Last week I got lunch with a local believer and a teammate from our previous city. As they introduced me to the best chicken tenders I’ve had yet in this part of the world (I live in an emerging foodie city), I remembered with gratitude and amusement how this local brother had first professed his faith.
Mr. Talent (as his name translates) was a student and is a close friend of this same colleague. Since both men are quite serious about their food, they initially spent a lot of time together meeting up at new and different restaurants in search of the best kabob in the city. “We would always plan our meetings around which restaurant we needed to hit up next.” As far as a relational evangelism strategy goes, that’s not half bad!
These lunch outings led to many conversations about life and spiritual things, and eventually into a study of the gospel of John. When my teammate left for his furlough, Mr. Talent was clearly wrestling with the claims of the gospel. Just before my teammate’s departure, we had together begun trying to start a local language house church in the morning and an English language house church in the evening, both simple gatherings on the same day, based out of our living rooms. Mr. Talent would come about once every three weeks to the local language group and show up occasionally for the English group as well, even though his English was not great.
Mr. Talent belongs to a certain stream of men in this culture who are a particular blend of soldier masculinity and strong aesthetic-consciousness. The son of a general, he once took us to shoot AK-47s in a field (illegally we later found out, when we got taken into the police station). But whenever he came to our English center he would compliment me on my formal teacher apparel as he adjusted my collar so that it would sit just right. Mr. Talent usually wears expensive suits and watches, has shoes spotlessly shined, and is known to take selfies with other similarly dressed students while they hold a bouquet of flowers. Contrary to the West, there is no conflict in this culture between manliness and immaculate grooming. Think classic James Bond – a James Bond who also really likes poetry and flowers. Yes, while the core of masculinity doesn’t change throughout history and around the world, its expressions certainly have a wide range of play. When you consider how many historic war epics contain the hero fabulously dressed and waxing eloquent in poetic verse (while cutting down his enemies), you might even begin to feel that we are the ones who are somehow out of step with our understandings of manhood. Needless to say, it’s been an adjustment for me, a simple T-shirt guy who used to go everywhere in flip-flops.
One evening, we had just wrapped up our English language gathering when we heard a knock on the metal door. I opened it, and there stood Mr. Talent, dressed in a light blue suit and with a large cake box in his hand.
“Mr. Talent! How are you? And what is this?” I asked, motioning to the cake box.
“Hellow! It-z my birth-e-day.”
“Really? I didn’t know that! Happy Birthday!” I said as he came in and extended his Salaam to everyone present.
“Not my actual birthday! Tonight I’m going to believe in Jesus,” he laughed and told me in the local language. “So I brought a cake to celebrate.”
It took us all a minute to process what he had just said. He brought his own cake because he’s planned to profess faith? Is this in line with the ordo salutis? We glanced around at one another as we chewed on this unexpected development.
“Wow, really?! That is wonderful, bring the cake over to the table,” my wife said, kicking into honorable hostess mode, as she does so well. The cake was a lot like Mr. Talent – very fancy and very happy.
After some time socializing, our Mexican partner and I took Mr. Talent aside to make sure that he was ready to believe as he had said he was. We ran through the gospel with him a few times, to make sure there was a clear understanding and identification. We were both satisfied. There was a clear confession of personal faith and a clear understanding of the good news – God is holy, we are sinners, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, we must repent and believe in him.
Then came the part where we had to decide how to proceed. We decided to kneel together and put our hands on his shoulders and pray for Mr. Talent. And we asked him to pray once we had finished, just expressing his new found faith to God in whatever simple terms he chose to. He had never prayed in front of us before and was quite nervous about doing it wrong, but we assured him that whatever was in his heart would be great. I prayed in mixed local language and English. Our partner prayed in mixed local language and Spanish. And then Mr. Talent prayed in his mother tongue, a simple, clear, heartfelt prayer evidencing true faith.
We said Amen and then looked up. Mr. Talent hadn’t heard very many testimonies of faith at that point. He had certainly never read any Christian literature, other than the Bible. So there was no one who had prepped him to say what he did next.
“When you guys were praying for me, I felt this strange energy, like electricity, flowing through my body.”
I took note. Mr. Talent certainly wasn’t the first person in church history to describe things this way. But that wasn’t near as interesting as what happened next. Mr. Talent, who had until that point merely been a shy learner and a seeker, started impromptu teaching us with conviction about the identity of Jesus from John chapter 10. He went on a five minute theologically-solid and passionate monologue, exhorting us to look to Jesus. My Mexican partner and I sat there amazed at the conduct of this brand new believer. Yes, striving to be good soul doctors, we carefully look for the subtle evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all our friends who who profess faith. But usually it is just that, a bit more subtle. This was blatantly obvious. Mr. Talent was suddenly talented, gifted, overflowing in proclaiming the word in a way he hadn’t been just a few minutes previously.
“Brother… keep doing that!” we encouraged him when he had finished. “Keep holding up Jesus like that. That is not just you, that is the Holy Spirit inside of you, helping you. The Bible says he gives each one of us unique gifts. And be an example to the other believers in consistency and faithfulness. Now… let’s eat some of this cake you brought. Today really does seem to be your born-again birthday!”
Mr. Talent wasn’t always the most consistent. The absence of his main discipler for a season took a toll. Friendship and spiritual progress are intertwined in mysterious ways. But now, three years later, he has persevered and has grown in his regular attendance and service to his small church. I’m not sure what exactly God is going to do in his future, but my guess is that it will have something to do with proclamation.
Proclamation – along with an appreciation for fashion and good food. So be it. The kingdom of God is a colorful place, after all. There’s certainly room for those who can lecture on the virtues of certain kinds of kabobs and suit jackets, and then pivot to exhort others on the shepherd heart of Christ.