Start with Rice and Potatoes

In this post, Rob Lewis reflects on his experience as an MK in Bali.

My parents worked as “pioneer” missionaries in Bali, Indonesia. They arrived in Bali in 1953 and my mom, at the age of 91, still lives and works there. My parents’ primary mission was to convert 2.5 million Balinese Hindus to Christianity. At least that’s what the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA) Prayer Manual made it look like, with the island of Bali and its entire population listed under my parents’ names.  I don’t remember them ever telling us that it was God’s job to convert the Balinese. That’s why we were there.  It was a stupendous responsibility.

Toward this effort, my dad preached the gospel in fluent Indonesian at the alun-alun, or town square, in the small town we lived in. The alun-alun was an enormous grass field where villagers gathered for recreation, or important events. My father stood up on a makeshift platform on the great lawn, and propped up a flip chart on an easel. The flip chart was called “Hati Manusia” or “The Heart of Man.”   It contained pictures of a man whose heart was in various states of degeneracy, with garish pictures of the seven deadly sins as depicted by a wolf, snake, peacock, pig, goat, lion and snail. The man’s face was grotesque, with heavily lidded eyes and sneering mouth. This was followed by pictures of his regenerate heart, brightening as a dove descended into it, and drove out the other animals, slinking out of the picture. The man’s face mirrored his heart, bright with smile and light.

I often accompanied my dad on his open-air preaching adventures.  It was a carnival atmosphere at the alun-alun, and my father was an oddity and part of the show, a large white man showing us pictures of animals in our hearts. I doubt the Balinese would have grasped his message, attuned as they were, not to the beast within, but to demons and spirits all around them, whom they constantly had to please or appease to maintain a cosmic balance between good and evil.

I stood in the crowd, and watched people as they watched my dad preach through the chart. One night, while my dad was taking us deep into the heart of darkness, a man came up to me and startled me with the question, “What do you eat, rice or potatoes?” “We eat rice,” I said, “but we sometimes eat potatoes, which my father prefers.” The man laughed, and we briefly discussed the Lewis family diet before he disappeared into the crowd.

This brief encounter left a lasting impression, and I continue to ponder its mundaneness and its significance. While my father preached the eternal truth that could forever save this man from his sin, he and I were discussing my father’s love for potatoes. While we concerned ourselves for how this man might spend his eternal life, this was clearly not his concern. He was more interested in how we lived our daily lives.

“What do you eat?” is perhaps a more probable starting point for the gospel than “What kind of evil is lurking in your heart?”  Jesus set the precedent when he fed people bread and fish, before offering himself as the bread of life.

Pioneer missionaries like my parents had a Great Commission mandate to make disciples of all nations. Most of them were willing to die for this cause, and many of them did. My family narrowly escaped being killed during the Indonesian Communist Party’s failed coup attempt in 1965.

These are high stakes all the way around. But I wonder if we focus too much on the extremity of these causes – eternal life or death – rather than on the staples of daily living, and simply offering daily provision to people. The Gospel is good news which could also be defined as news about all that is good. That is the starting point of the Gospel, that we can trace to its source. Alexander Schmemann writes, “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man.”  Goodness is not defined or expressed in the abstract, but in the concrete and specific rituals of daily living. And participating in these rituals together.

After all, the central sacrament of our worship is eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood. It is the defining ritual of Christian community that should also be the fulfilling ritual of daily life, eating and drinking with our strange neighbors and neighborly strangers.

In so doing we balance the Great Commission with the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor as ourselves. We can only do so as we partake of God’s goodness together.

The Balinese had to ask what we ate because they never saw us eating. They rarely ate with us or we with them. But some of my favorite childhood memories were doing just that, joining my Balinese friends at their temple festivals, eating from banana leaves nasi kuning (saffron rice) and lawar (a plethora of vegetables, spices, and blood) that had first been offered to the gods. The Balinese believed the gods had extracted its essence, but the taste was heavenly. This might have been our starting point, telling our Balinese friends the good news that God doesn’t extract anything. He adds and fills and blesses from his storehouse of goodness. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Our hunger is for God himself.