Monday, October 23, 2017

The Grocery Deli: Part of My Mission Field

As people at the church I serve know, a local grocery's deli line has become part of the mission field God has assigned to me.

I often regale folks with identity-protected accounts of the God-conversations I have while waiting in line at the deli. These conversations happen with customers and employees, whether I'm wearing my clerical collar or not.

The fact that the deli line has become a place where I do ministry as much as I do at hospitals or nursing homes or Catechism classes or weddings, reflects God's sense of humor, I think. Everyday I'm usually so busy that, to my embarrassment, I probably don't stop long enough to share Christ with others the way I could if I would just stay focused. So, God forces me to slow down while waiting for deli employees to call my number...and strike up conversations with others.

I look for opportunities to share the love of Christ in overt ways in those conversations, praying that God will create them. But I don't force them. Of first importance to me is being a friendly person who happens to be a believer, whether much overt faith talk comes up or not. I'm not trying to put a notch in my belt; just trying to show Christ to others. Besides, other people are repeat customers in the deli line too. I may have other chances to interact with them and develop friendships. And the deli employees will almost always be there the next time I show up.

Some conversations with customers in recent months stand out.

There was the couple with the two young kids. I mentioned how well-behaved the kids were and we were off. We talked about parenting and their professions and the pressures of their lives. When they asked what work I did and told them, they had several questions to ask about God...all while we were waiting for lunchmeat and cheese. None of that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't walked through the opening God gave to me to comment about their well-behaved children. (I don't know what I would have said if the two kids weren't well-behaved.)

There was the widower who, seeing my collar, had some theological questions he wanted to discuss.

There was the man, African-American, who told me about regularly commuting to our suburban grocery, part of a chain, because the one near him didn't have the variety or quality of foods he wanted to feed his family. The disparity in the quality and variety of foods offered in different locations by the same grocery chains isn't his imagination. It's been reported about and I've seen it myself: the groceries closest to me aren't places I would go for produce or meats. Yet just two miles away in a more affluent area, an "upscale" outlet of the same chain stocks healthier food and a wider scope of choices. I hope that in some way, I was able to convey understanding and encouragement to that man...and by extension, God's understanding and encouragement as well.

Some of the deli employees have gotten to know me fairly well too.

Today, in the midst of errands and traveling incognito (that is, not in my clerical collar), I stopped by the grocery store and went to the deli counter.

One employee, who has waited on me several times but with whom I haven't had much chance to interact, waved and walked toward me. "You're the minister, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Would you please pray for me?" He went on to explain a heartbreaking situation in his life. I assured him that I would pray for him. As he told more of his story, he began to tear up. I won't divulge names, circumstances, or locations. Suffice it to say that this guy, who I've always seen as a hard worker and a cheerful man, needed someone at that moment to assure him that God cared about his circumstances.

Later, another employee, working on slicing another person's order, asked me, "Have you missed me?"

"I haven't seen you for awhile," I replied.

"I had to take a few weeks off. They found my heart has an arrhythmia. Doctor told me to take it easy. But I'm feeling good now."


We talked some more. When I left, I waved to everyone behind the counter.

I count on these conversations to open up new opportunities to share Christ with people. This is the way disciples are made and strengthened: In the slow, compassionate opening of relationships with God at their center.

Even when God took on human flesh in Jesus, His sense of urgency for people to know Him and follow Him to receive life with God caused Him not to go big, but to go small, to individual people, to relationships not programs.

Jesus preached and taught crowds, to be sure. But He called and built disciples in more intimate ways.

Jesus spent some time with crowds, a little more time with His disciples (who maybe numbered 500 during His time on earth), a greater amount of time with the twelve apostles, and the most amount of time with three of their number: Peter, James, and John.

In other words, when Jesus decided to make disciples of all nations, He began by interacting with a few people.

Jesus knows that lives are more likely to be transformed in up-close relationships than they are when people invite us to attend an event or even a Sunday morning worship.

God wants intimacy with people, to have relationships with them in which they repent for sin, believe in Him for life, and are transformed forever by His grace.

It's no surprise then that when you talk with Christians about how they came to faith, they will speak not so much of preachers, worship services, Sunday School classes, or evangelistic events (although God works through things like these as well), but of relationships: A friend, a grandparent, a sibling, a coworker, a classmate walked with Jesus and befriended them and, through their witness and prayers, faith blossomed.

There are others at the deli counter with whom I've spoken over the past few years. Each of them has trusted me with their stories because, I think, everyone has a yearning for God.

You don't have to be a pastor to have these kinds of fruitful conversations. You just have to be a Christian who acknowledges your faith without being pushy about it and then take a little time (or, as in my case, be forced by God to take a little time) to give a listening ear to what people have to say.

I'm always asking God to help me be a faithful witness for Christ in my everyday life, not just on Sunday mornings. The words of 1 Peter 3:15 remain even more important to me today than they ever have been in my years as a disciple of Jesus:
...Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...
We can be prepared when we spend time each day with God in prayer, confession, thanksgiving, and reading, considering, and memorizing His Word. As we experience God and a close personal relationship with Him, He prepares us for our mission fields, prepares us to bring His light to people who fumble in the darkness of sin, health issues, adversity, and challenges.

Even grocery deli lines can be part of our mission fields.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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