Some weeks ago I came across something on Facebook that deeply saddened me. I realized that a friend's life is rapidly moving in a certain monumental direction, and while her announcement received the praise of hundreds of friends, this decision is something I'm pretty sure will be destructive. In the end only time will tell, but when I saw the announcement, I felt a lot of guilt. I've been out of touch with this woman for more than a year and we were never close to begin with. But there were times when she tried to bring me into her inner circle, and then there were times when I tried to befriend her. But the connections never really happened. It grieves me knowing that even if I started pursuing her now, by the time we could even start approaching the topic at hand in a context of trust, some things would be too late. It would be a very different conversation - how to deal with the results of the decision, rather than whether to go through with the decision.
I've worked in student ministry for the past eight years and I've faced these situations over and over again; but these things aren't relegated just to those who serve professionally. Everyone understands this dilemma - the guilt we inevitably face in attempting to love and serve others. Call it "ministry" or call it "loving your neighbor" or call it just plain old "friendship," but in my experience, the very act of engaging another person in the hopes of being Christ to her all so often leaves behind a hundred doubts. In the attempts at loving another person, how many times have you left thinking, "I should have done that differently," or "If I only I had noticed that." Often, it simply feels like a long series of wake-ups to other people's realities only a few moments, or days, or years too late.
After all of this news broke, I went for a walk with one of my dearest friends and I shared the situation with her. Because she loves people, she also understands this struggle and shared with me some of her own stories about regrets she has for not being there for certain people. We both have so many stories of times and situations that seemed to make sense, but in hind sight, as someone's life is falling apart, we look back and think about all we could have done to help them. Like me, "guilt" was the word she used over and over again to describe how it feels.
For a moment, let's be honest - more than fear or selfishness, I think it is guilt that actually keeps us from loving people as we should. Not guilt in the cosmic sense preachers and psychologists refer to, but specific guilt about specific people that we know we have failed in our attempts to love. It doesn't take long in trying to love people before you realize that you are your biggest obstacle in doing so.
In my attempts to be Christ to others, I have a body count. A long list of women that I tried to serve and whom I have utterly failed. Some of those relationships were from my work with students, some of those are just my personal friendships. Some of them are my family members. In some of the cases the circumstances were so murky and confusing that I am not really sure what happened. In some cases it is blatantly clear that I sinned against a sister. Or that she sinned against me and I simply couldn't handle it. And it is all of these cases, all of these people, that tempt me to disregard my fellow human beings moving forward. I mean, who doesn't think that they want to help and love people? Most people are taught some general idea of the rightness of that desire from an early age. But how in the world are you supposed to continue wanting to do so when it becomes abundantly clear that you often have just as much a chance at becoming their greatest stumbling block as their greatest blessing?
Loving people produces guilt. When we have all tried it and seen ourselves fail, we are left with a vortex of doubt and shame. In myself, I know that I generally trend in one or the other of two directions when that vortex arrives. I either become defensive - it was the other person's fault; no one could have known; the system is to blame. Or I cease to care - there isn't really a problem anyways; no one person can shoulder that many burdens; I need to take care of myself, too, you know. But all of these excuses are just covering up the real problem - I feel terrible that someone I know is suffering either from their own sin or from the brokenness of the world and I didn't do anything, or enough, about it.
For the last couple of years, I dealt with a good bit of burnout in ministry. Some of that was due to being too busy and the time of life. But a lot of it - in hindsight, probably most of it - was due to a really painful relationship. I failed a student miserably about three months before she moved away from Boston. Without a doubt, there was a lot that was her fault. But as equally without a doubt, I let so much pride and stubbornness rule my actions that my face burns with shame thinking about it. She wouldn't talk to me for three months because she was so mad at me and during that time I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity. I gave up on the possibility of me being able to be a blessing. I could list off all sorts of reasons why sometimes things just don't work out, but really, I was just seething with the guilt of a lost opportunity.
