Ministry is filled with programs these days. It seems like we start things, good things, but we don't know how to stop them when they are no longer effective. Worse yet, I have a suspicion that many of our programs keep chugging along just fine long after the Spirit has left the building.
Lately I've been wondering about the programs that I've started. I've been looking at Jesus, and instead of asking, "What would Jesus do?" I've begun to ask, "What did Jesus do?" And I'm not seeing a lot of programs in his life ... instead I'm seeing him walking around, running into people along the way. And in the time spent with each person, I see Jesus embracing the "God moments" resulting in radically changed lives.
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is at hand!" Most of the adults said, "Where is it?" and "How can we see it?" The very adult disciples asked Jesus one day 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus answered "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:2-4). What is hidden to "wise and learned" adults has been revealed to children (Luke 10:21). If this is true, then we adults had better learn to see the kingdom through the eyes of children.
One Easter morning, I saw the kingdom through the eyes of Mario...
There is nothing unusual or unique about having an Easter Sunrise Service. Every church does it. It's programmed into our year. On this morning we met before dark at our usual place, a beautiful beach on the shore of south Florida. The weather was perfect, and we were excited to worship the Risen Christ as the sun rose over the blue ocean horizon.
Lots of people gathered as we began to sing; many just happened to be at the beach and were drawn to join us. I always think about how Jesus almost never preached in the synagogue, but always out where people naturally gathered. "Why don't we do this more often?" I thought to myself. Still, nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Hundreds of churches were doing just what we were doing. I whispered a prayer that God would do something that only He could do ...
In the middle of the message, again, one of the usual Easter messages, I noticed a group of seven people making their way up to the front, a small, thin boy who I guessed to be around 5 years of age leading them. They all had their bathing suits on and carried towels with them. The boy looked young, yet he had an air of confidence about him. His eyes shone with an intelligence that made him seem much older than his years, but with a tinge of world-weary sadness.
As I closed the service I invited any that would want to be baptized to come forward. We usually have a few baptisms on Easter morning, but no one had responded to the invitation this year. The little boy stood and came to my side, followed by what I now assumed was his extended family. I asked their names and Mario introduced himself, and then his mother Maria, his father Joe, his sister Anna, his two uncles Frankie and Ted and his grandmother Lena. They had heard about the church that met at the beach on Easter morning and had come to be baptized. I asked them to express their faith in Jesus, then we all entered the ocean together, me in my street clothes because I hadn't been prepared. As we came up out of the water Mario's eyes were glowing, but he suddenly seemed tired and went limp. I picked him up and carried him back to the beach as the reflection of the sun made a cross on the shimmering water.
After the service Maria told me through her tears that Mario was very sick with a rare bone marrow disorder. He had just undergone a rough course of chemotherapy treatment. His eight-year old body had been ravaged by his disease, making look much younger than he was. He had been fighting the disease for so long, and it had taken all of his strength to make this trip to the beach. She told me that it had been Mario who had urged his whole family to come to the beach that morning to be baptized. He knew with the honesty of a child that he did not have very long to live, she said, and he wanted his family to be in heaven with him and with Jesus when he died.
I looked at Mario. Now with his mission accomplished, his tired eyes sparkled with a joy that opened a window to heaven. It had been a beautiful Easter morning.
On Thursday of the following week, Maria called me, and with desperation in her voice told me that Mario was in the hospital. When I got there he was already in a coma. I prayed without knowing the right words to say in the face of this mother's grief and fear. Mario suffering ended the next day when he went to physically be in the kingdom with Jesus.
It was an honor to be included in the memorial service for Mario. His family came to our church for a few weeks afterwards. We embraced them with Christ's love as best we could. They soon stopped coming because the memories were too painful, but I still keep in touch when I can. On Sundays I sometimes stop for coffee on my way to church in the bakery where Grandma Lena works.
When I think about this experience, I feel blessed to have been a touched by Mario's simple faith. I remember how he brought his entire family into the presence of Jesus that morning. I pray that the moments I was privileged to spent with these people will change their lives in the course of eternity. I know that my life is not the same. These days I'm focusing less on starting programs and keeping them running. Instead, I'm trying to remember the reality of the kingdom that I saw so clearly in Mario's eyes on that Easter morning. I want to live in that kingdom ... I want to see with eyes like that ...
The prophet Isaiah knew what he was talking about when he said, "... and a little child shall lead them." I think he was talking about Mario.
(The events you have read about in this article are real, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent grown-ups ...)