Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Love is a tomato sandwich


The tomato is one of God’s masterpieces.

I don’t mean those pallid, pulpy imposters piled on grocery store shelves. I’m talking about tomatoes right off the vine — the kind you have to visit farms, well-tended home gardens or rural roadside stands to find. Lots of city folks have never even seen a real tomato, much less tasted one. The authentic item is blood red, firm but not hard, bursting with tart sweetness. Bite into it and the juice will gloriously assault your taste buds in a way those store-bought phonies never could.

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato,” observed writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, a fellow Georgian, after extensive experimentation. (Georgia, by the way, grew the best tomatoes — and peaches — while I was growing up there, despite the dubious claims of other states.)

The true poet of the tomato, however, was Guy Friddell of Virginia. Friddell, who died in July at age 92, was a great political reporter for many years. But he reserved his higher literary gifts for meditations about more important things: watermelon, corn on the cob, butterbeans, black-eyed peas. And above all, tomatoes.

“Improve the tomato?” he once asked. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Friddell loved tomatoes best the way I love them: in tomato sandwiches. “Has it crossed your mind that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?” he inquired of his readers. Indeed it has, since my elders approached tomato sandwich construction with great seriousness and taught me to do the same. Slather some bread or biscuits with plenty of mayonnaise. Carefully apply thick tomato slices and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Add potato chips and an ice-cold soda or sweet tea.

Friend, I’d take that feast over filet mignon most any day.

I passed many a happy hour long ago consuming tomato sandwiches with my grandparents, with my father while watching ballgames on TV, with other dearly departed folks I loved and who loved me. One summer at Grandma’s house, we ate them every day — and had plenty of tomatoes left over to give bulging sacks full to neighbors. In the country, it’s a luxury even poor folks can enjoy together when the harvest is good. If you can’t make a friend over tomato sandwiches, something is wrong with you.

Love is what I’m talking about, of course, not tomato sandwiches per se. But the two go together in my mind and heart. Pick your own food if you’re not a tomato fan. There is something about eating together, cooking for others and sharing food with friends and strangers that goes beyond human affection. It is holy.

The Book of Acts records the joyful times that followed the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and 3,000 new believers were baptized after Peter preached the Gospel:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

That sounds almost strange to many of us, accustomed as we are to individualistic faith and “personal space.” The first Christians prayed together. They worshipped together. They shared their belongings with one another. And they ate together, daily. They also fulfilled the command of Christ, who said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13,14).

They not only enjoyed food and being with one another around the table, they used the act of breaking bread as a natural way to bless others — especially the hungry and needy — with the love of Christ. We can do that, too, in our daily lives and our own Jerusalem. We, too, can feed the hungry around us. We, too, can hold banquets and invite lost people the world over who long to be invited to the Master’s feast.

For some ideas on how you can do that, browse through the “Flavors of the World” feature series. Take a global tour of ways Southern Baptists are on mission with God through food — whether it’s drinking tea with new friends, sharing meals with other believers or fighting hunger and malnutrition among the poor and the unreached. The multi-week “Flavors of the World” series launched in October, coinciding with the inauguration of Global Hunger Relief, an initiative of Southern Baptists that succeeds the highly effective World Hunger Fund campaign.

In the meantime, invite a friend — or a stranger who needs a friend — over for a meal. If it includes tomato sandwiches, call me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Work and mission: no division

An American executive working for a major automobile company in Asia is just hitting his stride: top salary, big results, great industry contacts.
But it’s not enough to satisfy him. He wants more than anything to tell the people around him — many of whom have never heard the Gospel — about the joy and hope he experiences knowing Jesus Christ.

What should he do? Quit his job and go into mission work? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe he’s ideally positioned to do mission work as a natural, integral part of his current job. Maybe that’s why God nudged his company to send him to Asia in the first place.

 “I had to bite my lip a few times when I was talking to him,” admits Scott Holste, IMB vice president for Global Strategic Mobilization, who encountered the executive during a trip to Asia. “My gut reaction was to say, ‘It sounds like God is calling you to be a missionary,’ because that is so much a part of our thinking.”

 God still calls people to be missionaries every day. But in a complex, economically interconnected world where thousands of Americans live and work in places missionaries can’t access, there are other possibilities. He can use all kinds of folks to accomplish His purposes.

 “God may indeed be calling you out of a vocation as an engineer, for example, and calling you into full-time missions,” Holste says. “But He may be wanting to build on the fact that you are an engineer — that you have the skill set, the problem-solving ability and the creativity to bring to the task of expanding the kingdom of God.”

 Holste is heading up an effort to encourage and equip “marketplace professionals”: business people, teachers, medical workers, artists, students pursuing degrees abroad and others already working overseas or open to the possibility. The marketplace is the world. Countless American Christians already practicing their vocations have the professional skills the world wants — and the hope the world needs.

 More than one-third of the world’s nations impose “high or very high” restrictions on religious activity, including mission work, according to the Pew Research Center, which tracks such restrictions in 197 countries. About 75 percent of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in those nations. The trend toward increasing restrictions, even in supposedly democratic countries, appears to be accelerating, Pew reports. But God, the ultimate Creator, is endlessly creative. Governments, cultures and borders may prevent certain types of traditional mission work, but they cannot stop the spread of the Gospel. Church history has demonstrated that again and again, as merchants, teachers, artists, explorers, even slaves, have taken the Good News with them along the globe’s trade routes — transforming the places and peoples they met along the way.

 There are other spiritual principles here. Work is holy, beginning with God’s own labor: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1, NASB). Work done unto God glorifies Him. And work and mission need not be separate; they can be an integrated whole. We often forget that in our fragmented, hyper-compartmentalized lives.   

 Johann Sebastian Bach provides one of the most inspiring examples of integrating work, worship and mission. Bach was a towering creative genius, but he also was a working musician. Many of his hundreds of works were composed for the regular worship services in the German churches he served. Perhaps it felt like a grind at times, even for the great master. But every note he wrote was dedicated to God. 

 “In a simple way, such consecration is seen in Bach’s own hand,” wrote Southern Baptist theologian Jason Duesing in a recent column for Baptist Press. “As he started each composition, he would mark ‘J.J.’ at the top of each page as an abbreviation for Jesu Juva or ‘Help me, Jesus.’ Once he completed the work, Bach routinely concluded with the initials ‘S.D.G.’ representing Soli Deo Gloria or ‘To God alone, the glory.’”

 God has given you unique gifts and a particular vocation. They’re not intended for your glory, but for His. Could He use those gifts among the nations? Maybe you’re already living abroad, like the auto executive in Asia. If you’re a student, perhaps you see yourself working for an international company one day.

If you’d like to explore possibilities and network with others seeking to fit their vocation into God’s global work, there’s a global gathering place for you: Skybridge Community. The newly expanded online network, which launched Sept. 26, offers a range of tools, resources and ways to connect with like-minded professionals. Check it out at www.skybridgecommunity.com. Among other tools, SkyBridge Community features: “SkyCafes,” where you can start a conversation with other marketplace professionals living in your country or region, or with whom you share a vocation or interest; “SkyBlogs,” blogs tailored to specific interests from career transition to culture; and “RightNow Media,” which includes thousands of videos designed to help you live your faith in the marketplace where God has placed you.

The world is God’s creative workplace. Make it yours.

Watch a short video about Skybridge Community: http://vimeo.com/72201246