I was stung.
Not by a bee, mind you. I was stung by my own poor judgment and cultural insensitivity. It even hurts to blog about it, because I work really hard at being as open minded and inclusive as possible.
On the short list of qualities everyone should want in a pastor, being inclusive and sensitive should be at the very top. Let me explain.
It had been two years since I had been to Telica, Nicaragua. The first evening back in town, a lot of people heard that we’d returned and walked over to say “hi” and “welcome back.” Children had grown a few inches taller. Parents had a few more wrinkles. Each of us were sporting two additional years of wisdom, along with the associated grey hairs.
One boy asked me in Spanish if I was going to smoke a cigar, a practice I had established each evening on my last visit. The children and youth that hung around our front door each night had looked at me funny, at first, but, I had assured them, through the efforts of a translator, that smoking a cigar is like anything … it is best done in moderation. One per day, no more. The youth looked and giggled at me, a giant of a man, a pastor from the US, who took great delight in having one cigar per evening. I was smug in laying down a moral lesson.
Boy, was my life about to change.
Ricardo – not his real name – asked me for a cigar. Ricardo is 14. “No, no, no,” I replied. “Cigars are only for adults,” I spoke through my trusty translator.
“But you gave me two cigars last time you were here,” he insisted.
White hot anger flashed through my brain. I was stung.
“I never gave you cigars,” I emphatically insisted. “I would never give a child a cigar. In my country, I’d go to jail for giving a child a cigar.” Besides, I thought to myself, I love cigars too much to haphazardly give them away. It was no use. The more I protested, the more I felt like dying. I furrowed my brow and walked away, you know, like a responsible adult.
Lord, have mercy.
I was in a pickle, and I knew it. While I had not, and would never, give a child a cigar, the mere accusation of any kind of less than stellar behavior against a pastor can be devastating. What I was guilty of was smoking a cigar and setting a bad example in front of children. Indeed, I was devastated.
When faced with anger at my own hypocrisy in the past, I have found it helpful to disengage, breathe, be still, listen, reflect, and pray. So I did.
I felt the Spirit’s nudge, and I went to speak with Tony; our host, my church member, and the one who grew up in Telica before moving to America and becoming a professional baseball player.
“I screwed up, Tony …” I began with what felt like my confession. I laid it all out for him, ending with, “why would Ricardo make up such an accusation?” “I don’t know, pastor Todd, but I’ll find out,” Tony assured me.
Small towns have many secrets, and Tony was related to all of them.
Turns out Ricardo, when confronted by the truth, admitted that he made the whole story up. He had been running with the wrong group of kids, disobeying his mother, staying out drinking alcohol and shooting pool. Ricardo was a kid going astray in search of redemption.
Perhaps his motive was fishing: casting out his line to see if he could hook a visiting pastor. Ricardo wanted to get back to the straight and narrow; perhaps, in some unknown way, I was his hand up.
No one worked harder the rest of the week to support our team of short-term missionaries, than did Ricardo. He was up early, worked hard, and stayed late every day. He even got up at three in the morning to ride with us to the airport on the day we departed.
No a word was mentioned about what happened. Yet, I knew that he knew. I forgave, even as he forgave me. It was for us, like our little secret.
I learned that my behavior must be above reproach when I’m on mission trips and making friends with local individuals. I had unintentionally made it messy. I had been smug and full of myself. I had become my own moral authority, and had failed to submit to God’s authority. Note to self: do not sin like this again.
Faith is the only solution, the only way forward for me. My faith is in the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. That grace is more than sufficient to cover both Ricardo and me. And I believe the redeeming grace of Jesus is the only means to clean up the mess we both made. Grace takes us by the hand, lifts us up, and leads us towards healing and wholeness.
“Hey, Ricardo! Listen to your mother. Here’s the deal: You stay out of trouble, and I’ll try to do the same. God loves you, and so do I.”