On holiday, they were even cutting their break short so they could get back home to resume their work. Nothing less than community transformation was their goal ? they were planning a float for a local carnival parade, to encourage others to join the fold.
They were cactus stabbers.
Their locality is infested with Opuntia robusta, the wheel cactus, a prickly, fast-growing species that overruns everything in its path. It spreads at speed, and hurts animals, hindering them from grazing.
And so our excited new friends were on a mission, not to save souls, but to inject those rubbery foes with the cacti equivalent of weedkiller. Their work was hard graft ? for the spiny cactus fights back.
I was impressed by their zeal as they talked on so animatedly, and felt the stirrings of an inkling to jab a rubber plant or two myself. And I also felt ashamed.
I used to be quite the evangelist myself. My youthful enthusiasm didn’t win any prizes for subtlety, but my mantra was simple: I was not ashamed of the gospel. I had a message about a tree that carried the poison of fallenness, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and about another, better tree ? one planted at Calvary. Anyone with the misfortune of sitting next to me on a plane was considered a worthy target for my ‘sharing’. But as I stirred my porridge and heard that the fixated pair had even taken early retirement, enabling them to volunteer more time to their work, I wondered: Why am I no longer quite so vocal about my faith?
Superficially, I had some answers. For one thing, I’m in reaction, swinging pendulum-like away from the button-holing, script-reading monologues that I used to treat people to. I don’t want to rattle on like a salvation salesman on Duracells, rushing to proffer answers before anyone has had the chance to ask any questions. My quietness is the fruit of maturity, I try to insist.
But as I dug deeper and meandered around the mysterious caverns of my heart and mind, I discovered something that I find very difficult to confess here. I realised that there were times when, subconsciously, I didn’t actually want people to become Christians.
There. I’ve said it. Postpone the stoning for a few moments, if you please. I’ll try to explain.
I’ve gone through seasons when the fish symbol beloved of believers apparently symbolised the piranha; when so many Christians acted like predators with razor-sharp teeth, I didn’t want to have a hand in creating yet another one of the most dangerous of species ? an unkind zealot armed with a Bible and a sense that they’re on a mission from God.
Then there were periods when so many Christians I encountered seemed to be just a little disjointed, tilted into oddness by their faith. Did I really want to lead someone else into a potential twilight zone of weirdness if they embraced the way of discipleship?
And my heart weighed heavy for those ? too many of them ? for whom being a Christian was an intolerable burden. They spend their days shoved around by a barrage of insistent oughts, shoulds and should-nots, hotly and desperately in pursuit of a purpose-driven life. Laden down with angst, they lug their faith around like a dead weight. I didn’t want to unwittingly sentence others to become like them.
I still believe that Jesus, far more than a ticket to eternal bliss, is exclusively the way to find true life today and tomorrow, as he shows us what being human is all about. And if our churches breed strange, stinging, anxious apprentices, then we must ask what’s wrong with our message, because there’s nothing wrong with Jesus. On the contrary, he still offers relief to the burdened, not the addition of life-sapping weight.
And so my breakfast encounter with the cactus stalkers bought me challenge, and clarity too. I want to renew my confidence in the gospel. It’s lamentable that there are followers of Jesus who are hostile, strange and agitated, but that doesn’t make the truth any less true. And I’d like to be a little more ready, willing and able to not only to live a life that points to Christ, but gently speak words that light the pathway towards him too.
I’d like to have a winsome enthusiasm that sparks interest, not fear.
And speaking of fear, I’m a little concerned.
My rubber plant’s looking decidedly nervous.