Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Anonymous


Anonymity can be hard to come by for an American living in Africa.

As we drive through the shanty compounds, kids shout “Mzungu, mzungu!”––which roughly translates “hey what’s that crazy white guy doing here?” Here, there is no disappearing into the crowd, no blending into the scenery. We stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Thankfully though, Zambians are as gracious as a people could ever be, and make us feel right at home. They kindly ignore our ineptness with their language, forgive our social faux pas, and generally treat us as one of them even though we come about as close to being one of them at times as we come to being a hippopotamus.

It is strange to me that here in Zambia, where we Americans are often something between an odd curiosity and something curiously odd, I find myself longing for something I have seldom longed for in my life––namely anonymity!

For the most part, when I day dream (and I often do), I dream of rather grand things. I dream of saving the world, or of discovering a cure for professional wrestling, or of harnessing a natural form of clean energy, like those gigantic blasts of wind generated by certain elected officials. I have big dreams!

But I don’t ever really recall dreaming of anonymity. I remember in fifth grade, when our teacher had us all write down what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a comedian. She thought that was pretty hilarious. I guess it was.

The whole idea of anonymity though, seems completely contrary to human nature. Facebook, if it is anything at all, is the ultimate anti-anonymity device. Through the magic that is Facebook, we can now make public our deepest and most underdeveloped thoughts, to a bunch of people we hardly know. And they will very likely, “like” it.

We watch American Idol, not to see who will be the “next big star,” but because that show has a way of breathing life into our own clandestine hopes for notoriety. Because if it could happen to that guy…

The truth is, all of us are like Jesus’ disciples James and John, coming to Jesus with our hat in our hand, asking for seats at the head table (Mark 10:37). We are pretty attached to the notion that significance and status go hand-in-hand. And so, we make our way through life trying to maintain that ever-so-delicate balance between outward humility and inward ambition.

But the reality of the matter is that true significance never comes from our achievements. Significance comes only because Jesus gives it to us. He gave us significance at creation––when he created us in His image. And, he gave us significance at the cross, when he died for our sins. None of our achievements would ever matter in the least bit were it not for the fact that we were created in God’s image, and redeemed at the cross. Because apart from those two events, man is but dust, destined for the waste bin.
Our only hope for true significance, that is––significance that will endure throughout the ages, significance that is not faddish, or fading, but that is both fixed and forever, is to lose ourselves in the plans of Christ, and to embrace anonymity.

As Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).

Friday, April 09, 2010

Stuck in the Mud!

God always knows precisely where we are.

This was illustrated quite dramatically for me recently after preaching a sermon on Jeremiah 38. In the passage, Jeremiah is lowered into a dry cistern by some unsavory characters who don’t like what he is preaching––even though he’s only preaching precisely what God had told him to say. The key verse reads:

So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.  Jer. 38:6   

In the end, Jeremiah is rescued and hauled out of the cistern, and his time in the cistern ends up shaping his future ministry. For he later prophecies to the King saying:

All the women left in the palace of the king of Judah will be brought out to the officials of the king of Babylon. Those women will say to you: “‘They misled you and overcame you — those trusted friends of yours. Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.’ Jer. 38:22

After the service, we found out a most incredible thing that had happened to the pastor and his family.

A few years prior, the pastor of this church and his wife had been living in a house that was situated sort of in a gully, at the bottom of two steep hills. During a particularly heavy rain one evening, the pastor, his wife, and their four children were all sitting in their living room. Suddenly, there was a loud crash of lightening outside and the power went out. A few minutes later, they heard a loud noise, and a massive wave of water and mud caming crashing through their front door. Within minutes they were up to their chests in water and up to their knees in mud and garbage that had washed in from the street. They were completely stuck and were unable to move. The could do nothing but stand in that water and mud all night long, until morning when someone came and rescued them.

That night was a night of both miracles and misery. Had the power not gone out, they would have surely been electrocuted. But, because of the mud and water, they lost everything! All of their money (most Zambians can’t afford banks), all of their clothes, all of their furniture, family pictures, keepsakes. All of it, gone.

In preparing for my sermon that week, I had no idea how relevant it would be to this pastor and his wife. I could not have possibly known. I had only recently come across this passage in my daily devotions and was moved by it and thought it would be an encouragement to those going through hard times.

And now that I know what this family went through, I am vividly reminded that God does not forget, that he always knows precisely where we are, even when we’re stuck in the mud.  And just like Jeremiah, God often uses our time in the mud to shape our life and our ministry for the future.

And perhaps, that formation could never really take place if our feet always stayed firmly planted on solid ground.

Today the family is in a new house.  A lady who saw them being rescued on television gave them her furniture. The pastor’s wife was recently healed of what appeared to be a terminal illness. A few months ago she was in a hospice, and thus today, they are out of the mud, in more ways than one.

It is likely, that they, like all of us, will be in the mud again some day.

But I am increasingly convinced that truly effective ministry flows from primarily two things: our time with the Lord, and our time in the mud. And we should be careful not to neglect the importance of either one.