Friday, October 7, 2011

What's in Your Hand?

After my first trip to Africa - Uganda, to be exact - I came home with tons to process.  It was my first encounter with extreme poverty face to face and I felt like it ripped open my insides.  Seriously - like I was raw and bleeding.  I'll never forget riding in the bus on a long, dirt road and passing a little boy...he couldn't have been more than three.  He was walking all by himself barefoot with not another person in sight for as far as I could see.  He was completely alone.  If we saw that scene unfold in America, we'd be slamming on our brakes and bringing that child with us.  There would be none of this leaving him on the street by himself business.  But in Uganda, we drove on by.  If we had stopped for every child who was walking alone we'd never have made it down the road. It is life there.

I've had several people who have traveled and seen this sort of thing personally, ask me how to cope with their life here in America after witnessing such pain in other places.  I'd like to say it gets easier with every trip.  For me it doesn't get easier, but it has become different.  I remember after my first two trips to Africa coming home and feeling this insane tension inside of me.  How do I go back to my air conditioned home with my full refrigerator, cable television and every single comfort I could possibly want? How do I turn on one of the 8 faucets in my house and have immediate access to clean water when people risk their very lives walking miles and miles a day to find it?  How do I open my closet and decide which of my 12 pairs of shoes I should put on for the day when so many go barefoot and have jiggers burrowing up into their feet? How is it I can find myself complaining about my job when literally millions would give anything for the chance to work like I do?  As I lay in the comfort of my down blankets and soft mattress at night, how can I not help but think of the children who lay their heads down on the dirt - left alone.

I am talking about TENSION in the truest sense of the word.  Let's be honest.  We abhor tension.  We hate anything that causes us discomfort.  And when I came back from Uganda I just wanted to be rid of it. I wanted to figure out how to make it go away and stay away.  I didn't want to have the internal struggle about how much I had and how little they did.  I didn't want to feel guilty for getting Starbucks or going to the movies.  As much as I know God was trying to break my heart and help me embrace the poor and the orphaned, there was a very real part of me that just wanted their faces to disappear from my memory.  I didn't really know how to handle all the tension and inner turmoil I felt, and to be frank, I still don't.  But this last trip to Ethiopia helped me realize some things. 

I hope that what I'm learning on this journey might help some of you who feel the same way I do - torn. I know all of our paths and journeys are different, but at their core they are the same because God is always the same.  His heart will always beat for the marginalized and the oppressed.  So, that means our hearts should always beat for them too.  And in that, we are the same.  We are responsible.  We are called to do something.

I think that what I'm learning now is that as much as I want to sprint the opposite direction of this tension, there is some tension that is good - God given, even.  Rather than fight it, ignore it, choke on it or hate it - I am learning to embrace it.  The tension keeps the realities that our brothers and sisters all over the world face real for me.  It keeps them always before me.  I almost would liken this kind of tension to a burden.  There are different kinds of burdens.  There are the heavy kind that we feel we might collapse under, then there are the burdens that are almost like extensions of ourselves.  They inhabit our hearts and thoughts...they can actually bring us joy because they are rooted in love.  There was a period of time where I thought I might collapse under the knowledge of how people were living.  I felt like I was suffocating in my own life - held captive by the pictures of distended bellies, gaping wounds, empty eyes and crying children. I came through that rather heavy season of my life by both accepting the things that God was teaching me and learning that I wasn't helpless to make a difference.

But this other kind of tension doesn't feel so heavy.  In fact, it even feels hopeful.   I have actually found myself praying over the past few weeks that God wouldn't take this tension away.  It's what keeps me compassionate, engaged and on my knees in prayer.  I have seen the heartbreak and the oppression up close- I know the wretched marks it leaves on people.  But I have also seen unspeakable hope spring up in places that you just don't expect it to.  And that is what we hold onto - HOPE.  Some days hope comes easy, and others we have to tenaciously fight for it.  But it is always there.  It doesn't go away.  Part of what gives us hope is discovering our purpose.  If we are called to care for the poor, the orphan and the widow (which we ARE!), then discovering how God wants us to be engaged in that is a critical step in coming to some sense of peace within ourselves.  The other helpful (and quite obvious!) realization is that I cannot fix all the brokenness on my own. I could spend a lifetime trying but it would never happen.  That's God's job.  I get to participate, but I, by myself, am not the answer. My job is to love and obey wherever, whenever, however God asks me to.

