Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Living Sacrificially

May 24th marked our two-year anniversary!  To celebrate, we traveled to the quaint little town of Dullstroom, which is 2.5 hours away from where we are in White River, and spent the weekend there.  It was a lovely couple of days filled with a walk through the town, a short hike near the dam and lots of eating (as I’m sure you could guess)!  It’s incredible that 2 years has passed since we exchanged vows and committed our lives to each other!

A picture from our hike in Dullstroom
Something else happened on that weekend, however, that took a little bit of shine off our little getaway.  As we settled in for the night in our cozy little lodge, we received an email from George, the founder of Hands at Work.  His email was in response to another email that we had all received from the day before where one of our Service Centre Coordinators informed the Hands family that a child they were caring for had passed away.  The details were few.  All we were told was that her name was Melissa.  At the time, I remember reading the email, feeling sad, but then getting on with my day.  After all, I had never known or met Melissa.  George’s email the following day shed a little more light on Melissa and the fact that she had suffered much sexual abuse throughout her life and that she died as a result of this abuse.  He followed by challenging us on what we are doing as a community to prevent these types of tragedies from happing to the children in our care.

Though George’s email was only a paragraph long, it hit me hard.  I felt helpless in knowing how to respond but knew we needed to turn to prayer.  Diane started by thanking God for our weekend and for our marriage.  She followed up by saying that we don’t take the things we have been blessed with for granted.  As she spoke the words, I felt the sharp pierce of conviction in my heart.  They are words that we speak frequently but, too often, flippantly and this time I could not let it go.  As we laid in our beautifully decorated guest room, having just a few hours earlier indulged in a fantastic, 3-course dinner, I could not help but acknowledge that we do, in fact, take everything – who we are, what we do, what we have – for granted.

There is a danger in being too comfortable.  And I recognize that we have allowed ourselves to fall into that rut.  As missionaries in Africa, it is far too easy for us to feel that we are immune from such danger.  We get showered with praise from others back home who tell us that what we are doing is so admirable, that we are such good people for sacrificing so much, and that they could never do what we are doing.  It’s uncomfortable for us to hear those words and we cringe at the thought of being looked upon in that light.  The brutal and ugly truth, however, is that we allow ourselves to revel in the praise from time to time.

The logic, you see, is simple.  We left our family and friends and our comfortable lives back home.  We gave up well-paying jobs and sacrificed years of income earning.  All of this was done in the name of serving orphaned and vulnerable children in Africa.  Surely, we have sacrificed more than our fair share; enough, at least, to deflect any guilt or conviction that could arise from how we respond to situations like Melissa’s.

The reality is that it couldn’t be any further from the truth.  Yes, we have sacrificed.  Yes, we continue to serve.  But it hasn’t prevented us from holding on tightly to what we have and seeking a comfortable life for ourselves.  This is not to say that we should feel guilty for the things we have or that it is wrong for us take a vacation or treat ourselves to a nice dinner from time to time.  We fully recognize that we grew up in a different world than the children we serve in Africa and that, no matter how hard we try to align our lives with theirs, the disparity will always be vast.  In the same vein, there needs to be a recognition that the way we live our lives and the things we allow ourselves to indulge in is so far removed from the lives of those that we serve.  And it should make us uncomfortable.

As we prayed for a teenage girl who we never met, whose name we could not even put a face to, I felt the shame of allowing myself to become desensitized to the plight of so many children’s stories and the tragedy of loss we too often deal with in our line of work.  It’s stories like Melissa’s that should be ripping my heart to shreds.  Instead, I allow myself to be too far removed from having any understanding of her life despite committing myself to serving children like her.  I hear the news, say a quick prayer, and get back to enjoying the comforts of my life.  I am happy to serve and give my life on the mission field, so long as I can continue to live comfortably.  True, my gauge of what I need to be comfortable has changed drastically from two years ago, which is definitely a good thing.  But I have far to go before I truly understand what it means to live sacrificially.

The truth is, I should understand sacrifice well.  The Bible speaks in no uncertain terms of what Christ asks of His followers. 

