His quick, interrupting answer took me a little off guard. I hadn’t finished my question and he had only begun to guess what it was that I would ask. I knew better than to ask what it was that he thought he couldn’t do. I also knew that he would tell me the reason he couldn’t.
Only seconds earlier he bared his soul to me, with his elderly father craning his neck just a few feet away, desperately trying to hear our conversation. He bared his soul to me in the rarest of confessions to someone outside the family. He bared it candidly and quickly, as though, if he said it fast enough, the words float up into the air out of sight and forgotten.
In the Portuguese culture, you don’t just open up to outsiders. You just don’t do that. The circle of trust includes the family. Immediate family. Only.
But, he said it, and it floored me.
Right now, I’ve got a huge emptiness in my life.
I tried to recover from such a frank revelation in such a public place, quickly assuring him:
James*, only Jesus can fill that hole….would you like to…?
Then came the “can’t.”
You see, Pharisees still exist, and sometimes they’re Catholic. Sometimes they’re Baptist or Methodist or Atheist. They’re all stripes and colors and different affiliations and cultures. They’ve survived for two millennia by telling the same old lies. No, Pharisees aren’t simply an afterthought of the Jewish culture. They’re present day, and I can’t stand them.
They threaten and bully. They deceive and imprison because they don’t want to lose their power.
If you don’t agree with us, we’ll kick you out. We’ll ignore you and make your life miserable. You’ll be shunned and die lonely.
For that very reason, James was unwilling to do whatever it was that I was going to invite him to do. Come to church. Read the Bible. Trust Jesus. Didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter if that “whatever” could fill the itching void in his soul. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
Here’s the kicker, though. He couldn’t…because he loves the praise of men more than the praise of God. He fears the rejection of men more than the punishment of God. He couldn’t because of what everybody else would say. He couldn’t because he doesn’t have the courage to go against the grain. Granted, it’s hundreds of years of grain, but people go against it all the time.
It’s not insurmountable. Just because you rock the boat, doesn’t mean it’s going to capsize and drown you in the process. If trusting Christ is rocking the boat, rock it. Rocking that boat has eternal consequences of which no one has ever been sorry.
Nonetheless, James told me in his own words, why. He told me why he couldn’t accept my incomplete invitation. Why he couldn’t even wait for me to finish inviting him.
I have too much respect for my family, for my country, for my culture, and for my ancestors.
All Pharisees. All oppressive, controlling, fearful, blind Pharisees.
My heart sunk as I heard those words. For James, too much respect really means too much fear. It’s one of the biggest hurdles we face on the mission field. Fear.
Fear of nonconformity. Fear of being different. Fear of change.
For so many Portuguese people it’s the same story. I once had a man kindly tell me that I had no idea as an American what great courage it took for a Portuguese person to even step foot into a church that’s not Catholic.
Truth is, he’s right. I have no idea, but neither does that mean that I’m going to stop inviting people to drink of the Water of Life.
I wish that I could tell you that James later came to trust Christ, but I can’t. I wish that I could tell you that he’s accepted even the first invitation that I’ve extended to him, since that conversation. He hasn’t.
I wish that I could tell you that James’ life is no longer empty.
Yet, unlike James, I’m going to keep doing whatever I can so that my life will reflect Christ and give my friend the courage that he needs to say, I can. Instead of hearing him say, I can’t, by faith, prayerfully, one day his tune will change.
I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.
*Obviously not his real name.