For those of us who believe in God, we know that this world is not our home.  We live in the constant tension of that.  Our hearts ache for God's complete and full reign here on earth because only then will there be no suffering and pain.  Only then will our tension vanish before our eyes.  But we are to bring heaven to earth now.  Remember how Jesus prayed a little prayer where he said "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? We do not sit here aimlessly and pine away for the future.  We bring the reality of God's love, hope and restoration to the suffering and marginalized NOW.  Does the act of truly seeing the needs of this world turn our stomachs?  Does it cause us to question the way we live our lives in pursuit of the American dream? Does it cost us to enter into someone else's pain?  Might we be asked to give up everything we know? Is there any peace or joy in the process of having our hearts torn open and our lives turned upside down? Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!!

God hasn't created us to live sad, miserable, broken lives.  He has created us for abundant life in Him.  While our engagement in caring for the poor might cause our world to be shaken up and our hearts to ache and be burdened - there is tremendous joy in this journey of loving others.  When we look at Jesus' life, we see him weeping over the pain of others and literally carrying the weight of the world's sin on his shoulders.  But he also got to see the lame walk, the the blind see, the sick healed.  These things must have filled Jesus with pleasure.  You don't watch someone who has never even stood up, pick up their mat and run and leap for joy without feeling an incredible sense of delight!  And so, we hold both the pain of those who suffer and the joy of seeing lives transformed in both hands.  If we never knew pain, we would never know joy. 

Some days are HARD.  I was face down on my floor two days ago weeping (like ugly snot know the one) and praying for people on the other side of the world who face such extreme hardship.  I thought my heart would explode from the weight of it.  Then there are days where you get news that catapults you to the heights of joy because a prayer was answered or you got to see transformation in the life of someone in need - you got to experience the kingdom brought to earth.

So really, coping is embracing all that God has for us - the good, the hard, the beautiful, the ugly, the seemingly impossible.  It is by Him and through Him that all things hold together.  We couldn't hold anything together if we wanted to.  We just have to approach God with willing hearts and open hands for whatever it is that He wants to give us.  The tension that may come from that is GOOD, a blessing really. I might even go so far to say that if we aren't experiencing this kind of tension as we walk out our love for God on this earth, then maybe we're missing something.

As to exactly what your part is to play in God's purposes here on earth...that's for you to find out. :) And in my opinion, finding out is half the fun!  I'll leave you with some wise words from Norma Cook...

We read in the Bible that Moses had been tending sheep out in the desert when God called him to lead a huge flock of people on a perilous journey to the Promised Land. Of course, Moses felt inadequate, and told God so! God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?” “A rod”, Moses replied—just a simple tool of the trade for a sheep herder. Then God showed Moses that even simple tools and simple people can be used in mighty ways when yielded to an Almighty God.  Maybe God is showing you a need that you feel inadequate to meet. Your resources are insufficient and your skills are lacking. God couldn’t possibly use someone like you…could He?

2 Corinthians 8:12 tells us: 'If there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what a person has, not what he doesn’t have.' So…what is that in your hand? A pen, a phone, or car keys? A hammer, a wrench, or a shovel? A mixing bowl, knitting needles, or a musical instrument? When offered to God in service to others, it can accomplish a great purpose. It all starts with a tender heart and willing hands—yours and mine. And together, we’ll see God change this world - one person at a time.

So, what's in your hand?? 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. exactly. Thank you for saying it.

  3. You...and your gift for putting me into the full-on snot cry. ;)

  4. As I've been reflecting on my time in Liberia, trying to process the poverty and sadness and sickness and need that I was faced with every day...I feel like God has been walking me through this very tension that you're writing about. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for showing that I'm not in this alone, that there are lovers of Christ all over this world learning to live with a heart that's been broken for the things that break His.