Would you like to take the students to get ice cream?” my co-leader Brian asked me.
Um, yes. I would like ice cream, thank you very much. Dairy and sugar sure sound like God’s will to me.
I was leading a group of middle schoolers and their parents on a mission trip to Puerto Rico . We’d spent the week serving a small church in Ponce, learning that walking by faith often involves taking risks—a lesson that most everyone latched on to, making our time rich with testimonies.
After a full day of replacing ceiling tiles, painting cinder blocks, and teaching VBS, everyone was ready for a treat. We packed up 21 hyper students and 21 exhausted parents into the school bus and headed to the square downtown. The ice cream shop was tiny, so in order not to overwhelm the staff, we split our group into two: The first group would wait in line outside the shop; the second would follow me to the middle of the square across the street and hear about tomorrow’s agenda.
With ice cream looming large in everyone’s mind, I zoomed through my spiel and then sent my group on their way.
The students raced back. I lingered behind, answering a few parents’ questions. When finally I headed in the direction of the shop, I noticed a crowd gathered there—everyone from my group huddled outside, with their backs to me.
I stepped up on the curb to join them and felt an unmistakable shift in the atmosphere. God’s presence hung heavy in the air, as measurable and tangible as the humidity. A few people were murmuring with almost reverent tones while everyone else remained silent, sheepishly glancing at each other with watery eyes.
God’s presence hung heavy in the air, as measurable and tangible as the humidity.
I pressed one step farther into the crowd, scanning the scene for whatever had captured everyone’s attention. That’s when I saw Briley, a petite blond and blue-eyed sixth-grader, sitting in the dirt, half embraced by an older homeless man—a well-worn baseball in his hand. He was weeping.
A handful of parents and students pieced the story together for me: Seeing this lonely man get completely ignored by our group, Briley offered him the students’ baseball. That simple gesture of camaraderie was all God needed to get ahold of this man’s heart. I’m not sure what Briley did or said at that point, but considering that neither person spoke the other’s language, the ministry had to have been of the Holy Spirit.
Briley looked up, addressing us. “Will y’all pray for José with me?” And we did. As we said an emotional amen, I caught the eye of Briley’s mother, Sherri.
“This,” she struggled to keep her voice even, “is my risk.” I nodded, acknowledging her reference to the theme of our trip. Wrapping her arms around herself, she continued, “… to stay here, even just five feet away, while my child”—on that word her voice broke—“sits with a stranger, when all I want to do is rush in, scoop her up, and make sure she stays protected from harm.”
That simple gesture of camaraderie was all God needed to get ahold of this man’s heart.
Until that night at the ice cream shop, I had always equated Jesus, and not God the Father, with vulnerability. Putting aside the intrinsic mystery of the Trinity (something I certainly do not claim to understand), I would say that Jesus was my favorite of the three. His whole life a risk, Jesus is God’s vulnerability incarnate. Jesus couldn’t have put Himself any more at the mercy of other people than when He laid down His life on the cross. And here was Briley—a child entering into a messy, dirty situation to love someone literally overlooked by the religious—exemplifying that same vulnerability.
On the other hand, I had felt justified in holding God the Father at a distance. I mean, He held me at a distance, didn’t He? It wasn’t the Father who came down to earth. He sent a Representative instead.
All my logic came crashing down as I looked at Sherri’s face. In that moment, I caught a glimpse of how God the Father must’ve felt seeing His only begotten Son walk the earth, be beaten and crucified. I realized what it must have cost Him to allow His Son the space to fully love a broken world. For God so loved, He gave…
For years, I’ve had the crucifixion depicted for me in a thousand songs and paintings. But what I didn’t realize until that night in Puerto Rico is that the picture is incomplete without God the Father. Now when I picture the cross, I can also see a Father, facing His Son, longing to take Him in His arms. And when I see God like that, my trust for Him grows, knowing He too risked everything to be with me.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory