What’s your role?Vince Knowles lowered his head, and when he raised it and spoke his next line, his voice was thick and hitching. It was a simulacrum of sorrow he’d never approached even in his best rehearsals… That was when I heard the first low sob from the audience… (Stephen King: 11/22/63)
Oh, the reach of an actor! Of the one who submerges himself in his role, who for the sake of his audience and for the power of the story changes for a moment into someone else, a character quite different from himself. We admire his performance. We are moved. And sometimes we are profoundly changed ourselves.
That’s what I thought of, first off, when I was asked to participate in writing these devotions, with as theme: ‘What’s your role?’ I thought of actors. Each with his or her own part to play. Hoping to change lives by their performance. In this case: on the stage of world missions.
And then I remembered 1 Peter 2.1. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Did you know that the word hypocrisy is from the ancient Greek? That in the context of Greek drama, it was applied to an actor on the theatre stage? Someone pretending to be someone else? And yes, what admiration the performance of a hypocrite could evoke!
In the New Testament, however, ‘playing a role’ is not an admirable thing. It is condemned by Christ and rebuked by the apostles. Service in God’s kingdom is not only to be selfless, it is to be genuine. Perhaps we could even say: not what you do, but whom you are, whom you really are, is what matters.
It’s one of the lessons we have been learning on the field here in Benin. As missionaries, we struggle with our role. And every time again we discover that God acts most effectively, when we stop being actors.
Don’t hold your breathRemember? God acts most effectively when we stop being actors. Thinking about your role begins with being real. Not what you do but who you really are is what matters.
One of the most authentic Christians whom I have the honour of knowing is Gregoire. He drives a taxi back and forth to Cotonou all day. For about 10 dollars, after deducting the lease of his 20-year-old Peugeot and the price of fuel and maintenance.
Yesterday we were discussing the details of a sports evangelism project to be held next July. Gregoire’s expertise in Beninese public transport could make all the difference, we knew. But we weren’t actually prepared for this: We need to pray, Gregoire said. We need to pray that the government will look the other way and let the roadside sellers sell fuel again.
What you need to know is that Benin has a lively (and dangerous and hugely polluting) black market in fuel smuggled in from Nigeria. Crude oil tapped from international pipelines, distilled in primitive bush refineries, and sold from bottles and jerry cans, this fuel powers most of Benin’s vehicles. Periodically the government clamps down on this illegal trade and prices skyrocket.
Gregoire doesn’t grasp all the moral dilemmas here. And there are plenty. But one thing is as natural to him as breathing: prayer. If our sports evangelism team is get around, the price of fuel will need to come down. And God is in charge, isn’t He? Well, then. The government needs to look the other way.
Pray continually, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5.17. For Christians, prayer is like breathing. You don’t need to think about it. In fact, it is more difficult to hold your breath than to breathe. Are you planning to get active in God’s kingdom? Before anything else: pray. That’s what I’m learning from Gregoire.
BurdensBefore anything else, pray! Remember? So we prayed that morning. And then drove the four-wheel-drive along the red-dirt track to Fanahenhoue. There is a little crowd waiting for us in the church. Things are not as they should be, it turns out. Sunday attendance has dwindled, family worship is non-existent, the local elder is dispirited, the Sunday-school teacher has moved away. Good people, but the burden of maintaining healthy spiritual life has grown too heavy. And all look to us for the solution.
What’s our role? As missionary couple we could take over. Start weekly visits to relieve the local elder. Be there on Sundays to lead the services. Arrange for the neighbouring parish of Kpodaha to send someone for the Sunday-school . And who knows, that might well break through the malaise which has taken hold of Fanahenhoue. Carry each other’s burdens, the apostle says in Galatians 6.2.
But here’s one of the greatest temptations in missions. When you see inability: to take over. When you see hunger: to provide food. When you see lack of education: to build schools. Well-meant, and sometimes effective. But too often our desire to help, to carry each other’s burdens, gets in the way of enabling the other to do what he could well learn to do himself. And that is why the apostle says something else a few verses later: for each one should carry his own load.
So instead of helping, we helped them help themselves. We asked a teenage girl: if we bring you a children’s Bible next Sunday, would you read a Bible story to the children before church starts? Yes, she said, of course. And two others offered to assist. And during the service, we asked the elder, would you be able to ask the children to share what they have learned? We turned to the mothers: and would you be willing to ask your children, when they get home, to tell the story again, and to talk and pray about it together? Their eyes lit up: why, yes. Of course we could!
We didn’t do so much, that morning at Fanahenhoue. But when we left there seemed to be something new in the air. Renewed confidence. Excitement even. A burden shared always seems lighter, doesn’t it?