During that time, and in the years since, I came to realize more than ever that repentance must be a daily occurrence in the life of anyone trying to love another person. No matter what kind of advice or training is out there for people hoping to serve other people, there is nothing that will keep you going in ministry, whether professional or personal, other than repentance. Unless your heart is being drawn into open confession before the Lord, no amount of devotions, or fellowship, or team building, or strategy development, etc. can take the place of simple and consistent repentance for your failures before God. Otherwise, you'll either go crazy trying to defend yourself or you'll go dead with apathy. We cannot live with guilt - it chokes and kills any impulse within us to love others.
This is what you often don't hear from people ministering to others - from pastors and parents, from social workers and student leaders - that the people we are the most afraid of are ourselves. We try to talk about all of the ways God is at work transforming lives, but we rarely talk about how God is transforming our own lives. We don't openly talk about the times those we serve are so failed by us that they don't speak to us for three months.
But the gospel is real. And it is the only, only thing that can accomplish true ministry. The reason I can love people is not because I am that strong, but because I know that my love doesn't matter in the end. There is a bigger love and a bigger story for all of these people. For whatever crazy reason, God chooses to use small, unloving, broken people to demonstrate that. Maybe it's the only way to demonstrate it. We often talk about Christians demonstrating God's love and we usually mean doing so positively. But maybe the times we fail also demonstrate the love of God by demonstrating his patience and kindness to those he calls his own.
In the end, loving people is only ever going to reveal more of my own brokenness to myself. If that's the case, then I am going to need to learn to repent more. The good news is that through Jesus, that is possible. In him, I am free to repent and without fear. I can look at my friend on Facebook, name the ways I failed her, and freely repent of them. I do not have to hide, I do not have to live in guilt. Only then will I have the courage to love again.
(Artwork: "Two Part," by Patrick Fisher)
"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
By the age of 10, I had wanted a dog for most of my tender years. I imagined playing with it, taking it for walks, grooming it, all of which periodically led me to beg my parents for the realization of this pet. Due to our many moves and rental abodes, the habitual answer was "no." Eventually, my family landed in Pittsburgh and bought a house in my tenth year of life. This in and of itself felt like paradise and I once again reinstated the petition for a Snoke family dog. It seemed unlikely for us to move again, we had say over the house, and most importantly, we had grass. So one day I mustered up the courage to write a note of promise to my mother and father. I don't remember the particular phrasing, but the sum of what I wrote was, "If you let us get a dog, I promise with everything in me to be responsible for it, even the gross stuff. Please, please, please, please." I wrote it from the bottom of my heart and snuck downstairs to place it on my mother's desk, not having the courage to hand it to her directly. I went back to bed and prayed against reason that this note would somehow finally have an impact.
Well, the note disappeared. There wasn't an immediate response, which was a new and interesting development. For a while, I resisted the urge to bring it up in the hopes of displaying grown up detachment. But eventually, I could not hold back any longer and ventured questioning my mother to ascertain if she had actually received the note. Of course she had and I remember a quite serious conversation in which she leveled questions at me to ascertain the level of seriousness and commitment in my young heart. Oh, I wanted that dog so badly, I promised and promised to be faithful to the note and suggested my mother keep it and use it in times of unfaithfulness on my part should they ever arrive, which of course they never would! If she would just let us get a dog.
I started looking at the classifieds for free puppy adds in the newspaper. Every week, I breathlessly pulled out the printed sheets and imagined each and every breed mentioned. Then, things started to get really serious. On trips to the library, my mom started pulling dog training books of the shelves and bringing them home. She read up on the most hardy breads and how to tell if a puppy has a passive personality. One day, she announced her desire for us to get a beagle. I can still see the picture on the cover of the beagle book she was reading. We. were. getting. a. dog. Joy!
Sometime the next summer, the glorious day finally arrived. My mom's research plus my faithful classified search stumbled upon an add for free beagle puppies. They were a bit older than most puppies looking for a home and came from a farm outside the city. By now, everyone in the family was bursting at the seams with excitement and on a Saturday, we piled into our baby blue Dodge Caravan and headed for the farm. Elation sat in every seat.
