Our neighbor brought to us four husks of last year’s corn for Christmas, one for each of us.
Our little village church put on a drama for Christmas day. It was the story of the birth of Jesus, and the most unique version I’ve ever seen (full of remote African village perceptions and perspectives). It was unique and it was beautiful (like each of us to our Father). I could have compared abilities and performances with other Christmas dramas and interpretations (and rated this performance in relation to others), but then I would have missed the uniquely beautiful gift that these folks were presenting to us and to our Father.
In the US, we are obsessed with perfection and “best”, but beauty is far more profound than either, and uniqueness is always a part of true beauty. If we don’t look like others or have another’s gifts, it is because we were created uniquely beautiful. What we perceive as “imperfection” doesn’t diminish beauty, it actually enhances it! If only we would remember this when we look at ourselves and each other. This Kingdom principle (to be holy means to be different, unique, set apart from the rest) is often forgotten in our driven culture, but our Father asks us to not conform to the ways of the world, to be different; to radically appreciate our own and each other’s uniqueness and beauty, and to love the flawed, imperfect, blemished, wounded… How did the Kingdom of God, revealed by Jesus to be based on a new covenant of love and grace, ever become just another religion about goodness, performance, converts, success and failure? The Christmas drama in Cavango was far from “perfect”, and it was entirely beautiful.
We took 4 people with us on our 10hr trek from Cavango into Lubango as we began our four day trip to our vacation destination (we had 8 adults in our car that holds 5). We left at 6a and there were at least 30 people out to see these four off on their “adventure” into Lubango. Few people from Cavango ever go on such a trip. They weren’t familiar at all with riding in a car, using the doors and windows, etc.
We’ve had a wonderful time vacationing in Namibia (while we picked up a solar system for lights for the Cavango hospital). We all know that vacation is ideal for “stepping away” and evaluating our work and our life (our family has not done this well over the years). Our current time away has allowed me to look again at Jesus and His priorities. What did He emphasize? What did He spend most of His time doing? It appears that He spent most of His time with a few men and women, He spent most of His time and energy meeting hurting people’s needs, and He communicated to common seekers the truths of His eternal Kingdom. He spoke to people in synagogues, but did most of His work interacting and teaching outside of buildings and cultural religious settings. The Spirit within compels me to do these same things…
Myself, our village’s pastor and a nurse from our hospital drove seven hours recently to Katota (mostly off-road), an old mission station that has a nice, newly built hospital but no doctor (since 1975), and they have asked if I could work there 2-3 days/month until they are able to find and hire a full-time doctor. There are few doctors in Angola and virtually all of them work in the cities where they have better equipment, medications and life-style. Katota is about 100 miles from the closest city (with a hospital) and thousands of people live in its backyard with quite limited access to this city hospital (which is third-world, always struggling with supplies, power and water). 100 miles is a long way without a means of transportation!
Katota is now one of three current and four potential sites inviting us to work with them for a couple days each month. Though each of these remotely located places has invited us, they must receive a declaration from the governor of their province (5 provinces represented) to grant official permission for us to work. The process is entirely reasonable, as I must present myself to the governor of each province (1 down, 4 to go) so that his office can validate who I am, validate who I work for, validate my training and experience, and validate (through references) that I practice good medicine. This is, of course, wise and protective of the people governed, though in this corrupt and controlling government, it will take many months.
My reputation precedes me, as I have already worked in many places in Angola and there are not many American docs in this country (we are ambassadors, all the time). I work for an excellent, very well-known and well-respected physician in Steve Foster and for an excellent, known-and-respected-by-all mission hospital in Lubango called CEML. Without good references, a good reputation, and good associations, I wouldn’t be able to serve in any of these places.
My reputation, my past and current work, and how I present myself all work together to establish my credibility, which motivates the community leaders, and also the vulnerable and ill, to trust (or not) my counsel and care. I can have excellent medical knowledge, equipment and skill, but if I don’t have the trust of those I wish to serve, it is all of no value, and they won’t receive my care.
