Tuesday, August 14, 2018

When My World Changed

The first time I held a starving child, my life changed. But, even as I type these words, I know the fruitlessness of trying to explain this to you. For many years, others tried to explain these truths to me, but I dismissed them. In my mind, they just didn’t understand the real world. I attached the labels to them that I kept readily on hand, and moved on. And yet, here I am, trying to share the same heartbeat that others tried to share with me.

It was February of 2009. I had made two previous trips to Guatemala with Wanda as we were adopting our son, Jonathan. And, during those trips, we had brushed up again the needs of this country. But this trip was different. I was leading a ministry trip under the newly formed Hope for Home Ministries, and we were spending nine days immersed in the needs of children with special needs. Much of our time was spent at Hermano Pedro, a hospital/home for children and adults with cerebral palsy. We held the children, read to them, and took them out to eat. And, on one of our days there, I met a man named Dick Rutgers.

Dick’s love and playfulness with the children touched me from the first moment. Despite a huge lack of Spanish, he communicated volumes with each person. He helped us check children out to go to lunch, and he taught me how to truly connect with those we served. And then he invited us to join him for a trip to a rural village. We readily agreed.

So the next day we found ourselves crowded into his Land Cruiser with him and two of his boys. We visited several communities, but one stands out strongly in my mind. We pulled into a village that was located in the midst of a clump of trees as the rain fell. It was a gathering of 10 or 12 shacks with hand-dug wells filled with ground water. We were approaching one of the homes when I first saw him, lying in a hand-woven hammock strung between two supports for the roof that extended past the front of the home.

I had never seen a child so skinny. Wide eyes stared at me over jutting cheekbones. His arms and legs were thin reeds and were twisted from cerebral palsy. As I stood looking down at him, I wondered how he could still be alive. But Dick walked over and scooped him up into his arms, and he smiled a radiant smile. I could not speak.

Dick spoke with his parents for a while, using his boys as translators. I learned that he was 12 years old and weighed 18 pounds. And then...Dick turned and handed him to me.

And my life changed. In that moment, as I held his feather-light body in my arms, I knew I would never be the same.

Under the pretext of talking him on a short walk, I took him a short distance away and stood under a tree. In reality, I just did not want his family to see me cry. And I did not want anyone to hear the words that I would say to him:

“I am so sorry. Until right now, I have not cared about you or so many others like you. I was so ignorant and blind. Please forgive me!”

He could not speak or understand a word I was saying. He just smiled at me as my tears flowed. And then I spoke to my Jesus:

“Please forgive me! I have been so blind! So stupid! I am so sorry! I vow to you, Lord, that I will do something! I will care about the things that you care about and I will do something!”

Most of you know the rest of the story. Four months later, on another ministry trip to Guatemala, Wanda and I resolved to move here. We sold everything and landed as a family in this country on January 25, 2011. And, to the best of my ability, I have sought to honor that vow to my Jesus.
Since that time, I have lost count of the number of starving children I have held. I can tell you that it is far too many, though. I have sat with grieving families in their poverty and seen the desperation in their eyes. I have spoken the truth of God’s Word and His great love to so many families who had long believed that God had forgotten them. I have helped dig graves and carried the caskets of their children. I have wept with them, prayed with them, and sat silently with them. And I have only scratched the surface.

I live in a country that has the sixth highest malnutrition rate in the world. Around 47% of Guatemala’s children experience malnutrition to such a high degree that it stunts their growth and development. In some parts of the country, that number tops 90%. And our current drought is making it far worse. Already this year we have seen a 79% increase in deaths from malnutrition over last year. This year, 256,000 Guatemalan families have lost their crops due to a lack of rain. More deaths are coming. Lots more.

Combine that with a lack of decent healthcare and access to medicine, and I am surrounded by need. We are working as long and as hard as we can, but it is still getting worse, and more and more are dying.

And here is where I try to explain to you how that has changed me. I will pour my heart out, and most of you will shake your heads and dismiss me. Some will even label me with a derogatory title before moving on because my observations don’t fit with your worldview or politics. I understand. I truly do. And I don’t blame you, because I did the same for the first 41 years of my life. But I have to try and hope that maybe a few will hear and look past their knee jerk reaction and see my heart. So, here goes...

There is very, very little that matters in this life. Far less than most of us realize. When you strip away all but the things that are truly important, you are left with a small handful on which we need to focus. Everything else is just straw men that have been set up to distract us or sell to us. And the problem is, the church, myself included, has followed the distractions for far too long.