After a clamorous ride, we pulled into a long driveway and immediately noticed a kennel with two adult beagles and a hoard of four puppies greeting us with howls as they jumped on the fence. We climbed out of the van and as my parents went to talk with the owner, I and my three younger siblings scoped out the puppy situation. Eventually the adults joined us and the one male and three female puppies were set free to run around the property. Two of them were highly energetic and the children immediately took a liking to them. My mother on the other hand, did not. The farmer had temporarily nicknamed them Houdini and Ankle-biter, certain bad omens for future prospects at dog training. We turned our attention to the other two. One trick for discerning a puppy's disposition my mom had read about was to pick the dog up on its back and hold it like a baby. If it struggled to get free, it would have a more active personality. What you wanted was a dog who contentedly lay passive in your arms. My dad bent over and picked up the third female and flipped her over. She lay there quietly and then suddenly reached up and gently licked his beard. She had long, soft ears and big, brown eyes. My dad said, "We'll take this one."
Ecstasy broke free and the children rushed to pet and meet the new addition. We bundled her up in a box and put her in the car, excited to start the hour long drive home. As we pulled out, the little puppy started shaking, displaying what was to be a lifelong malady of nervousness to the point of being sick when in moving vehicles . We children thought it was all purely amazing, not knowing how pathetic the poor creature would always be when it came to travel.
The puppy's six new owners commenced on the long and difficult task of choosing a name, again resorting to tips my mom had gleaned. We were instructed to think of a two-syllable name ending with an "ah" or "oh" sound since such names were supposedly easier for dogs to recognize. Somehow this task proved a lot harder than originally expected. How many pet names can you think of that fit this criteria? An early suggestion in the conversation was Sarah, but it was quickly dismissed as too much of an actual name for "real" people. But by the end of the drive home, we faced a serious shortage of other viable suggestions and decided it would have to be Sarah.
And so Sarah became a part of our family.
I'm not sure how to start explaining the orphanage. We took an old ferry across the river and disembarked into a dirtier, poorer world than even the one I usually experience in my city. I walked up the hill and around the bend surrounded by ducks, chickens, roosters, and dilapidated buildings. As we passed through the gate, I could see a brightly colored large play-set and was relieved to think the children were better cared for than I expected. We tried to see the infants and toddlers first, but were told they were sleeping. So we left the first building and my idea about the children receiving good care vanished.
We walked around back of the first building to the second. This other building was painted red and yellow, except for half of the top floor. It was painted white and metal bars enclosed all of the windows and balcony. From it, three or four older children flung their arms about wildly as they shouted unintelligible welcomes. All of these children suffered from Downs or cerebral palsy, among other ailments. These were the "other" children, tucked away from sight and contact. We passed through the metal gate which barred them into five rooms. Their ages ranged from infancy to about fourteen. One infant had severe brain damage and had recently started having seizures. His eyes rolled back and forth as he remained unresponsive when held. All of the children just wanted to be held and touched, even the shy older boys eventually warmed up. All of the children had dry snot crusted to their faces. A two year old boy from this part of the orphanage died last month. His short life was spent tied to a toilet-chair because there were not enough workers or diapers to meet his needs. Others are spending the entirety of their developmental years in this same predicament, including the little boy with seizures.
Two rays of sunlight shine in this section of the orphanage. The first is a fourteen year old girl with severe cerebral palsy who knows the Son. Someone once shared with her and she believes. Now it is her mission to love every child she lives with. I am often prone to exaggeration, but I have never met someone like her. She has a difficult time speaking herself, but she works to translate for the other children, putting their grunts and groans into words. She has started to learn sign language so she can translate for the deaf girl. Her hands struggle to move as she wills, but she desires to serve her friend and trains them to speak a language none of the workers know, even with their motor skills fully intact. She is the mother for the five rooms of children and the Son is with her. His hand is upon her life and He uses her to make the warmth of His heart felt amongst the cold darkness within the metal bars.
