Ambassadors don’t have it easy.
On the one hand, they must represent the country they work for. Its values, ideals, and agendas. They must be the face of their homeland, even when much of the world thinks their homeland has lost its mind and elected an imbecile. On the other hand, they must carefully and tactfully assimilate into the culture of the country in which they reside. Work to achieve mutually beneficial, symbiotic goals. This isn’t punching a clock and answering a phone about some as-seen-on-TV magic vacuum cleaner. This is a taxing line of work. Ambassadors often risk, and occasionally lose, their lives.
Recently, in Novi Sad, Serbia, my friend Arlette and I met a Serbian ambassador who took his job very seriously.
It began on a rainy afternoon. We made the hour-plus drive up from Belgrade in our sexy rental Ford Fiesta to visit Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city. Upon arrival, we drove through Barbie-thin one-lane alleyways in search of somewhere to park. Finally, we found a spot on a narrow street in between two other parked cars. We’d already received two parking tickets in Belgrade, so we were careful to look for, and obey, parking signs. Finding none, we locked our car, dropped a pin on our GPS, and headed out.
After several hours of taking in Novi Sad’s markets, churches, and castles, as well as political statements spraypainted everywhere, we grabbed an early dinner. As darkness fell, we decided to brave the rain and head back to our car.
We walked for some twenty minutes, finally locating the street where we’d parked.
The street was empty. Every car, including ours, was gone.
In the waning light and pouring rain, Arlette and I looked at each other in shock, then quickly tried to formulate a plan.
We decided we’d head to the nearest restaurant with Wi-Fi, and do some detective work to find out if our car had been towed, and if so, to where. We said a quick prayer that our Fiesta hadn’t been stolen (although who steals Fiestas anyway?), and walked a few blocks until we stumbled across Project 72, an Italian wine bar.
It was here that we met the ambassador.
Peeking in, and looking remarkably like a pair of lost, drowned, yet still very attractive rats, we were quickly greeted by a server named Nebojša. He spoke English better than most Americans, and told us to have a seat at the bar. We explained our predicament and asked if he knew where our car might have been towed to.
“Quick,” he said to the bartender, “grab these guys some wine and coffee on the house.” Magically, some Pinot Gris and espresso appeared. We offered to pay several times, but he insisted. “I’ll call down to the towing yard for you guys.”
He did. They had our car. We breathed a sigh of relief, even though Nebojša explained that it would be at least $120 to get our car back. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the parking here,” he said. “I’m so sorry that you guys had to go through that.”
After giving us directions to the impound lot, Nebojša bagged us up some homemade tomato soup and honey, saying he didn’t want us to go hungry. We tried again to pay or at least tip him, but again, he refused. “Is this your first time in Serbia?” he asked. “Yes,” we replied. “I want to make sure that your first experience is a good one.” Even though he was busy with other guests, he hung with us for a few minutes, sharing jokes and stories.
Finally, we walked the half mile to the towing yard, paid our parking ticket and to have our car released, and drove back to Belgrade.
Just like that, our day was turned around. One person had shown us unexpected, unrequited kindness, above and beyond, and it changed everything, including our perception of Novi Sad as a whole.
You see, Nebojša knew that he was an ambassador. Not only did he represent himself and his restaurant, but he knew that he represented his country as a whole, and did everything in his power to represent it well.
Truthfully, we’re all ambassadors. No matter where we’re from or what we believe, others base their opinions of countries, religions, and political ideologies on their interactions with us.
It pains me to hear all-too-frequent stories of Americans abroad who represent the United States poorly. I’ve been in the same restaurant in Beijing with an American who chewed out a Chinese server, in her own country, for not speaking English. I’ve seen and heard horror stories of the American imperialistic mindset on full display in all corners of the globe. “We’re not all like that,” I apologetically say.
In addition to our countries, we also represent our beliefs. I, for example, believe in Jesus. Those who know this base their opinions of Jesus in no small part on how I act, how I love, how I live. How many people on this planet don’t believe in Christ because of Christians? Because of unwilling, unknowing ambassadors who, instead of embodying the love, grace, and forgiveness of their Savior, espouse the hate, judgment and indifference of the Devil?
There are no rusty swords on this battlefield, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently declared. If you follow Jesus, you can’t sit on the sidelines. Either you’re for Him or against Him, and everyone is watching to see if you live the love you claim to believe in. You’re an ambassador, whether you like it or not. In Revelation, God says He’d rather us be hot or cold (cold!) than lukewarm like we are.
This world doesn’t care if you have the right eschatological theology, or if you go to church faithfully, or if you make the right lifestyle choices. The world doesn’t care about slick evangelistic television programs or killer worship bands. The world is waiting to see one thing: love. Love with no strings attached. Do you, who claim to be saved by the grace of Jesus, share that grace with the world He came to save?
Remember that the One we follow gave His life for this broken embassy and its imperfect ambassadors. Remember that we don’t choose to be ambassadors. By choosing Jesus, we realize He has already chosen us.
Do you follow Jesus? Take your position as His ambassador seriously. Love God. Love others. That’s it. When you do so, an unbelieving world will start to see a little more clearly exactly who this Jesus is, and why they can’t live without Him.
One man completely changed our view of Serbia one rainy night through a little wine, love, and kindness. Imagine what a lifetime of grace in action can accomplish for a world in need of the love of a Savior.