Let’s play a game. Try to find at least three differences in the following pairs of photos. You’re going to have to concentrate, but don’t give up.
Ready? Here we go:
water delivery truck
water delivery truck in South Sudan
classroom in South Sudan
hospital waiting area
hospital waiting area in South Sudan
shopping for produce
shopping for produce in South Sudan
my bed at home
my bed in South Sudan
my kitchen at home
Ruth and Briana’s kitchen in South Sudan
So, how’d you do? Okay. I confess. It was a trick game. The differences are obvious.
I think it’s safe to say most of us living in North America consider ourselves blessed — not only with the common graces God so lavishly supplies to all people everywhere, but with an exceeding abundance beyond the basic necessities. We point to our freedoms, educational and occupational opportunities, material wealth, system of government, financial institutions, medical resources, overstocked grocery shelves, reliable utilities, instant internet connectivity, drivable roads, and a thousand other goods and services at our fingertips.
If we ever take the time to pause and consider how much we possess compared to most of the world, we may wonder why God would single us out to show us such abundant favor. In our best moments we admit: we don’t deserve all this.
Or maybe we do.
Maybe we’re getting exactly what we deserve. And maybe it’s also time we reconsider what constitutes a blessing from God.
an American child
a refugee child in South Sudan
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m thankful for clean water, nutritious food, a car that runs well, a closet full of clothes, and a comfortable home. I’m glad I can worship freely, receive medical attention when I need it, and call the police if I’m in danger, expecting a quick response. I also believe it pleases God when we receive every gift with gratitude and enjoy His material blessings.
But is it possible my possessions and conveniences have robbed me of far better blessings? Am I truly aware of my utter dependance on God? Or am I blinded by all the glitter and gold, benumbed by the constant bombardment of images and advertisements telling me I’m worth it, I need it, and I can’t live without it?
Am I cruising along in a fog, mostly oblivious to the realer Real — that nothing I achieve or own is actually mine, and every breath I take is a gift? That God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble? That “control” is a delusion, and none of my idols — the things I value, pursue, and trust — can save me?
Have my possessions taken possession of my heart and hardened it toward the better treasure?
sanctuary in South Sudan
In Revelation 3:17-19, Jesus spoke these words to the church at Laodicia:
Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.
This wasn’t a message to pagans. It was written to people who professed faith in Jesus. The same Jesus who says He reproves and disciplines those He loves. The same Jesus who doesn’t say He gives His favorites fancier stuff.
Like stepping out of a cave into noonday sun, all of this became clear in Africa. For two weeks I left my over-stuffed closet behind and lived out of one small suitcase. Conveniences varied from place to place, but in South Sudan, we had no air conditioning, no indoor plumbing, no running water. We washed clothing by hand in a tub and hung it to dry, hiked to an out-house, and showered using a bucket system. I slept on a screened-in porch under a mosquito net, ate whatever was placed before me, and got around on foot.
And I don’t know when I’ve felt a greater depth of peace, joy, and the presence of God.
Ruth and her team leader, Bubba
In Kisses From Katie, Katie Davis wrote about her attempt to return to her comfortable life in Tennessee after a year in Uganda:
Many people asked the same question: “Isn’t life hard in Uganda?” Of course it was hard, in certain ways, but they didn’t seem to understand that what was even harder was being back in the States . . . . I hadn’t realized what a transformation had taken place while I had been in Uganda, the spiritual richness I had experienced in material poverty and spiritual poverty I felt now in a land of material wealth.
She goes on to say, “Brentwood didn’t feel like home anymore. Frederick Buchner writes, ‘The place God calls us to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ I had been more than happy all my life in my home in Brentwood. But my deepest gladness and the world’s deep hunger met in Uganda.”
Ruth approaching the market
preparing a young mom to take her baby for surgery in Kijabe
If you hear me trying to shame the North American church for its material blessings, you’re missing my point. What I’m really trying to do is give a glimpse of a truth that I’m praying will take such deep root in my own heart, it will bear fruit a hundredfold and then some for as long as God grants me breath in this world.
My prayer for me and for you is that we will wake up. The fog will clear, and we’ll realize more stuff isn’t ever going to satisfy our heart’s hunger. We don’t need bigger or better or more. We don’t need applause or reputation. We need to pour out. To empty ourselves. To give away. And when we do, our joy is going to explode exponentially.
Katie also wrote:
“The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children. And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians. The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.”
This is what we have to give. And what do we have to take?
If you’ve ever bought the lie that the impoverished and oppressed have nothing to offer, you haven’t attended a Nubian church service in a straw-thatch sanctuary in a refugee camp in South Sudan.
They come in their tattered clothes and bare feet — old and young and everyone in between — stooping to enter the low doorway, filing into rows of rough-hewn benches. Their voices rise with an urgent and contagious joy, and like David before the ark, they dance — clapping, jumping, worshiping with complete abandon.
There are no distractions. Instead of laser light shows, sunlight filters through the roof. Instead of a snazzy band, children play drums and tambourines and maracas. And the Lord is here, blazing with grace, pulsing with peace, igniting our worship with glorious intensity and purpose.
They don’t doubt His goodness. They don’t rush His timing. They don’t question His plan. They simply give themselves to Him.
Oh, friends. They have so much to teach us. So much that we desperately need. Gold refined by the fires of suffering. Garments washed clean from the stains of pride and self sufficiency. Eye salve to clear our vision and show us there’s a fountain of living waters, and the broken cisterns we run to again and again will never slake our thirst.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Jesus won’t force us. He simply invites. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”
As for me and my house, we’re flinging the door wide. Come, Lord Jesus. Everything on this table belongs to You. And thank You, thank You, thank You for the better treasure. May we never be too easily pleased again.
* * *
You can support SIM’s work with refugees in South Sudan.
Click here for more information.