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It is Good to be Different
By Anthony Fagan
It was a typical Saturday night. We were at the local speedway working to rack up a few more points to get us closer to the ever-elusive championship. We had been at the track since 1 in the afternoon, preparing the car and running hot laps.
Excitement, frenzy, and commotion describe the scene in the pits during a hot lap session, but the main event does not start until 7 in the evening. That often leaves time for eating fried chicken and relaxing in a plastic lawn chair. The backs of race trailers can become havens for the weekend gossip, jokes, and general ribbing of drivers and crew chiefs alike. It’s a time to get a tip, find an edge, or learn a secret from a fellow racer.
This night was no different in that regard. Track officials had just called for a drivers meeting, a weekly ritual intended to remind all the boys to play “nice” together. The crowd inside the trailer had dissipated, except for myself and a neighboring crew chief. We kicked back in a couple of lawn chairs amid the discarded chicken bones and empty soda cans. As he sat with a Red Bull in one hand and an endless chain of cigarettes in the other, he uttered some of the most challenging words I have heard in my years of ministry. He simply said, “Preacher, you’re different.”
(He always called me preacher, and I thought for the longest time he did not know my name. As it turned out, this was not the case.) He paused, as if waiting for me to respond. If you’re like me, being told you’re different isn’t necessarily a compliment. But because I had a good relationship with him, I followed his cue and asked, “What do you mean?”
He responded, “Where I come from, a guy like you would never hang out with someone like me.”
Again there was a pause, mainly because those were shocking and painful words. What he said could not be true. Could it? After all, as Christ followers we strive to love and accept all people just as Jesus would, right? Jesus demonstrated this approach when He called Zacchaeus out of that tree for a dinner meeting; when He called another tax collector, Matthew, to be His disciple; and when He hung out with sinners, lepers, and rejects. Jesus made it a point to do life with those who needed “living water” because He came with one purpose in mind: “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10; John 4:10). He came for them.
But my friend had not always experienced that kind of love and acceptance from Jesus’ followers. I felt the sting of his words as my mind flashed back to the cautions I was given as a young man about “casting my pearls before swine,” “avoiding the world,” and just generally steering clear of sinful unbelievers. But as I listened to my friend, his words and actions indicated a longing for a relationship with me. He did not want a relationship because I am a cool guy. (I can assure you I’m not.) It was simply because he saw something different in me. That something is what the world is looking for from every one of us who call ourselves Christ followers.
The Message stated it brilliantly when translating a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill …. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand — shine!” (Matthew 5:13–16)1
For far too long Christ followers have merely talked about being separate from the world. Meanwhile, countless people wait for us to flavor their lives with God and to demonstrate the “God-colors” of this life.
A pastor friend of mine illustrated it like this: “Fish swim in the ocean. They live all of their lives swimming around in salty water. They are born in salty water. They die in salty water. Yet when they are cooked salt must be used to bring out their flavor.”
Despite living in salty water, the fish do not become salty. They still need flavoring. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He sent His disciples, and ultimately us, to flavor this world with the gospel message.
There are six things I have observed over the years while forming friendships with people who do not know Christ.
1. Every Person I Encounter Seeks Love and Acceptance
I sit in Starbucks every morning with one goal in mind: making friends. I have found that everyone I talk with wants love and acceptance. Isn’t it interesting that the Scriptures give loving God and loving your neighbor top priority? When I engage tattooed, earring-wearing, alternatively-dressed individuals with a smile and a hello, they are thoroughly surprised and often return my gestures warmly. When you encounter people, especially ones you have prejudices toward, how do you respond?
2. Everyone Wants To Be Heard
Nearly everyone wants to share opinions, thoughts, and ideas. As I have encountered and engaged lost people, I have found they are much more willing to hear what the Bible says — and what I believe — if I have heard them out and listened to their thoughts and questions.
Don’t be afraid of tough questions. I used to worry about people asking questions I could not answer. That is a normal insecurity. I want to let the cat out of the bag on this one: unless you are some sort of mega genius, someone will probably ask a question that stumps you. It’s OK. This is an excellent time to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out. Would you research it with me?”
3. We can Love Despite Disagreements
It is natural to disagree on some points, especially if the other person is exploring faith or is coming from a different religious background. Disagreements do not have to be points of separation. Agreeing to disagree can actually increase mutual respect. And many differences dissolve as the Holy Spirit works.
4. The Holy Spirit Must Be Included
The Holy Spirit is our means of power and direction when it comes to reaching the lost. I have often felt frustrated because I thought a lost friend or new believer was not getting it. I have tried to nudge them gently (sometimes not so gently) toward what I thought was right. This only increased the frustration and created confusion for the both of us.
I have discovered that if we allow God to plant seeds of faith, He pushes aside barriers and miraculously transforms lives. Areas of disagreement often fall away because they are no longer guided by human reasoning, but by Christ’s saving grace and the Holy Spirit’s work.
5. Not Everyone Will Accept the Gospel Message
I have discussed spiritual matters with many men at the racetrack on Saturday nights. Yet only a few of them have actually made commitments to Christ. Some are still on the journey. I have lost touch with others because jobs have pulled them away or our lives just don’t cross paths any more. I continue to pray that the seed God allowed me to water in the past will blossom as another Christ follower steps up for the harvest.
Paul affirms this to the church at Corinth when he says, “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work.” (1 Corinthians 3:6–8, NLT).2
Communicating your faith is an exciting experience. Every one of us have been challenged and empowered to bring out the “God-flavors” of life. If you have not already done so, will you start building friendships with people in order to “season” your community with the gospel message? As you do, God will work through you, and lost people will be saying, “You’re different.”
If different means displaying the love of Christ to everyone you encounter, it is a good thing.
1. Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
2. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.