That’s a dope hat.”
I was in the process of sliding my debit card into the reader when I looked up.
Jacob, a new barista at my favorite coffee shop, was nodding his approval. It didn’t immediately register that he was talking to me. Covered in face, neck, and knuckle tattoos, he didn’t seem the conversational type.
Covered in face, neck, and knuckle tattoos, he didn’t seem the conversational type.
Regardless, our friendship started like that: micro-chats fueled by my need for caffeine and his observations about the day, my state of dress, or the latest social media controversy. And over the next two years, these snippets became longer and more meaningful. One late afternoon, as he was bussing the cafe, he lingered near me.
“You pray, right?” he asked.
For a person who has engaged in various spiritual debates, questions like this have the tendency to trigger a certain Socratic mindset in me before I answer.
“I do,” I said slowly.
He nervously wiped his overused dishrag across my table and began to share about his struggle to see the children since his divorce. How he followed his broken family from Los Angeles to Spokane, only to see them move to Alaska. As I listened, all of the shocking but ultimately superficial things about Jacob—the things that put us on opposite ends of the social spectrum—faded away. The tattoos, oversized clothes, and large-gauge earring holes all stopped distracting me, and I saw a person. A father, like me, who ached to see his children the same way I would, if separated from them.
“I may get to see my oldest on his birthday. So, if you think about it, remember ya’ boy when you pray next time.”
Later that week, while sharing prayer requests with my church small group, I mentioned Jacob’s situation.
“I want Jacob to see how real God is,” I said. So we prayed that Jacob would get to see his children, and I’d get to have more conversations with him. And that he would come to know Jesus.
I’m not shocked by the fact that Jacob got to see his children, or that a deep and lasting friendship has formed between the two of us, seemingly against all odds. No, what strikes me most is my initial assumption that Jacob didn’t know Jesus.
He did. In fact, Jacob had a deep relationship with Jesus, which started at a young age. As our friendship blossomed, the Lord became the all-important common denominator, even if our numerators looked wildly different. Early on, I found myself curious when I would hear him quote Scripture or reference a popular pastor—even if the structure of the words wasn’t familiar, the insight rang true.
In one conversation about spiritual gifts, he alluded to a particularly dark time in his life. As a fashion model, he’d attend drug-laced parties and would battle the overwhelming influence of sensuality that permeated the scene. “My SpiritMan was not good with that stuff. But when you’re in it, you’re always fighting some sort of controlling force.” It took me a bit to understand he was talking about the gift of discernment.
“I don’t know how to do this,” he said over dinner recently.
“Eat?” I joked.
“Be your friend,” he said, his fingers slowly twirling his glass. “Christian friendships don’t last for me.”
“Christian friendships don’t last for me.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
He smiled, causing the tattoos around his eyes to wrinkle. “The people that know my past think I need a short leash. Those just meeting me see an opportunity to give me a Jesus makeover. When I tug on the leash, or don’t wear those khakis, they either think their initial reaction was right, or they lose interest.”
I was quiet for a beat, remembering my first assumption after his request for prayer to see his son. I wondered what it must be like to be immediately weighed and measured simply because of my skin or my vocabulary.
“Know what’s funny?” he said. “We’re all just as jacked. The difference? You see my mess right away. Others? They hide theirs like it’s treasure.”
The way Jacob has been treated by Christians throughout his life has been damaging. It’s probably why it took us over two years to reach a deeper level of friendship. And just like any other hurt, those struggles, along with others, continue to inform some of his reactions and decisions. There are times he acts certain ways, or makes certain decisions, that unsettle me. But it’s important for me to remember that the same Holy Spirit who guides, reminds, and compels me (often in a much more gentle way than I deserve) does the same in him. And when he’s struggling, I return to the most vital question I can muster: “How are you doing with Jesus?”
That’s the great equalizer, isn’t it? When the Lord asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) and Peter proclaimed Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus was clearing away every distraction, philosophy, popular idea, and assumption in order to gain the most essential ground.
How do we comfort the broken when we hide our own casts behind our backs?
And when we focus our relationships (with believers or those who don’t know Jesus) on the Lord’s power, we’re able to stop worrying about the wrong things. We stop worrying about surfacy stuff like affiliations, or preferences, or appearance. When that happens, the root that anchors our confidence becomes much stronger because we’re able to trust in our Creator’s promises rather than fret over the actions of imperfect humans.
Believers say things like, “Jesus spent time with the sinners, not the religious.” But that’s walking a tightrope, isn’t it? As Paul said in Romans 7, we hate the reminder of what we once were and desperately want continued renewal. Yet if we lose sight of our renewal and think (or at least communicate) that the way we are now is the way we’ve always been, who is left behind? How do we comfort the broken when we hide our own casts behind our backs?
If the sanctification process looks a certain way in my life, it’s natural to think it will look the same for others. Let’s remember, however, that the same God created both the Amazon rainforest and the Sahara. Why would He limit His creativity when it comes to His body of believers? And if His creativity applies to how He sanctifies, we must embrace the truth that His redeeming power applies to everyone—not just those who, based on our cultural biases, look as though they’re already teetering toward becoming a new creation.
Illustration by Paul Blow