This is the post in which I share a story from nearly 6 years ago that I have been too ashamed of to write down or tell anyone. So if you have other things to do, feel free to stop reading. Just kidding. Hopefully the lessons God taught me using a red rose will help or challenge you.
Last week was Valentine’s Day, as you probably noticed. I went to Wal-Mart to buy pizza toppings, the last phone card needed for this home assignment, and the thinnest socks possible for bug protection in the jungle. I hadn’t been in the USA in February since 2013, and had forgotten what a commercialized holiday this is. Flowers and chocolate and sappy cards, oh my!
Still, I remember enough of North American culture to know that February 14 is a day when emotions run high, hearts are especially fragile, and hidden pain resurfaces.
So, standing in the candy aisle, a random urge from the night before to buy a Valentine’s gift for someone, didn’t seem like the best idea. Even expressions of friendship can be taken the wrong way when you don’t know a person well. And I am no longer comfortable enough in the American culture to navigate social situations and holiday expectations skillfully.
That insecurity prompted a flood of other fears. In my heartfelt desire for friends and acquaintances to experience Jesus’ love and believe in Him as their Saviour, do conversations end up being directed by me, and not His Spirit? Do I say things that push people away from Jesus instead of draw them towards Him? Do I try to run ahead of the Holy Spirit instead of walking after Him as a follower of Jesus? What if, whether here or in the village, in efforts to connect and serve and be a friend, I just mess things up?
As these emotions stirred in my heart, I gazed at the overwhelming number and style of candy boxes.
And a small voice suddenly whispered, “Remember the red rose.”
Even a siren or a snake or a stampede of army ants couldn’t have gotten my attention any quicker. I hadn’t thought about the red rose for a long time.
It happened in 2014, the summer that Brazil hosted the World Cup. Lots of ministry sprung up that year, some of which focused on outreach to women working in the sex industry, as well as prevention of human trafficking, which escalates in places where major sporting events are held. One ministry initiative was Festa na Rua (Party in the Street), a monthly event held in a different urban location each time. One evening that I had signed up to help, my Brasilian dad found me a ride with a young couple who were heading towards that area of the city, to spare me the normal 2 or 3 hour commute by public transportation.
Enroute, we were accosted by a street vendor. It is very common for Brasilians to go into business, selling candy or bottled water or other small items on the streets. Drivers stopped at red lights are viewed as potential customers.
This businessman was not peddling any of the common commodities, however, but was selling red roses. This was the first time I had seen a flower salesman at a stoplight.
And I suddenly felt an urge to buy a rose. “What kind of crazy idea was that?” I wondered. Sure, I come up with lots of crazy ideas on a regular basis (don’t ask my siblings), but this one seemed especially odd. Why in the world would I buy a rose?
For one thing, I had never made a habit of buying from street peddlers, and, less than halfway through missions training, I was on an extremely tight student budget. Also, I’d be helping set up for a party, and taking public transportation back home at midnight. A rose would get ruined. And what would the people I was riding with think of a strange American who randomly bought a rose for no logical reason?
But a small internal voice insisted, “Buy a rose!” I didn’t listen.
The light changed to green, we drove on, and I suppressed the feeling that I had made a wrong choice, distracting myself through conversation, and the building excitement for a Party in the Street.
The group heading up the event had a well-laid plan. We talked, prayed, and headed out to the designated corner, loaded down with food, soda, decorations, music, gift bags, and excitement to see God work.
Our location was a neighborhood known as “Luz”, the Portuguese word for “Light,” yet a place of darkness, where women work in an industry which devalues and dehumanizes them. Unimaginable stories of hopelessness, tragedy, poverty and abuse, in many cases, drive women to places where instead of receiving compassion, they are often judged and stigmatized.
Our desire was to bring light into this dark neighborhood, and connect with ladies working there. We prayed that they would sense that we loved and valued them as individuals, and start to believe that Jesus loves and values them and has a purpose for their lives.
It was an unconventional and terrific party! Many people who stopped by seemed excited about the refreshments and small gifts and the chance to socialize.
One of these was a lady we’ll call Annabelle. After listening to her story and sharing a bit of mine, I asked Annabelle the question which had been suggested by the party coordinators as a way to turn the conversation towards Jesus, and lay the foundation for the Gospel message to be shared.
“What was the most memorable or meaningful gift you have ever been given?”
Her answer came without hesitation. The most meaningful gift Annabelle had ever received was red roses.
My heart sank with the realization I had messed up big-time. God wanted to use me to give Annabelle another red rose as a tangible expression of His love, to show that He saw her and knew her story and her heart. The small gift of a red rose might have proved to her that God’s big gift of salvation through Jesus had her name on it as well.
But I had disobeyed the Holy Spirit, classifying His voice as a “crazy urge”. Choosing common sense over the illogical, propriety over spontaneity, safety over risk, a seat in the boat over a walk on the waves with Jesus, I didn’t buy a rose. What seemed like an insignificant incident became a significant regret. If only it would have been possible to go back to that stoplight, buy the rose, and give it to Annabelle.
She still heard the message of the Gospel that night. I pray that she still sensed Jesus’ love and compassion during our 15-minute conversation. But she didn’t receive the rose. And I missed out on being the delivery girl for what could have been a meaningful miracle.
As a daughter of God, I already know I am loved and valued, yet I still need the Gospel just as much as anyone else.
So what is the Gospel? The good news about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Even though we were all born sinners by nature, wanting to do things our own way, with a bent toward sin and away from God, He loved us so much that He sent Jesus, His only Son. Jesus died for you and me and for the whole world, regardless of our job or background or belief system. He took the punishment for our sin to bring us back to God, as His children, and give us everlasting life.
But not only did Jesus bring me back to God when I believed in Him for salvation from sin; He continues to draw my heart back to God whenever I turn away. Being in vocational ministry and living in a jungle does not exempt me from ignoring God’s direction or believing lies or living in fear of what others will think. So Jesus continually calls me back into the light, when it feels safer to stay in the dark corners of the nearest comfort zone rather than walk by faith.
God is still transforming my heart and renewing my mind. He graciously used the red rose incident as a catalyst for growth and change.
Since then I have been more aware of His still, small voice, and obeying it, sometimes even without being 100% sure of whether it is the Holy Spirit or a random urge. While it’s still a struggle sometimes, I’d rather do something that appears crazy than risk missing out on being part of something God wants to do in another person’s life. Although it often means embracing the unknown, jumping out of the boat, and redefining comfort zones, I’m all in.
So on February 14th, while not overly excited about the commercialism of this holiday in our culture, I bought and delivered the box of candy embossed with a shiny red rose, along with a small bouquet of fresh flowers.
Did those Valentines’ gifts become miraculous tools used by God? I have no idea, which is fine. That’s God’s business. But I do have faith that the Holy Spirit is at work in the heart of this person, praying that He will draw her to Jesus someday, and that my attempts of friendship might be seen as small expressions of His love.
In the adventure of walking by faith, in confidence that the mission is His, not mine, I’m trusting that God will keep me from messing up too badly as I continue to grow in grace, learning to recognize His leading in both the major and minor situations of life. I’m believing that as I live by God’s Word and abide in Christ, my conversations will be led by His Spirit not by my own agenda.
And one of the things I am 100% sure of is that whenever I do mess up, or even choose to disobey, like that afternoon in São Paulo, our loving Heavenly Father will always forgive, and continue to use me, not because I’m perfect, but because He is so perfect that He is powerful enough to use weak and broken ones to accomplish His work in this world, despite our failures and mistakes.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9