Our first mission trip as a family was an assault on the senses. We took in so much in such a short amount of time while moving at such a dizzying rate that I am just beginning to prayerfully process nearly a week later. Two particular images keep coming to my heart and mind: the tidiness of a tent city and the cartwheeling son of a fire-breather.
The Tidiness of a Tent City
Our first full day in Tijuana, we went to serve at a shelter for those seeking asylum in the United States (currently waiting at the border). When we parked the car, I was overwhelmed by the dirt, feces, and subsequent flies in the street. I held my son’s hand tightly as if to protect him from all he was seeing for the first time. Thus, you can imagine my shock when we walked into the semi-open-air shelter of corrugated metal to see a tidy little city of well-kept tents. The place was immaculate by any standards, but especially considering the fact that over one-hundred-fifty women and children were living in such a small space.
The families living in the shelter seemed to take great pride in the fact that they were among the lucky few who had shelter, food, and bathroom access for three months. As we were playing with the children, I even found myself feeling something like jealousy at the kind of community they had become. The children acted like siblings to each other, and the adults stepped in to love, direct, and even correct the children, even those who were not their own.
Having so little, they had a vibrant, generous, ordered community life that few Americans experience though they have so much. We gave them medicine, but they gave us the better medicine of a joyful heart despite jarring circumstances (Proverbs 17:22). Those tidy tents taught me a thing or twenty about community, gratitude, and grace.
The Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-Breather
We all know the statement that truth is often stranger than fiction, but it can also be sadder. After three incredibly long days of helping put on multiple medical clinics, our crew loaded up in our over-filled car to head back home. We anticipated the long wait time at the border and I thought we were accustomed to the things we would see as we waited, but I did not anticipate the way one of the side-acts would since take center-stage in my mind.
As we were waiting in the long, slow lines of traffic, my eyes were drawn to a father and his two sons. Leaving the younger child in the stroller, he stopped and began a fire-breathing act along the barricade. While the fire-breathing tricks initially did their job in grabbing my attention, the son of the fire-breather stole my heart. Seeking to help his father earn some change, he began doing some unbalanced and unpolished cartwheels and handstands of his own.
At the time, I catalogued this act along with countless others who were performing songs, playing guitars, and selling their wares. But this one was different, as the Lord would continually bring it back to mind and memory.
As many times as I have read or taught on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you would have thought I would not have missed the moment. But I did. I fell right into the role of the priest: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31). We are usually quick to assume the worst about the priest, but it is likely he had been serving all day, fulfilling his priestly duties, and meeting needs in sacrificial ways. Having “clocked out,” and being wearied from service, few would fault him with following convention and tradition to avoid an unclean situation with someone who was not even among his flock. But he missed it. He missed his chance to see and experience and become more like the Savior whose coming he eagerly sought. And I did the same.
Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-breather
Cart-wheeling son of a fire-breather,
As you did your tricks, I turned away.
I tried not to notice your plight,
Yet you come to mind everyday.
Your earnest, eager desire to please,
To add to your dad’s dangerous show
As if your life depended upon it
Shakes all that I think I know.
Tired from serving, I sat and watched,
But now, I wish I had run –
Through traffic, past convention –
To point you to God’s Son.
You don’t have to grab his attention;
You live always under His sight.
And, unlike me, his broken servant,
He never turns away from your plight.
I don’t want to keep being the priest who missed his moment with the Lord he served. I want to have eyes wide-open to encounters with the Christ who in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “plays in ten thousand places/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
I don’t want to be led by convention or convenience. I want to be compelled and controlled by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).