Smaller than a penny and lighter than a dime, the piece of metal Liz handed me wasn't very substantial. In her mind and heart, though, this token carried the weight of God's protection.
I had stepped into Liz's domain, a Spectrum store in Columbus, to grab some caffeine before hitting the road back to Atlanta at 2 a.m. She milled behind the counter and we began to talk when she asked me what I was looking for and whether she could help me.
I plunked a Starbucks double shot on the counter, and she knew I was in for a long journey. That's when she forked over the oval-shaped coin that featured the likeness of the Virgin Mary. It would protect me on the trip if I'd keep it close at hand, she said. These days, you never know what awaits you on the open road.
I immediately saw this as an opportunity, not to prove her wrong or to make myself feel better, but to speak some truth into a lady that was obviously filled with faith, albeit probably not in the right things.
"Thanks," I said, taking the silver-colored piece. "I really appreciate this. But I believe in Jesus, and I believe that God will protect me, whether I have this or not."
She replied with something about honoring Mary and something else along the lines of "a little extra protection couldn't hurt."
Though cloaked in Christian imagery, I recognized this as basically the same idea that I'd seen Buddhists cling to in southern China. If we just hold onto these images, then evil spirits, forces and influences will have no access to our lives.
"The problem is that by saying you need something extra, aren't you saying that God's power is not enough?" I said this as tactfully as possible.
I don't say the following to act as though I was winning an argument, because it was more of a cordial discussion than a dispute, but at this point she began to stumble over her words, talking about how trusting in this token is like having your mom's protection in addition to your dad's. Her gist was that Mary gives an added bonus to the protection God has, that when he sees this token, he sees your faith.
Apparently my comment about God's sufficiency didn't stick, but I saw one more opportunity to speak truth:
"It's not that I believe that we shouldn't honor Mary. God chose her to bear Jesus and said she was highly favored among women. But when she and Jesus' brothers went to see him, what did he say? He said, 'those who do the will of my father are my mother and my brothers.' She, then, though worthy of our admiration, is not any higher than any other believers."
She wouldn't be reasoned with, but the two-minute conversation never got heated. Katy was waiting in the car, so I took the token and hurried out. It was in my wallet, but I believe God was the one who ushered us safely back to Atlanta.