Saturday, November 27, 2010
The world is filled with bad news and desperate situations. The natural response is to want to do something, to go and help. To make a difference. To save a life.
Sitting in your cubicle or your lecture hall or your bedroom, life as you know it cam sometimes seem meaningless. Especially when you compare your life with the lives of those who are in need. After all, when so many people are dying every day, crunching numbers on a computer screen can seem unimportant.
Have you ever noticed that those desires to "go and help" always involve going to a faraway land where life is totally different from here? What is it about our desires to just do something that inevitably take us away from home into desperate and horrific situations demanding a hero? Is there a dash of escapism and savior complex mixed in with our altruism and compassion?
I am definitely in support of foreign missions and I support those who give their lives for the sake of sharing the gospel of Jesus in other countries. However, missions abroad can become an attempt to disconnect from anything and anyone familiar. It's as if by escaping the ordinary, life will automatically become extraordinary. What are we running from? Behind the banter of good deeds is a common desire to prove something, not just to others, but to ourselves. We all want to be different, to see evidence we're not just another number out of the 6 billion on Earth, and to know we're really alive. Is flying 9,000 miles to Zambia and feeding starving children the best way to go about meeting those inner needs?
For many in our generation, television and movies and the Discovery Channel have created a need in us for extreme experiences. When you add to that the ease with which we can take short-term mission trips abroad (now a standard for all youth groups), and our culture's emphasis on the big and heroic, it all leads to an inevitable disappointment with "normal" life.
We sometimes think only of Pakistan or Kenya as fertile ground for "going out and making a difference." Heroism belongs at least as much in the little town or big city where you grew up as it does in exotic locations.
It's not by chance that God used the word neighbor in His second greatest commandment in Matthew 22:39-"Love your neighbor as yourself." That means the people on your beaten path. If your path happens to lead to the Philippines or Haiti, by all means serve God and love people there. More likely, your beaten path looks more like an ugly brick office building, your 10 year old car, or even your parent's house.
If you can't be extraordinary in your ordinary life, with your own neighbors and family, it's highly unlikely that you'll amount to much, no matter what baby orphan you have kissed. Stop, and know the people on your path.
We are a transient people addicted to newness. New media, new fashion, new stories, and even new friends. Connecting to those who live, work, worship, and play near us requires us to learn to listen. We need to stop looking for the new and become even more familiar with the already familiar.
If you ask most pastors today what they would like from the committed Christians in the congregation, one of the things you would probably hear would be a call for people to get to know each other deeply. Do you know the people in your church, your neighborhood, and your city? Have you really listened to them or committed yourself to knowing them beyond the surface level? Churches need people who are not just there to sing some nice songs, hear a funny sermon and head out afterward for lunch with friends. Hang out with people from every generation. Get involved in a small group where people actually get to know each other and meditate on God's words.
Need some ideas? Play all-church hide-and-seek. Have choir practice in a nearby park with a picnic afterward. Do hip-hop dance in a retirement home. Organize an ultimate frisbee tournament. Get some friends together to decorate the educational rooms. Stage an all-night prayer event for local and global issues. Organize a Read Through the New Testament Day and read the whole book out loud. Have a chili cook-off. Make a point of building community.
Don't just commit yourself in your church-dig into your neighborhood. Invite your neighbors over, even the weird ones. Run for a position in city government. Organize a neighborhood block party. Join the Rotary Club. Find out if there is a community-supported agriculture near you and take a bunch of people along to volunteer and get some great fresh food out of it. Help out a 4-H club. Organize a Free Hug Day. Go without electric lights in your home for a week and have people over for candlelit dinners or poetry reads. Buy a pizza and take it to the park where the people who sleep on the street hang out. Eat with them.
All of these things avoid the "holy huddle" mentality that plagues a lot of U.S. churches. When we are engaged and connected in the life of our place, we can really know and be known by the people we seek to serve and reach out with good news. Don't wake up one day and realize you can't remember the last time you had a friendly conversation with someone who didn't use the words "Praise the Lord!"
When the people came to John the Baptist and asked what on earth they should do with themselves now that they had been dunked in a river and heard about a Messiah on the way, he didn't tell them to go off and volunteer in an Ethiopian refugee camp. He told them to give away their extra food and shirt. He told government people and soldiers to stop cheating people and accusing people falsely. He didn't tell anyone to quit their job. What would he tell you to keep on doing? How could you do what you do, and do it better?
Perhaps you complain about your job to your coworkers and roommate. Maybe there is someone who drives you crazy at work, or someone who does strange things. Challenge yourself to treat computer geeks, homosexuals, coupon-clipping ladies, and horribly muscular bodybuilders all the same. There are very few people who are actually "normal." Abnormal is normal, so act accordingly.
Probably even more challenging than living well in your work is to live well in your own home. Love your wife, husband, parents, or roommates. Respect them. Be considerate and submissive to them in little way, like doing the chore they hate doing and asking for forgiveness when you aren't loving. Hug them everyday. Speak highly of them to others. Honor them throughout life.
When you're overhauling your daily life, take time to examine your spending habits. Stop caring about money-that will make you radical indeed. Maybe you spend money on things you don't need, like jewelry, Wii games, or shoes. Make a budget that includes giving away money, and stick to it. Thank God you don't have more money to stress you out. Surprise someone by buying them a meal. Look how God takes care of the dandelions and the pigeons-surely He will take care of you, too.
Rest, don't vegetate. Ask yourself what you do to turn off your brain, and cut back on it. Turn off the TV or computer more. Go for walks. Sit outside at night. Read for three hours some afternoon. Plan ahead to have a retreat day. Sleep. Pray.
There are plenty other things you can do to change the world, the world that in other countries, even. There's a myth that it's lame to send a check to Samaritan's Purse or World Vision instead of going across the ocean to hold someone's hand while they are dying. Sending that check may actually have a much greater impact than spending the money on your own plane ticket. Support the people and organizations you believe in financially and in prayer. Find ways to directly support small community organizations, local churches, or children in low-income spots around the world. Let someone else be the hero. If we say we believe in prayer, aren't our prayers from a North American home just as effective as prayers while we are off visiting a foreign land?
We Christians are supposed to be the ones who follow Jesus. The tough news is, it's not going to be any easier or more fulfilling if we magically teleport ourselves to new circumstances and surroundings. We need to keep walking with Jesus in the day-to-day wherever we are. That's where it's hard. That's where it's most extraordinary.