The Poor Widow

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
-  (Luke 21:1-4)

I’ve heard the Parable of the Poor Widow a hundred times before, yet, I refuse to allow it to take hold of my life.  When I used to earn income, I tithed my 10% towards the church, towards sponsoring children and missionaries, and various other charitable causes.  I felt like I more than did my part, especially when I compared myself to others who gave less.  But I only ever gave out of my wealth.  I treated the 10% as the requirement rather than the starting point.  The issue runs deeper than just money.  It also applies to what I give of myself – to God and to others.  The Bible’s greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind.  And love others as you would yourself.  (Matthew 22:37-39)  I can’t help but wonder how different my life would look – the things I would devote my time, my resources, and my heart to – if I actually lived those words out.

Early on in our time with Hands, we were told by some very wise people that we only experience true life when we learn to live sacrificially.  At the time, I pretended to agree and fully embrace the depth of what that really meant.  I now realize that I’m only beginning to scratch the surface.

Another parable in the Bible speaks loud and clear to this very subject – the Parable of the Rich Ruler – and it makes me squirm every time.  If you don’t know it, the story goes like this: A rich man asks Jesus what he must do to experience true life.  He has steadfastly kept to all the commandments ever since he was a boy and, yet, he knew there was something missing.  Jesus’ reply: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.  When the man heard this, he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth. (Luke 18:18-24)

Surely, Jesus is not really asking that I give everything that I have.  How would I survive?  It’s more of a metaphor, a nice and tidy principle to live by, that shouldn’t be taken so black and white.  In my heart, however, I know I’m hiding from the truth.  Over and over again, I water down the words of the Bible to make them fit conveniently into how I want to live.  I’m not saying that the passage literally means that I must sell everything I have today and live in absolute poverty.  I don’t think God wants that of us at all.  Rather, I believe there is an underlying message at the heart of the parable that I choose to ignore.  If it really came down to it, if God really asked me to give everything, would I have the faith to follow through?  At the end of the day, do I really put my trust in Him or am I too preoccupied with my own needs?

Jesus doesn’t ask for part of me or even for most of me.  He asks for all of me – everything I have and everything I am.  I know this to be true – I’ve known it for a long time – but now I want it to be true in my life.  I want to give of myself completely, not just when it’s convenient or comfortable for me.  I want to hurt when others hurt, not just when it affects me.  I want to give out of my poverty, not just out of the excess that I have.  I want to love others even when there is no benefit to me.

I know I will, from time to time, indulge in life’s pleasures and luxuries.  I’ll take nice vacations, eat much more than my share of delicious food, and purchase items that cost more money than entire families see in their lifetime.  Again, I’m not necessarily saying that any of these things are wrong or that I should feel guilty for what I have been given.  The challenge lies in what I am doing to bring myself closer and closer to stories like Melissa’s each day and the reality that billions of people face in their lives.

So what, then, am I to do with this conviction in my heart?  Will I be content in examining what I have already sacrificed and given or will I instead ask myself how much more I can give?  Do I see the things I have as mine or do I view them through the lens of how I can bless others through them?  Will I devote myself – my time, my resources and my heart – to further my own interests or will I learn what it means to lay down my life and everything I have for the sake of others?  I know how I should answer these questions but I also know that I am my own worst enemy in finding ways to mask my hypocrisy.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever find the perfect balance or feel 100% comfortable about the consistency in which I strive to live in.  I do know, however, that the conviction I feel is a good thing and that it will, and should, endure.

I am slowly learning that, in order to have any hope in this, my motivation must not be rooted in any sense of obligation, fear or guilt.  It must be borne out of love.  I don’t expect to ever fully resolve this tension in my heart and to think that I can will myself there through sheer effort and determination is a fool’s errand.  Rather, I know it will be a process that can take place only out of a transformed heart.  If I freely allow God to change my heart, the things that were once so difficult for me to give up will no longer be so.  Instead, my heart will begin to naturally let go of the things that do not matter and embrace the things that bring me true life.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  
-  (Matthew 6:19-21)

I want to understand deeper and deeper that my life is not my own; that I was not put here on earth solely to indulge in life’s pleasures and further my self interests.  Instead, I am called to be the salt and the light in a world in desperate need of love, compassion and grace.  Through it all, I pray for my heart to be fixed heavenward and for the faith to live it out in my actions.  For where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.

- Byron