Not long ago, I met with a vivacious young woman who is just entering into vocational ministry. We shared parts of our stories as the ice clinked encouragingly in our lemonade glasses. Towards the end of our time together—which had started out with the awkwardness of strangers but then blended into story-telling and a host of “me too” moments—she seemed to remember herself and why she was here and, squaring her shoulders and getting back into “ministry-mode”, she asked me how I’d seen God at work through me recently.
It wasn’t so much the wording of the question as the timing and the tone of it, but I laughed (I can be rude that way). I told her that it had been a long time since I felt like I needed to give an accounting for my ministry. There was a time when I sat down at a computer and labored over a monthly report back to those who were supporting me financially and in prayer, and while I know none of them expected a graph chart with numbers of students converted and bibles distributed, in truth I did feel that I needed to give an account. Which sometimes might include numbers.
These days, I told her, when it comes to seeing God at work, I’m taking a longer view. Like moving from the narrative arc of a Pixar short movie to epic full-length features. “I have no idea whether what I’m doing is successful or fruitful,” I confessed, “it’s really hard to take an account of that when you’re in the day-in and day-out of it with kids, and when you have no idea who reads your stuff and whether it makes any difference. So I’m aiming for faithfulness. To be kind today. To tell the truth today. To show my neighbor the gospel today, perhaps by taking their trash bin in or watching someone’s kids while they are at the doctor. That’s about all. I really wouldn’t have much to put in a monthly ministry newsletter.”
Friends, even to me this answer sounds a little like a cop-out: should I not be more strategic? intentional? make the most of every opportunity? Maybe. I have certainly trained others in ministry to be strategic in their goals over the years. But then again: I myself have been under the tutelage of the Happy Chicken.
Meet my Happy Chicken.
This hot water bottle was a gift from my sister nearly twenty years ago. I think it was a birthday present, but I can’t be sure. But I remember thinking it was hilarious. My sister and I had joked for years about a Far Side Cartoon in which a forlorn man sits on a bed while a chicken looks on from the window sill. The caption read: “the bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the chicken of depression.”
Of COURSE when my sister saw the hot water bottle chicken, she had to have it. (She’s always been one excellent gift-giver.) And so, the chicken of depression made its way into my home. Within a few years, I was finding my way into ministry, and found an increasing number of people sitting on my couch sharing their stories with me. Some were very, very sad; and armed as I was my newly-minted-theological-education, sometimes I tried to help with comforting explanations. But as we all know, this was almost never the right thing to say or do. For even if the hurting person’s lips are asking why did this happen, their hearts are asking who will be with me in this? And so, slowly, I learned to shut up and listen. It became something of a formula: tears would spring up, and I would offer tea, a pair of socks, and the chicken… because it helps to have something warm to hold, and the kettle was boiled anyway. (It didn’t seem appropriate, somehow to tell people that this was the Chicken of Depression, after all.)
Over time, friends who got to know my chicken re-named it: the Happy Chicken. And years later, when I discovered the wonder of all things Sandra Boynton and met her happy chicken characters who bore a striking resemblance to mine, the name was formalized.
I think, in some in-my-bones kind of way, the Happy Chicken taught me that the simplicity of listening and welcome offers Christian comfort in a way that even my best theology does not. Jesus did teach many truths about God, and God had been speaking comforting, true words for a long, long time before that. But Jesus came. He sat in the mess. He touched the unlovely. He listened. He ate with people. He ate dinner with the heartbroken and received their tears without needing to fix it right there and then.
But still, sitting quietly while people weep and marriages end and children starve and girls are sold and refugees drown in the Mediterranean feels desperately ineffective. And despite the fact that the quiet ministry of neighbors has brought me comfort more times than I can count, I still occasionally panic and think I should be doing more. We should have a plan here. If, after all, I was still writing a hypothetical newsletter updating people on God’s activity in and through my life, what on earth what I say? And if all I had to say was “I made tea and introduced people to the Happy Chicken”, would it make God look bad? Or Christianity insipid?
It was this taproot of fear that made D.L. Mayfield’s new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith such a gift to me. Mayfield has such a writing gift: she crafts simple sentences with simple words—so easy to read—and yet the result is breathtaking. Reading her is like marveling at Leonardo daVinci’s finest work done on an etch-a-sketch.
But more than her beautiful writing, the message of this book spoke to me, and will speak to anyone who’s earnestly wanted to do great and beautiful things for God but then floundered when real life and messy relationships happened, making the monthly newsletter which was meant to sing of all God’s glory seemed so hard to write.
In a series of short, highly readable essays, Mayfield tells of her teenage zeal—holiday clubs! short term missions! seminary!—and her deep love for the displaced refugee communities in North America. And then she writes about what really happened next. She writes about failure: her awkward attempts to Jesus-ify conversations, and the skepticism with which her goodwill was sometimes (rightfully) regarded. She writes about the deep humbling of realizing people don’t change on our timeline or according to our well-intentioned western ways, and of learning that God has made something beautiful in every person and every culture – no matter how different and broken- and she tells of how, after all was said and done, she re-found (is re-finding!) faith in learning to sit and be a witness to all that God is doing, and to just love as she has an opportunity. She writes:
“I used to want to witness to people, to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life… To plant myself in a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God’s dream for the world is.
Being a witness is harder than anything I have ever done. And he is asking all of us to do this task, to simultaneously see the realities of our broken world and testify to the truth that all is not well. To be a witness to the tragedy, to be a witness to the beauty. Jesus, the ultimate witness of the love of the Father heart of God, shows us the way…
He is asking us to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake.”
He is asking us to bring cake. Mayfield’s love language is cake. And I’m thinking mine might be the Happy Chicken. Today I’m facing the broken world with eyes wide open and ears perked up. Who will God send my way today? I’m ready. The Happy Chicken and I are as ready as we can be.