Last week I had an encounter that just about broke my heart.
It was around dinner-time and the pots were boiling, counters were cluttered, kids were clamoring. You know, the regular 6pm drill. A knock on the door announced the arrival of two fresh-faced Mormon missionaries. (Aside: The older I get the stranger it seems to greet these youngsters as they ask to be called: “Elder Smith” and “Elder Mason”, but anyway….)
So there were two Mormons at the door, wanting to chat.
In years past, I have sent them away: courteous but dismissive (No thanks, I already have faith in Jesus. Good bye)
In years past I have invited them in and been passionate but argumentative (No! That’s not what the Bible says. Where do you find that?)
In years past I have invited them in and tried to be courteous but still landed up feeling argumentative (I’m sorry, that’s not what the Bible says).
In all these interactions, I have always had my ‘defensive guard’ on, seeing myself as defending the gospel that God freely GIVES us His favor through Jesus, contrary to their message that you have to WORK to attain God’s favor.. I have viewed them as Pharisees: self-righteous and preaching a burdensome message that you have to attain your own righteousness before God. And like the Pharisees in the gospels, I have seen them opponents Jesus silenced, rebuked, corrected.
Until last night.
Last night our kids were around and Jeremy was talking with them at the door, and on a whim I invited them to our dinner table. I warned them that there would be no arguing at our dinner table in front of the kids and that they had to “play nice”. And I asked questions: how did you come to be a missionary? where are you from? how long are you into your stint? how long have you been in Davis? How are you doing being so far away from home? And friends, i discovered some heartbreaking things.
These young guys, full of sincerity and zeal, take a 2 year commitment believing they are earning God’s favor by doing so. They are not allowed to call home except on Christmas and Mothers day. But they are allowed to write once a week, they hastily assured me.
I asked the more argumentative of the two about his reasons for deciding to go on a mission. He told us that his parents’ marriage hadn’t been doing well and that he hoped that, by going on the mission, Heavenly Father would bless his family and perhaps spare his parents’ marriage.
Friends, I nearly burst into tears on the spot. For years, I have seen these travelers as young Pharisees. But last week I saw them in a completely new way. I saw the Rich Young Ruler, coming to Jesus full of earnest desire to do right.
“Teacher,” he said, “What must I do to possess eternal life?”
“You know the commandments” said Jesus.
He heard Jesus, but didn’t hear him. “Teacher, all of these I have kept since I was a boy.”
And Mark 10 says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. For all his misguided zeal. For all his sincerity.
Sitting at our dinner table, I looked at these young guys and loved them. How lonely they must be! How hard to be away from your family for 18 months – hoping every day your parents will stay together and finding out 7 months later when you are finally allowed to call that dad has moved to Texas and they split up anyway. How lonely to have no-one call you by your first name for TWO YEARS. I bet no-one has hugged them in as long either.
Our dinner was cut short as they had another appointment to go to. But as they left, the one young ‘Elder’ thanked us warmly. Tearing up, he said that no one had ever invited him in in the 18 months he had been door to door, and we had no idea what this meant to him.
I was so stunned. And so ashamed. After they left I prayed for them and wept for them. I asked God to forgive me for the many, many times I bludgeoned young visitors like them with the Bible instead of loving them as the Lord does. All those years I was hoping I would be able to show them what real Christianity looked like, but I had failed to listen to what Jesus had said: “they will know we are christians by our love.”
I write this as a confession. And I write this because Hebrews says we should consider how we can spur one another on to love and good deeds. Believing friends: next time two young guys knock on your door, invite them in. Love them. They don’t need answers as much as they need grace, and we have access to storehouses of it.