Somehow, it seems both like yesterday, and also lifetimes ago. Somewhere in Zambia, at a school and near a blacktop basketball court, I drifted away from the crowd. What I found was a game of soccer, being played by children with the joy that only children possess. Given the choice between a covert mission to preach to students learning to play basketball, or kicking a ball with those who could not speak the language I knew, I chose the latter.
Immediately I noticed that the ball which was in play, was made of plastic bags. Tightly wound together and made of necessity, but with great skill. Skill was something I lacked when it came to the game of soccer. None of the children away from the “planned activity” for my day spoke great English. But, I was a tall guy from another country, so they entertained my interest and laughed at my inability.
Play was stopped on more than one occasion, by a two year-old boy, who kept wandering onto the makeshift field. Patiently, but with a sense of urgency, the players ushered him off the field. Mostly for the flowing of the game, but also with some concern for the boys safety. Eventually, the game just stopped, as the smaller child walked up to me, dragging a sweater across the ground.
He stood there, him being two feet tall and my standing over six feet. Staring at me with some knowing. I returned the stare with the same knowing. I still search my heart, soul, and mind for that knowing.
The child began to spin in circles, holding his arm out, his sweater clinched at the end of a sleeve and hitting my leg. Not to be outdone, I began to hop over the sweater. Then I began to jump over the sweater. Him trying to hit me and me trying to jump as high as I could. All of those who were before playing soccer watched and laughed. All those commissioned and enlisted to preach their version of the Gospel continued to play basketball.
Lonnie, the missionary charged with taking care of twenty goofy college students, called me over to the side of the court. He introduced me to a young reporter for some Southern Baptist news outlet. We spoke for a moment, exchanging courtesies expected for such meetings. As I faded from the conversation, wanting to get back to the unsanctioned fun I was having, I heard the two men speaking about some event in a neighboring city.
If you have ever spent any time around Southern Baptists, you understand their obsession with numbers. How much offering was collected? How many “souls were saved” last Sunday? What number of members does your church have? What was the attendance? It always reminded me of some version of a man or woman carving notches on their bedpost, veiled with the cover of sanctification.
My missionary friend asked my new reporter friend, “How many people were baptized in Kitwe last week?”
The reporter said that he was there, but the number he spoke was lower than the number the missionary had expected. When Lonnie said he had read there were many more baptisms, the reporter looked sheepishly at me and said, “sometimes the numbers are exaggerated.”
For the record, the official record, like my official record (which is not official or real at all), nothing about that month was about me teaching anything. What could I know of anything that happened worlds away from what I had grown to know? God and I agreed beforehand, I would play basketball and learn as much as I could. What I learned that day, was that children know more of God than I, or any reporter, will ever know again.
You may have expected me to say that I learned that even Baptist reporters exaggerated and expand on their stories. I knew this already. Not because they are bad, or dishonest, but because they are human, and they are selling memberships to an organization. No one wants to tell the emperor he has no clothes. I knew this already.
When I pray, or meditate, I often find myself back in Zambia, playing with children, wondering where they may be now. I think also of the flowers and the people there. I find my mind drifting to the smell of charcoal burning as people warmed themselves during the cool nights.
Then I look around.
The beauty I bathed in there, is what I bathe in here. Children, flowers and people, the burning of charcoal, is all in my world, though that world is miles and years away. Joy, happiness, and the shying away of speaking on behalf of religion (or even God), exist in me today. Even in the middle of a worldwide crisis. A pandemic. But there exists in me also a suspicious mind.
The news that is reported is naturally about the frightening things. In the scheme of things, there is no good or bad, but in the reporting of things, there are things that sell and things that do not. People choose, from day to day, to feed the fear or the love in themselves. Love seems to be starving. It is not.
When we feed fear, it takes small bites and does not use the food to its advantage. In short, fear does not last long. It is addictive, but it is short lived.
When we feed love, it lasts. It makes a difference and it is remembered in times of reflection. Love will always win, because it is stronger and uses what we offer it more efficiently. Ask any child playing soccer in Zambia with a ball made of plastic bags. I have. They agree.
As for the game with the sweater… the universe and I still play. It spins in circles and I jump as high as I can. Not because what the sweater wields will cause me harm, but because for a moment, as I flow with what it swings, I am flying. Whether I decide a thing is good or bad, my interaction is what matters. We are playing games with the universe.
Here are the rules if you would like to play along:
- There is only love.
- There are no other rules.
Find plenty of food for the love inside you and keep up the good work. There are good things in store.