, she commended me several times for wanting to serve others, and this offered me the chance to point back to Christ, as the supreme model of a Servant Leader, who always put the need of others before His own. When our conversation ended, I felt that I had at least had the opportunity to expose her to a different perspective and worldview than her Buddhist outlook, and perhaps she will continue to ponder over some of the things we talked about.
Also at Feet to Faith my good friend and fellow team member Will Harwell and I had an intriguing conversation with another person living in the Barrhaven Non-Profit complex. We were working just outside of her garden, and Will began chatting with her about various plants and garden-related matters. He and his family own a nursery in Montgomery, so it was natural for Will to connect with her on this subject. After they had talked for a few minutes, I joined in the conversation. We found out that she had been raised as a Christian, but now no longer considered herself to be a follower of Jesus. While she definitely talked about Christ in respectful terms, she seemed to think that the essence of His message was the same overall truth taught by the other major world religions. So there was definitely an angle of the “all paths lead to the same goal” attitude. She also expressed doubt that some of the more miraculous acts of Jesus had actually taken place, and she seemed to think that His “ethical teachings” were the more important legacy of His life and work. She also talked in vague terms about reincarnation, and this belief seemed in line with her view that everyone was free to take their own “journey” and that we would eventually end up at the same destination, however many lifetimes that might take. Will and I listened to her outline the main points of her religious worldview, and we then responded with the basic plan of salvation, outlining Christ’s uniqueness, our flawed nature, Jesus’ ability to forgive us of sin, and God’s free gift of eternal life to all who would accept it. Then a surprising thing happened…she began to apologize to us! She said that she was sorry she couldn’t define herself as a Christian anymore, but she went on to compliment us for being willing to share the love of Jesus with others. She talked with some enthusiasm about a book she had once read which detailed the story of a missionary serving in China. She even went back into her house to get the name of the book and gave it to us on a slip of paper when we left. This conversation really helped to lower some of the mental barriers that I often put up when I think about sharing a witness. Like many other Christians, I sometimes assume that people may be unreceptive, or perhaps even hostile when I start to share a witness. Yet fare from being defensive, this woman was actually apologizing to me and Will for not agreeing with us, and also actively endorsing the fact that we cared enough about her and others to share Jesus with them!
As a whole, my recent mission trip to Ottawa challenged some of my traditional assumptions about what makes a successful missions endeavor. In the past I had thought that a successful missions trip involved having a tangible “tally” at the end—a number of people who been made commitments to Christ, or been baptized, to prove that effective witnesses had been shared, and the Holy Spirit was at work. But my time in Ottawa helped to remind me that a central truth of missions is that we are not the ones who are responsible for converting others. None of us in fact can really “lead” someone to Christ. This is the Holy Spirit’s work. John 3:8 tells us: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Our job then, when on mission for Jesus is simply to give a testimony of His power and work in our lives, and once we have done so, God can then do the work that only He is capable of to change the heart. A mission trip has already been successful then, when each person on the team pushes him or herself to share the Gospel at every possible opportunity. We leave the outcome to the Lord, and also, happily in the case of our work in Ottawa, we have a trusted local church who can step in to disciple and encourage those who may make a decision for Christ based on interactions with our team. While it’s only natural to want to see immediate fruit from evangelism efforts, the work of God is not often performed on our timetable. Learning to be patient, while not growing weary of the good work of sharing the Gospel message (Ephesians 6:9) is a goal I am striving after, and the precious time our FBC team spent in Ottawa will hopefully cause all of us to reflect on how fertile the mission fields around us are, and yet how hesitant we can sometimes to approach the work of the harvest. As my pastor Jay Wolf has said many times, “People are more willing to hear the Gospel than we are willing to share it.” I sincerely hope that the spiritual curiosity, openness, and positive attitudes that I encountered in Ottawa, a place not dissimilar in terms of its religious climate to Boulder, will spur me to be ever more intentional about the work of evangelism as I prepare to move to Colorado. I also know that I feel drawn to return to Ottawa next year, and continue the partnership with Sequoia! They are a church that I think God will continue to use strategically to reach more and more people in the vibrant heart of the great nation of Canada, and I would love to continue have the blessing of being part of their Great Commission work in the Great White North!