The second light is a young woman from the city who has come to serve these children with education. Special needs education is unheard of in this country, but she felt a burden for this kind of work and found a pioneering couple in the city who could train her. The children love her and she loves them. She given up money, comfort, and the approval of others in order to engage these children's minds. Her love for the Lord radiates through her as she holds the children, listening to their stories, giving the attention for which they starve.
After we sat with these children, we ate lunch and then went to work cleaning a room full of physical therapy equipment. A large room full of good and useful things to aid the children sits unused since there are so few people to help the children, and of those, most do not understand how to help the children train their muscles with the equipment. The windows were left open in the room and a layer of soot from the city's pollution coated the play mats, exercise tables, cribs, etc. We swept and then mopped three times before the floors started to look clean. The orphanage has a wealth of equipment, but a poverty of people and so the room is left mostly untouched.
The day was almost finished, but first we returned to the infants and toddlers who reside in the nicer, first building. These children at least have the possibility of adoption being deemed more acceptable and less handicapped. I expected to find happy and content children who do not feel immediate need. I was mistaken. We set foot inside their rooms and were immediately surrounded by about fifteen toddlers who were all desperate to be touched, starved for attention. Some of them were soon wound up with energy. People! People who will throw us in the air, tickle us, and play games! Others were quiet and content to simply lie in our laps being touched and held.
Even though most of these children are not severely handicapped, I realized they are not all well. One precious little boy was sitting in a pile of blankets in a box. I laughed and commented on how cute he was and then someone told me he probably cannot walk and this is a way for him to get out of his crib when there is no one to care for him. The only infant in the room is sound asleep. He has a heart problem and therefore no one will adopt him - only perfect babies find a home. I found one little girl who seemed about two years old and looked forlorn. She let me pick her up easily, but would not look me in the face when I did so. I tried to make her laugh, pet her hair, hugged her, but she was despondent. Holding her, I sat down with the others among the rows of cribs and held her for a long time, stroking her hair, her hand. I believed she was content to sit with me and she even snuggled a little closer to me, but I never witnessed emotion in her face.
Maybe these are the "acceptable" children, but they are suffering from their own brokenness. They too are neglected and there are barriers beyond the physical which prevent them from receiving a home. Most of the children are girls, perfect and beautiful, but simply not the gender of their parents choosing. One little girl is particularly lovely and the woman who brought us to the orphanage lamented that her paperwork has not been released. Usually paperwork in order is all that such a lovely girl would need to find a home, but somehow it never seems to come together. And the older she gets, the harder it will be.
We left the orphanage and on the boat ride back across the river, I started talking about the day to my friend who took us. She has seen many horrible things within the orphanages in our city. Most of the orphanages are closed and secretive to foreigners, only putting the best foot forward when they do open up. But she has stumbled across things which can only be summed up as the implementation of survival of the fittest amongst the very weakest in society. She explains that maybe the worst of the atrocities are fading away, but the philosophy remains strong. Why would you provide good care for a child with cerebral palsy if she will never carry her own weight in society? Resources are limited, so limit those who will require use of the resources.
Forgive us, Father. Forgive us for our arrogance when we deny you and plan society on our own. Forgive us for treading on those in whom you delight. Forgive us our pride for assuming the weak are helpless, for forgetting that you are calling them to yourself as much as any of us. Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us.
I can't watch this short film without getting choked up, and maybe even crying. Since high school, I have wrestled with how to hold the beauty of this world and life in one hand and the destruction and despair we all witness in the other. I still don't have any great answers, but I am learning to keep an eye out for those who do. This movie strikes especially close to home because the longer I live in Asia, the more I become convinced that understanding the Creator's larger story of redemption is the only way to accept the majesty and horribleness of existence without succumbing to one or the other and furthermore, that once we understand the story, we are propelled into playing out the story, being given roles and purposes in the advancement of redemption.