My Dog Is Lost (Mar-Apr 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Patty Slack
March – April, 2005

Her tone is matter-of fact, but she is clearly testing me.

“My dog is lost. A psychic is coming out to my place tomorrow to help locate it. What do you think of that?” Rainbow takes a sip of tea and looks at me.

Will I condemn or accept?

I know she is searching for answers. Not just to “Where is my dog?” and “Is she all right?” but to important questions like, “Am I raising my child the right way?” and “Does my life count for anything?” I also know that she does not want an invitation to church or a pat answer. She has already “done the church thing” and has rejected it as a place full of ignorant hard-heads and hypocrites.

In Africa, I would have had a ready answer. But this is not Africa. This is America and some time while I was gone, the rules changed.

In the scheme of things, the seven years I spent in Africa was not long, just a blink of an eye. But America transformed itself during that blink and now, four years after my return, I am still trying to catch up. The internet was born while I was gone. A presidential election drove a wedge between neighbors. Oprah preached that everyone needs to find her own truth, hear his own spirit, and her congregation listened and believed.

In Africa, it was not unusual to go straight to the important stuff during a first conversation.

“Hey, you! White woman! What are you doing here?” The color of my skin gave me no place to hide. Normally I’m very shy, but in Togo I learned to speak my mind. No need to beat around the bush.

“I’m here to do God’s work.”

“I worship Satan. I know that God wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

“But he does. He wants people to know him.”

“Do you know where I can learn about him?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

In a land where the supernatural world is a part of every day life and conversation, it was not necessary to convince people of the existence of God. Everyone knew he existed. What they wanted to know was if he had the power to protect them, the grace to accept them. These were the same questions, though unspoken, Rainbow was asking when she lost her dog. Who will protect me? Who will accept me?

I learned many lessons in Togo, West Africa. I returned to America wanting to share these lessons with missionary zeal. First, I learned how fulfilling it is to live life with purpose. Each day had meaning. Every challenge from confronting voodoo worshippers to eating fish heads carried the satisfaction of knowing I was “suffering for Jesus.”

Next I learned the joy of being part of a church whose focus is on loving God and bringing people to him. Every member was vitally important to the function of the body and every member was in direct communication with Jesus, the head of the church. If one person stopped functioning, the whole body felt it.

Most important of all, I learned the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. My ability to analyze scriptures or argue fine points of doctrine was meaningless to my Togolese neighbors. They wanted to know that God is real and that he is able to help them with their daily problems. He proved his faithfulness again and again. So, despite my logical bent, I allowed him to take hold of my heart. I came to back to America eager to share my experiences and reach out to the lost right at home. What I didn’t anticipate is that not many care about my experiences, that the lost don’t really feel very lost, the saved don’t always feel very saved, and that home is no longer home to me.

My parents’ house in the country is now an island of grass and trees in the midst of a sea of new subdivisions. Walking between the rows of new houses, it feels as if the privacy fences are growing taller around me, closing in on me, forcing me to walk alone down an empty street. Where are the people? I’m used to being greeted by a hundred people on my morning walk. Here, the rare encounter with a stranger brings up a jumble of conflicting emotions. Do I say hello? Should I slow down to talk? It doesn’t matter. The other person avoids eye contact and walks quickly by. Life is so impersonal. I’m losing the understanding that that person is a soul, loved by God. I need to meet some people.

My new friends are an eclectic mix. The first woman I meet is very helpful. She introduces me to the home school community in town. Brandy lets me know right away that she takes her kids to the Unitarian church so they can learn about the many different ways up the mountain to God.

“I didn’t grow up in a religious home,” she explains within three minutes of meeting me. “I want my girls to have the chance to learn about all the different paths to God so they will appreciate all different kinds of people. I hate it when people are judgmental, don’t you?”

I bite my tongue. Where are the words that came so easily to me in Togo? If I say anything, I’m afraid the friendship will be over before it has begun.

I go to the beach with a group of home school families. It doesn’t surprise me that none are Christians. I chew on the inside of my lip as I listen to their conversations. Talk ranges from how people who make their kids study every day are idiots to how children should be breastfed until they are six years old. I am out of my element, more out of place here than I was in Togo. At least there I had a team of like-minded Christians around me. I walk down the beach to check on my two girls. They are playing by themselves at the water’s edge while the rest of the kids are working on something at the high tide line. I move close enough to hear their play.

