Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. — Revelation 3:20 (NIV)
“Hi! Would you like some cake?”
When my oldest daughter became engaged, in a well-meant but totally misguided effort to preserve the couple’s modest bridal budget, I naïvely volunteered to make the wedding cake. This gesture created a lot of personal angst over the ensuing months (I know, I know—I brought it upon myself) but more importantly, what it also created was a lot of CAKE. The moment I realized I was now locked in and on the hook to produce a three-flavored, multi-tiered tower of confection both lovely and tasty—that could live up to the weight of the occasion and would not give food poisoning to 40 people—I also realized that my casual, seasonal forays into the world of baked goods were not going to cut it. I needed time, I needed equipment, and I needed skills.
Overnight, our home kitchen became an experimental sugar lab.
The trial and error went on for months. At first, my family thought this was the best thing ever. Cake 24/7! What kind will it be today? Soon enough, though, we’d all had enough of cake—always with slight modifications and minor improvements (or not), but essentially the same flavors, just combined differently. At this rate, we couldn’t keep eating cake without becoming absolutely sick of it. But I hadn’t perfected the recipes, so I couldn’t stop making cake…but I couldn’t bear the thought of wasting so much cake!
The answer was clear: We needed to share it.
I spent some time in a church where, right next to the exit doors, there stood a big nylon banner that declared in big block letters, “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE MISSION FIELD.” In other words: once you step outside the walls of the church, you are in the world, and you are Christ’s emissary on assignment. No International Mission Board, no sending organization, no fundraising, no fuss. Just you, carrying the Good News, commanded to cross the street and GO.
I thought about that banner as I sliced up my latest trial bake, stacked cake-laden paper plates in my arms, and made my way to the homes of my neighbors.
I know I’ll sound like Captain Obvious here, but I‘ll say it anyway: cake is not the gospel. There is a difference, a big one, between engaging in the Great Commission to bring the gospel message to those who have not heard and accepted it, and simply being—like State Farm®—a good neighbor.
But these two acts, being a good neighbor and being a gospel bearer, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. When I look at the most deeply missional people I know, both at home and abroad: in almost every circumstance, wherever in-person relationship is possible, I find that they intentionally shape their everyday lives in order to meet people, befriend them, accept their messiness and invite them into their own, and stick around. They prove through time and proximity that they actually, genuinely care as they demonstrate in practical ways the deep, abiding love of God, and look for organic opportunities to share Christ’s gift of salvation. This has always been the kind of person I want to be and the kind of missional living I aspire to. Putting it into practice, though…
Back up with me about a year and a half…
We moved into this house in the thick middle of COVID isolation, telling ourselves, “Someday, eventually, when this all blows over, won’t it be great to get to know our new neighbors!” In that sweet future by-and-by, we envisioned backyard barbecues and strong new friendships, potlucks and swapped garden seeds, book groups and maybe even Bible studies and whatever could grow out of sharing life together. We would follow Jesus and fish for people in this neighborhood! The gospel would be shared and Christ would be displayed…someday!
As life began to open back up along our street, so did the potential opportunities for connection. We just didn’t take them. The sad reality was that in spite of our daydreams and good intent, over the previous months of isolation we—okay, I—had become over-attached to the easy, insidious habit of keeping to myself. And while I had continued to answer the call to give, support and pray for missionaries and missions efforts from a distance, I had stopped hearing the personal call to go. It was there, it was always there, I just wasn’t listening. The intent was still there, but I’d lost the intentionality.
This truth ball stunned me as I looked down at the cake I’d just baked and frosted. So now, convicted and motivated, I confessed my missional shortcomings and I repented in the most immediate way I had available to me. I prayerfully loaded my arms full of cake and I stepped out into my mission field, knocking on the doors of neighbors with whom I’d only really shared surface-level pleasantries. Some I’d never met or seen at all. Not everyone opened their doors to my knock. But nearly everyone who did accepted the gift of sugar.
*The following names have been initialized to protect privacy
Eighty-year-old S—who raised three daughters with his wife in their home across the street, maintains an impeccable yard, and is adjusting to daily life as a recent widower—told me, “I don’t eat much cake!” But he accepted the first plate, and he seemed genuinely pleased when I showed up with new flavors in later weeks and told him we needed to have him over for dinner soon (I’m telling you all this so we’ll be held accountable for that invitation!).
C, working from home, took the first plate with cautious, bemused thanks. A couple weeks later, when I returned with round 2, he was ready with the honest feedback I had encouraged him to give. “My daughters ate the lemon blueberry in about two seconds! My wife really liked the caramel apple chai. I liked both, but you were right about the frosting on the apple one. The texture was a little weird. Tasted okay, though! Do you do a lot of baking normally?”
Next-door neighbor K not only opened her door but invited me inside. Friend, when you’re gifted an opportunity like this, TAKE IT. We sat on her deck long into the evening telling our stories and experiences. I told her a little of my church work and church life, and about our multigenerational household. She shared about single life and parenting after divorce, and about this neighborhood she’d been part of for almost 20 years—including the ways the previous owners of our house had shown kindness and taken care of her after her husband left. Learning some of those insights humbled me, but they also gave me a helpful path forward in how we could now take up the baton of caring for our neighbor. We talked and laughed, and I left that evening with warmth and hope for new real friendship and for spiritual as well as literal open doors. (Again: the ball of reciprocal hospitality is now in my court. Pray for me.)
More houses, more conversations, more opportunities. One household, immigrants from a country I have yet to uncover, declined the cream-filled cake because they do not eat dairy products. Another neighbor has food allergies (“But the boys and I will enjoy it!” said her husband, reaching for the plate). So even though the wedding is now behind us, delicious dairy-, nut- and gluten-free cake and cookie recipes are on my radar. I’ll be back.
This is not a missions success story…maybe more a missional slice of life. Living missionally takes time, and the right equipment, and skills—skills that require patience and practice, and trusting in the Holy Spirit to yield a good result. (Kind of like baking a cake.)
It also takes the courage of the Holy Spirit. To take those first steps out of our comfort cocoons and into the mission field where He’s dropped us…it can be daunting. So we practice. We get some things wrong and He leads us to get some things right. And we practice some more. Moved by that courageous power, we get to be the hands of Jesus right down to the knuckles, knocking on the doors around us, carrying plates of hospitality, humility, friendship, care and eternally life-giving news to anyone who will open to us and to His call.