Saturday, March 28, 2009

Heroes


I suppose we all have our heros.

For the people that were on flight 1549 this past January, Pilot Chesley Sullenburger was a hero. And from all appearances, a worthy one at that. Others of us choose somewhat less noble individuals at times as our heroes, such as athletes, politicians, and movie stars. And often we regret it later on when the person turns out to be about as smart as a walnut. Movie stars in particular are especially good at declaring themselves to be heroes. They emblazon their names on bronze stars, and embed them in the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard, lest we forget them and the great contribution they made to society, by pretending to be someone else and getting paid an obscene amount of money to do it.

The thing is, though, I think we all want to be thought of as heroes. Most of us want to be remembered for having done something significant with our lives and whether we admit it or not most of us wouldn’t turn down a star on Hollywood Boulevard. At least, I probably wouldn’t, though admittedly the chances of that are about as good as my being appointed the next Pope.

I’ve began to notice, though, that there is something about being a missionary that seems to make me think of myself at times in heroic terms.

The last few weeks, I’ve been teaching in a Bible school that has just gotten off the ground (and in fact, some might say is still firmly ON the ground). The school meets in a church with no electricity, and the principal takes a pew in the back of the church as her “office.” Our sessions start at 7:30 with a chapel service, which always consists of fervent and passionate prayer that is so typical of African believers, a lively time of worship, and a sermon, usually given by one of the schools five students. Mid morning, we take a break for a bit of tea and bread and butter. We finish at about one in the afternoon and then have lunch, which might consist of a boiled egg and some rice.

And one day last week as we were sitting down for our tea and bread, I couldn’t help but begin to think that it was quite noble of me to be there, giving of myself in such humble circumstances. My thoughts drifted back to my days in Bible college and to how much more lavish that setting had been, with the theatre style, cushioned seating of the chapel, the large projection screens, the sound system, and the clear plexiglass podium (I suppose that enabled you to always be sure that the speaker was wearing pants?).

I thought about our nice little coffee shop and my almost daily cappuccino that kept me from sleeping through whatever class I had right after lunch, and how lunch was NEVER rice and a boiled egg. And I thought about how our classes were, well in actual classrooms, with desks, and places to “plug in,” and a projector and a screen. And I remembered how some professors would go to great lengths to “wow” a generation of visual junkies with their technological acumen, like one particular professor who would act as though he were “throwing” the Greek words onto the screen, and we would watch them slowly replace the English words; and how much to his chagrin, we weren’t that impressed.

As I sat sipping my tea and eating my piece of bread, I happened to glance out the window, through the security bars that keep people from stealing the chairs, and I caught sight of a cross on top of a neighboring church and was reminded that for the Church, for those of us who follow Christ, there can only ever be one Hero.

Whatever small sacrifices we make (and, really, we mostly make small sacrifices), they all pale in comparison to the cross. And whatever notions I might have about how noble a thing I think I’m doing, my actions can only truly find meaning in light of the one truly noble act the world has seen. Namely, God dying on a cross for my sins.

That is the only really viable starting point for comparison. We can always conjure the hero within us when the starting point is ourselves because there will always be something or someone that we think is less noble than us.

But when we start at the cross, we are left to the inevitable conclusion that the apostle Paul came to, when he said, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” (Gal. 6:14).

And the truth is, the world will never come to know the significance of Christ on the cross, if we keep trying to take his place.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Upside Down


A few days ago, I woke up and shuffled my way to the kitchen and took a mug out of the cabinet, and then after placing it upside down on the counter, proceeded to pour coffee over the top of it, and then watched the coffee run down the sides of the cup and onto the counter.

Unfortunately, my reflexes and logic prior to those 2–3 cups of coffee also leave much to be desired, because even when I realized what I had done, it took a good 5 seconds before I actually did anything about it (like stop pouring the coffee).

My brain: The cup is upside down dummy.
My arm: Shut up, and go back to sleep.

On Sunday we attended church in a cornfield. The congregation met at a sight that will one day, ideally house a decent sized structure. But at the moment, its nothing more than a tin roof, supported by twelve iron beams. There is no floor, other than a rough concrete slab. A makeshift platform consisted of a nice piece of fabric spread out around a rudimentary, wooden podium. The church has no walls, and as I was preaching a light rain began to fall. A strong wind was blowing and my glasses kept getting covered in tiny droplets of water.

There was something about the whole experience that made me feel like I had just been to church for the very first time. The idea, the very biblical idea I might add, that “the Church” is not in fact a building, but a people, seemed writ large in the glaring simplicity of the scene.

I am often amazed at how little attachment Zambians have to things. Things break, and people seem to shrug it off as though they expected that very thing to happen all along. Here when things get stolen, one says simply, “It went missing.” As though whatever it was might have just ceased to exist as easily as it could have been taken by a neighbor or passerby. What is noticeably absent in these instances though, is rage. In the two years we have been here, I have never seen a Zambian get all bent out of shape over the loss or damage of something they owned. And that to me is astounding, considering that most people here own so little!

As I looked at the piles of cinderblocks that would one day be the walls, and that lay stacked all around the perimeter of the church, I couldn’t help but feel that something beautiful, intangible and invaluable, would be lost when the building is eventually completed. And then, I realized what an easy thing that is to want for someone else. And what a nearly impossible thing it is to want for yourself.

What I want for myself is almost never simplicity. What I want for myself is usually more. I want more cell phone, even though I never use half of the features on the one I have, I want more computer, not because I need it but because it exists. Somewhere out there I know that someone is running around with a computer that makes mine look like a waffle iron, and it drives me crazy.

I’ve often thought that missions is a two way street. That we have as much to learn from the churches we serve as they have to learn from us. And perhaps this is one of those areas where we should take notes.

Because when I look at the way that Zambian’s view stuff, and at the way I tend to, I am more and more convinced that I’ve had my cup upside down for quite some time.