“I need one more big stick. There. Perfect. The altar is done!”

“Great, now let’s go get some other stuff to sacrifice.”

“I’ll go this way. You go that way.”

I gather up my girls and hurry them to the car. These are not the kind of friends I want them playing with. The inconsistency doesn’t strike me until later. In Africa, all of their friends were idol worshippers. They were the ones we were trying to reach. How is this any different?

I need a friend who shares my faith, someone who loves God. I am hungry for someone to pray with, someone to share struggles and triumphs with. I approach two women at church and ask if they would like to pray with me. Their response surprises and saddens me. Both of them say, “I have never prayed out loud before. I don’t know how.” How can you know God for a dozen years or more and not know how to pray? I wonder. The answer hits me over the head one night after Bible study. A woman approaches Edwin, my husband, and asks, “Why do you keep making such a point of the difference between knowing about God and knowing God? What’s the big deal?” The whole church holds its breath as he explains the difference, but the puzzled look on faces around me leaves me feeling hopeless. I want to scream, “How do you expect to bring other people to God if you don’t even know him yourselves?” My mind and spirit are awash in questions. Why is God’s church so careless with the gift he has given it? How do I worship and not grow bitter? Where is Jesus in all of this? He’s more than just a storybook character. He’s real and he’s alive! Living for God is not a drudgery—it’s a joy! I am sad for my brothers and sisters who are so caught up in looking at the Bible through a microscope that they miss seeing Jesus in the people around them. I hurt as a member of a paralyzed body.

We moms chat while we watch our little tumbling gymnasts. There are two groups—the Mary Kay-wearing, busy little Christian moms and the Earth shoe-wearing, back-to-nature moms. I want to sit and talk about ideas and activities with the church goers, but I hate the feeling of closing our circle and turning our backs on the others. One woman outside the circle wears several layers of clothing. Her uncombed hair sticks out from under her wool stocking cap. She approaches me after class.

“I know you believe in God,” she says. “I want to start taking my kids to church. Where do you go?”

I am shocked. From her outward appearance, she is not the type of person I would expect to be interested in God unless it is the god within her. In my mind, I picture the group we are worshipping with, a small group of people who are doing the best they know how. I love them dearly, but I know they will try to show this woman what she should DO to be saved and not who she should KNOW to be saved. In my mind, I plan to talk to her during next week’s gymnastics class about God’s love and the things he has done for me, but I cannot ask her to my church. I recommend one down the street and say a silent prayer for her. She is bothered that I don’t feel comfortable inviting her to church with me. She walks out the door and I never see her again. I wonder if she ever found what she was looking for. I wonder if I said too little.

I am learning that God’s spirit moves more slowly in America. Not that he is less powerful here, but that my friends are less ready to accept him. Since being judgmental is the ultimate American taboo, a God who judges righteously is tough to accept. But his spirit does move and it does change hearts.

To her credit, one of the women I approached at church took me up on my request to pray together. After two years, I have seen great growth in her and she has challenged me to keep my relationship with God real.

Then there is Brandy, my Unitarian friend. Two years after I met her, she moved away. Just before leaving, she pulled me aside.

“You’re different from what I expected,” she said. “When I first met you, I had already judged what you would be like. My only exposure to African missions was through the book, The Poisonwood Bible. You’re not anything like that.”

At that point, Brandy and her husband were ready to accept a copy of the Gospel of John. It took another year before they read Jesus’ words for themselves. I pray that some day they will be ready to believe in him.

I never gave Rainbow the answer she was looking for when she asked about the psychic. I skirted her question. I’m not proud of that. But I did pray for her to find her dog. It just came wandering home one day, long after the psychic had come and gone.

I like to think that my patience with her in those early days of friendship opened her heart a little towards God. Now when she knows I’m praying about something she gives me advice.

“Stop praying that prayer,” she told me the other day. “God has already given you an answer to that prayer, and you’re not listening.”

I think she’s on the right path. I think I am, too.New Wineskins

Patty SlackPatty Slack is a graduate of Harding University. She and her family spent 7 years as part of a church planting mission in Togo, West Africa. She currently resides in the Pacific Northwest where she home schools her 3 daughters.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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