It is entirely the same in our desire to impact and encourage the seeking, vulnerable and wounded with the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that the credibility of His witnesses is NOT based, however, on how good they are, but rather on how they love, and on how their lives (past and present) are characterized by passionately caring much for others and recklessly little for themselves… It is our love (not our performance, talents, knowledge, morality, etc.) that sets us apart and identifies us as His (Jn 13:35). We are not called to be morally different than the world, we are called to love the unlovely and live with disregard for ourselves (which will, of course, affect our every behavior). In Jesus’ Kingdom, everything, including our character development, is motivated by our love for our Father and our love for others!
We can know and communicate perfectly the gospel and biblical truth/doctrine and if we have not love, we are a worthless, even irritating, clanging gong…
I’m reminded of a sad story of a group of refugees stranded in a tropical swamp and being guided to a place of possible evacuation. At one point it became apparent that these lost, fleeing and hungry men, women and children would not survive their trek to rescue without food, drinking water and some supplies. Many beautiful and caring people put great sacrifice, effort and cost into preparing and delivering food and supplies by air, but the supplies were packaged in perishable material and were lost to the swamp’s insects, moisture, bacteria, and animals before the refugees could get to them, and all of the people perished.
This seems to me a good illustration of what so often happens with the church as it relates to outsiders. We truly want to rescue those lost and hurting (and we expend great effort in learning and communicating truth), but like the well-intentioned rescuers in the above story, we too often disregard the importance of how the truth is “packaged”, and our lack of love (the package) prevents those needing it most from being able to trust and receive our legitimate message (the contents of the package). We also, as a church, too often disregard the value of credibility, wisdom and experience in the “packaging” of our Kingdom message.
If we can’t “package” our Kingdom message in credible lives and care and concern for those with which we share, it is much better if we keep quiet until we can. There is truly a cart and a horse in the Kingdom and one that is today frequently ignored. Our Father has emphasized quite clearly (over and over and over) that our priority must always be our own intimacy with Him (only this produces credible lives, inside and out) and our love and care for others, while communicating the truth of His Kingdom. We must never forget that without genuine concern for those we are seeking to “rescue”, our “truth” will rescue NO ONE.
We know that mental/spiritual/emotional health is often found in tension between two ends of a spectrum. Examples include justice vs mercy, temporal vs eternal, control vs freedom, predestination vs free will, rest vs work, service vs worship, task orientation vs relationship orientation, solitude vs time with people, etc. Our Father asks us to walk in tension regarding love and truth where both have passionate emphasis in our lives without sacrificing one for the other. We see so commonly one sacrificed for the other in the emphases of individuals, denominations and churches as we tend to place great emphasis either on truth (priority given to bible knowledge, teaching, evangelism, the message of the kingdom, etc with little focus given to service, clothing the naked, embracing the sinner, etc) or on love (priority given to service, tolerance, kindness, etc and little focus on God’s word, teaching and the message of the Kingdom).
Our Father asks us to not reject one for the other, but to live in a Kingdom tension that motivates us to both share and demonstrate the beauty of God’s love and truth. Jesus is our model and His Spirit within us will drive those that are His to be like Him, emphasizing the truth of His Father and His kingdom, while passionately going and loving sacrificially, especially those hurting and without.
What are we spending our time on? Are we stuffing more and more beautiful, healthy food into cardboard boxes (accumulating good kingdom knowledge without concern with how we are packaging it)? Are we seeking out ways to love and care for those in need? Are we practicing disregard for ourselves so that we have the time and energy to love and serve those with needs?
We must remember, as well, that we are loving no one if we deliver well-packaged, empty crates. If we truly care about another, we WILL share with them the beautiful reality of Jesus’ grace and truth, and introduce them to our Father, who cherishes them as He does us.
We can study the bible and attend a great church (both have great value), but if we are not prioritizing what our Father prioritizes, we are missing the mark (like our enemy, who knows the bible better than we do – Mt 4). What are our Father’s priorities?
As we look to the new year, will you join me in remembering Our Father’s priorities and making them our own? Perhaps they could be summed up as follows…
Knowing Him more intimately (Jn 17:3),
Being a blessing to others (in communicating love and truth) while abandoning the pursuit of blessing for ourselves (He will care for us) (Lk 10:30, Mt 6:33), and
Seeking out those needing rescued (in our neighborhood and in the ugly, forgotten, desperate parts of our world (Mk 16:15-18).