So, what is really important? Here is my list that is radically different than it was nine years ago:

  1. To love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength - I know. That’s obvious, right? But is it really? Because I am not sure we are really doing it at all. It seems to me that God stands in line behind a lot of the things we adore. He fits in somewhere behind our family, our security, our politics and our pursuit of comfort. Which means He does not fit in at all, because He cannot be placed in our boxes. Love is just a word until it is lived, so to love God will be displayed in the way our lives reflect the things that are important to Him. That is what the first century church did well, and what we can’t seem to do today. But if we find a way to do so, we will see first century results. In a world that is so turbulent and hate-filled, we desperately need to fix our eyes on Him and love Him with everything we’ve got.
  2. To love our neighbors as we love ourselves - Again, read my last point. Love is just a word until it is lived. So, love for neighbors is not just words or token sentiment, it is love in action. And, remember how Jesus defined our neighbors? Anyone, regardless of location, nationality or tradition that needs us. (The story of the Good Samaritan was painful and offensive to the devout Jews of Jesus’ day. And it should create a great amount of discomfort in us, as well.) For those of us who follow Jesus, the world is our neighborhood, and every skin color, language and nationality is our neighbor. And we have a lot of neighbors who are broken, bleeding and starving on the side of the road. It is time for love to become more than a word we speak.
  3. To care for the poor, oppressed, orphaned and widowed - I grew up in a couple of churches and an elementary school where they used to scoff at the “social gospel.” For those who don’t know, that phrase has been used in a derogatory manner by some branches of fundamentalism. The gist of their argument is that we should be concerned with preaching the Gospel to save eternal souls instead of involved with temporal tasks such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving shelter to those without a home. To this day, I don’t understand how people who were so insistent on telling others that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God could forsake such a central teaching within it. Are their extremes? Of course. But both the Old and New Testaments teach the importance of caring for those who are oppressed and in physical need. In fact, numerous times we see the primary symptoms of true faith listed as caring for orphans, widows, foreigners and the poor. Jesus, in fact, told us that when we care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and shut in, we are caring for Him. But the same people who insisted that the Bible is true and should be followed instructed us to forsake those commands. Of course we are to teach the truth of the Gospel, but it must go hand in hand with caring for the least of these. I am ashamed that I lived so long without learning and living this truth. But now that I have, trust me when I tell you that the tangible presence and power of God that the church is seeking will be found in the midst of them.
  4. To run toward pain and darkness - I remember watching the coverage of the 9/11 attacks. I had tears in my eyes and a deep sense of respect for the first responders who ran toward the danger to save others. And many men and women gave their lives that day doing so. But that is a beautiful picture of what God created the church to do. When others are running away, we should be running into the pain, suffering and darkness. How else can we truly be the light of the world? We have been trained to a cultural faith that tells us to spare ourselves and our families. It’s not good for our children to be exposed to suffering, death and darkness. We have to guard our sensitive hearts. Over and over I am told by people that they could never (fill in the blank) because it would be too painful. Have we ever considered that it hurts us so badly because God has broken our heart for it as a part of His calling? It is time for the church to move beyond words and run toward the brokenness. 
  5. There is only one hope - This is one of those points that everyone agrees with...until you discuss the specifics. Do we really believe that Jesus is the only real hope for the world? Then everything else should take a back seat to the mission of showing and proclaiming Him. And anything that interferes with that mission should be discarded. The church has been pulled into false hopes (gods?) to which we are giving our time, money and energy. We insist it is not true, but it is. Politics is one of the biggest false hopes (gods?), but it is not the only one. For much of my adult life, I spoke the words that Jesus was the only hope for our nation and world, but my life reflected something very different as I foolishly pursued other false hopes. With God’s help, no more. I have sat in mud floor houses, spoke of the true Jesus and seen hope rise on families. I have spoken of Jesus’ great love to the grieving mother and seen her eyes come back to life. I have held the hand of dying children and told them of our Savior’s sacrifice and the life that awaits them, and saw them smile. Jesus is our only hope. Let’s stop pretending and living as if He is not.
  6. There is not much time - No, I don’t know when Jesus will return. That is not what I am talking about. I am simply stating that for millions of people in this world, time is running out. Many people will not see another sunrise before they step into eternity. Children and adults will die who could be saved by what is in your medicine chest or kitchen cabinets. In the next 24 hours almost 99,000 people will die of starvation alone. And many will enter a Christ-less eternity. And, for too many years, I knew that truth in my head but denied it with my lifestyle. No more. I am not saying that you need to move your family to a foreign country to work with the poor (although you better not assume that you shouldn’t without honestly checking with God). What I am saying is that all Christ-followers should examine and adapt their lifestyles to live with that awareness and make a difference. And every church should do the same regarding its priorities and ministries. For many, time is running out. And for every day we wait to change and act, more will be lost.

That’s it. Lots of folks stopped reading a while ago and moved on to other things, so if you are still reading at this point, I am grateful for your time.

I don’t want this to be a guilt trip. That serves no purpose and quickly fades. I can only pray that at least a handful will be shaken and awakened by my feeble attempt. And for the others, I pray that they one day soon will hold a starving child so that my words will become more than just words.

Blessings from Guatemala!

Daryl, Wanda and the Crew