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2010-02-25

“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” (Isa 58:10, ESV)

In 2008 my wife Danae and I spent several weeks living out of a backpacking tent in a small rural village in Northern Uganda. We were there on assignment, researching for a new book.

One morning a man named John invited us to go for a walk with him. John was a local politician who was committed to trying to improve the lives of the people in his district. He wanted to show us more of the area, and introduce us to some of the people he was trying to help. We walked for several miles as the day grew warmer and the dust from the thin, winding footpaths clung to our sandaled feet, turning them reddish. Every few minutes we'd wave and call out “A-Burra-Bear!” (Good Morning) to everyone we passed.

Though the scenery was beautiful, the life most people endured was incredibly harsh. The LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), a vicious rebel group, had been wreaking havoc in that area for more than two decades. Many of the people we met that morning had lived as refugees in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps for years. They had only just returned to their homes, but tragically, many had found their grass huts burned, their crops destroyed, and their animals stolen.

After an hour or so of walking, John led us up to the top of a hill where we stood looking out over the countryside. The wind smelled of the sun-warmed African plain, and the sharp, acrid fragrance of the morning fires cooking the common breakfast called “Nuolka-Kal” (millet porridge). John sighed, and turned to face us.

“Let me tell you about my four year plan to change these people's lives.”

Danae and I were a bit surprised by John's forthrightness, but we were eager to learn more about what he was planning. Perhaps he was going to build a vocational school where people could learn skills and then create small businesses to generate income to feed their families. Or perhaps a medical clinic of some sort was in the works, since the closest one was half a day's journey away and the sick or injured typically had to walk in order to reach help.

“My dream...My vision,” John began with the voice of a politician, moving his arms in grand gestures toward the land below, “is that in four years everyone in this entire district will have two t-shirts!”

I almost laughed as his voice crescendoed mightily, assuming he was joking.

But then I saw his face, and stopped. He was dead serious.

What?!? Two t-shirts?

Danae and I looked at one another in disbelief. How deep must the poverty be if the grand scheme of a popular politician is a four year plan to provide two t-shirts? We found out later that most people only had one t-shirt, and some were so poor they couldn't even afford a single one. It makes sense when you consider the reality of employment in that area: an average, hard working male could work the fields for twelve hours and, as compensation, would be paid 2000 Ugandan Shillings.

American dollar equivalent: $1.25.

Think about that. Twelve hours of back-breaking physical labor in the scorching African sun for less than you'd need to buy cup of coffee in the United States.

Of course, that kind of poverty not only exists in Northern Uganda but in many developing countries around the world. And the result result of such poverty is far more devastating than just not having two t-shirts. Amidst such crushing need millions of children are malnourished, more than a billion people go without clean water, and countless parents have seen more children die of preventable diseases than not.

Back in the first few centuries after Christ, there were frequent famines in the Roman empire. Writings from this period indicate that during such famines, Christians would fast from their own meager supplies in order that they might provide food for their starving pagan neighbors.(1) Apparently the early Christians took Paul literally when he instructed the church at Philippi to “in humility, count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3b-4, ESV). Of course Paul was just building on Jesus' supreme example of selfless love—the Cross—and his teaching that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

At the risk of being blunt, there are far too many people struggling to survive this very day for people like you and me to take Jesus' command to love our neighbors “as ourselves” lightly. What might it look like for us to actually do what Paul says, and consider others more significant than ourselves?

Perhaps you've practised Lent in the past by giving up something small and inconsequential. I challenge you to forgo something more significant this year—to truly sacrifice, and in so doing love your neighbor as yourself by not looking only to your own needs, but also to theirs as well. Here's just one idea: last year some of our friends decided to eat only $2.00 worth of food per day, and then give the rest of their weekly food budget to an organization providing food to hungry children overseas. During the six weeks of Lent they were able to raise nearly $400.

I wonder what Lent will look like for you this year? Will you “pour yourself out” for those who are in need? Allow your anticipation of Easter to be sacrificial, not so that people will notice you or be impressed by your spirituality, but rather so that you might both share in the sufferings of Christ and truly love your neighbor as yourself.

Grace and Peace,

Mike

1) Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 143-144.





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