The Reluctant Missionary

When my wife Emily and I moved to Mexico, I self-identified as a reluctant missionary; God called us to the mission field, but I didn’t go singing like one of the astronauts in the movie Armageddon. Since then I’ve sweat more than I thought possible. And much of what I was reluctant about, I’ve navigated with forward momentum. Sure, I’ve bumped my head a few times, even caught it on fire, stalled a van full of mission trip guests roughly eight times in one outing and now have the language capacity of a 3-year-old with a speech impediment, but things are good.

The Lord has helped us make sense of a lot in eight months. We’ve learned a lot about each other, our marriage, his mission, and Mexican traffic patterns. Over and against all these, though, he’s taught me the most about my reluctance as a missionary.

I only want Grace to write a dramatic, perfect sentence in my story. I don’t want to relinquish the whole narrative.

At its core, my reluctance wasn’t about language barriers, selling my truck, or an inordinate amount of sweating. It wasn’t about disputed dreams. Sure, those things were there. But at its core, my reluctance fundamentally was about Grace.

Grace is scary.

In The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes about a woman who gets her heart around grace. She realized if she could earn Grace, she can demand of it. If she can crowbar Gods love, then God is in the hot-seat. She’s paid her tax and got skin in the game, so God needs to ante up. But, if God loves us, saves us, by grace—due to nothing on our end—then there’s nothing he can not ask from us.

If you’re like me, that’s comforting at first, but immediately terrifying.

I want Grace, but, if I’m honest, I only want a kind of Grace that steps in to rescue, but then leaves me alone. I only want Grace to write a dramatic, perfect sentence in my story. I don’t want to relinquish the whole narrative.

But Grace doesn’t co-author.

That was my predicament: I wanted a sentence about grace, but God pens entire stories with it. And when your story is penned by Grace, it means your story is not about you. Grace is so scandalous that it enters your story without permission. And, Grace is so scandalous it will send you into others’ stories without permission.

I’ve learned grace not only saves; grace sends. And grace sends wherever grace saves, which, again, makes us uncomfortable.

Grace goes “far as the curse is found.” Grace goes and sends us into every nook-and-cranny of the world that’s been warped, desecrated, and bothered by sin, selfishness, and stupidity.

The Ordinariness of Grace

Grace isn’t shaped or stopped by geography, class, race, intellectual status, plausibility structures, income level, or click-bait. Grace isn’t skeptical, which means it walks up to whoever it walks up to and says, “Follow me.”

And grace doesn’t only send cross-culturally. For most, grace won’t send you farther away than family, friends, neighbors, school, though, it very well might. But it will send you deeper into those people and places. Grace is extravagant, but grace dwells in the everyday.

Grace sends us into the extravagance of the everyday, which is the hardest place. Because it’s in the everyday that we’ve grown accustomed to “this is just the way things are.” But grace isn’t content with “the way things are.” Grace won’t be content until things are “the way they ought to be.” Grace hears through the white-noise of life. Grace hears and sees the vulnerable, the overlooked, the unjust, the crooked, the condemned, and the mistreated who’ve faded into the everydayness of our lives. And grace sends us there.

Things might be a tad more dramatic, at times, for the cross-cultural missionary, but no matter where it’s the same rhythms of relationship, trust, conversations, patience, prayer, and more patience that are part of the “sent” life anywhere.

Because we’re saved by grace, there’s nothing it cannot ask of us.

Grace scares us from the comfortable, predictable stories we want.

Even death looked at Grace and said, “You’re too much for me.”

The Stubbornness of Grace

Grace is stubborn, like a hurricane. You can board up the windows of your heart and stack sandbags around your story, but it’s a losing battle. Grace will out stubborn you, every time.

When Grace comes and we hear the shutters of our stories crack against the walls of our hearts, our knee-jerk reaction is to hide. We scramble to grab whatever vestiges of our personal narratives we can salvage and batten down the hatches. But what sounds devastating and scary and brutal isn’t the sound of destruction. It’s the sound of a new story.

Grace isn’t a bully. It’s as stubborn as a hurricane, but it’s as careful, intimate, and personal as a good storyteller.

At first, it seems like an arrogant actor, shoving your carefully crafted script back in your face. But Grace isn’t an actor in your little narrative; it’s the director. And your script isn’t being shoved back at you.

Rather, you’re being offered a part and invitation into a story not less than yours, but so much bigger.

It’s a story you may know nothing about, but you’ve always wanted. It’s a story more ancient than the cosmo and more new than morning dew.

It’s a story that knows the depths of human suffering and the astronomical heights of joy. It’s a story as everyday as grocery shopping and as outrageous as climbing Everest.

It’s a story that knows the pangs of division, racism, and human brutality, but glories in reconciliation and resurrection. It knows the powerful may appear to have all the cards, but the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s a scary, foolish, subversive story, and is full of surprises.

I’ve seen Grace take a young boy isolated in hardened, confused fear and change him into a team player on the soccer field. I’ve seen grace use bunk-beds to remind a mom her kids have a Father who cares for and sees them.

I’ve seen Grace take a sewing class and make it ground zero of empowerment and dreaming in an impoverished community. I’ve seen Grace take a five-year old’s ashamed, rotten smile and give him the biggest set of chompers you’ll ever see.

I’ve seen Grace give a young girl new life in Christ the same week she welcomed a new baby brother. I’ve seen a young boy with special needs have the best day of his life carting around a stalk of plantains.

I’ve seen Grace transform a young girl from someone who thought she’d never get through high school to someone who was signing up for her first university class.

The Surprise of Grace

But Grace was here long before we were and Grace will be here long after we’re gone. Truth is that Grace surprises people everywhere everyday. And these surprising narrative twists happen in-between the hard and dark plot points.

But that is the point. Grace isn’t writing a clean, tidy, white-washed, quarantined story that’ll drop out of the sky one day. It’s an inside job.

The story of Grace is mysterious and transcendent, but it knows the dust of the earth. Grace knows of a world where life, justice, and beauty flourish all the live long day and Grace put on flesh to bring it here.

Grace came from the extravagance of Heaven into the everydayness of Earth. And Grace knows the depth of a tomb so we can know the heights of the Kingdom. I’ve learned that Grace scares us from the stories we want, and surprises us with stories we could never ask for, nor imagine.

So, wherever Grace sends you today—a college classroom, an office, a newborn’s crib, a bus stop, a funeral, a doctor’s office, a community center, a hard conversation, an urban elementary school, a church building, a grocery store, a nursing home know this: Grace will not send you where it will not surprise you.

And that’s good news.

Ben and Emily Riggs serve in Cancun, Mexico, on staff with Back2Back Ministries, where they seek to protect and restore vulnerable children and strengthen at-risk families. Prior to that he served as Director of Storytelling for Apex Community Church. Ben blogs at Logline and writes for Back2Back