Perhaps the most beautiful place on earth is Cape Town South Africa. Understandably I have not traveled to every place and my judgment is only a reflection of my own perspective, but I will never forget the first time I saw the city from 20,000 feet up. The team I was with had traveled for about twenty-four hours before our arrival and everyone was eager to have the plane touch ground but the beauty I got to see as the plane crested over the mountain range out into the blue ocean, giving the passengers a glimpse of the city tucked beneath Table Mountain was remarkable.
In equal and opposite contrast, I will never forget immediately leaving the airport, in our van bound for the dormitories we were to stay in for the duration of our trip. Immediately upon exiting what appeared to be paradise, I was struck once again by what I saw but in a very different way. We saw what seemed to be seas, in equal size to the beautiful blue we had just flown over, of township houses. One room shacks made from scraps of plastic or metal, with dirt floors and no running water or electricity formed towns that stretched on for what seemed like miles and in many cases literally stretched farther still.
Although it is a shock when you travel from a heavenly paradise to an impoverished countryside, the coexistence and stark contrast of those two ways of existence seems a fitting yet sadly real metaphor for the world in which we live. We live in a world where those of us who live in paradise don’t recognize it and those whole live in poverty are recognized lesser still. I find this an interesting intersection between the theological and the atheological. It is a compelling argument to make that God cannot possibly exist if such poverty does. Rightfully so, and not living in such poverty myself I would not want to undermine such hardships. I wonder though, if we can recognize God as a partner and not a dictator. A dictator controls and reforms, all action and agent of change must come through him. And that God does not in fact exist. A partner however lends all that they are to the partnership, all the while insisting that those who are partnered with pull their own weight.
I suppose the point is this: God has no interest in us acting like small children, folding our arms, pouting and exclaiming that we don’t want to participate. He doesn’t have time for that. He is in the business of seeking, empowering, and equipping those who will work in representation of love, who are willing to risk their own pursuits for the greater pursuit. As I read though Scripture, I don’t too often see God intersecting and wrecking the whole show, rearranging the players as he sees fit. Instead, we witness in the story of God, an astoundingly loving God employing his own creation to work on his behalf. He calls us to be part of the restoration of the world. We can sit idly by in protest, mumbling that we don’t know how the mess got there in the first place so it isn’t our responsibility to clean up. Or we can respond to his call, transcending the pettiness of our complaint, and participate as the world is once again set right.
How are we being called to participate?
Called to Remember
In Deuteronomy 24 we meet mid narrative with a group of people who have just been brought out of and impoverished existence. God has chosen them to be the prototype for how the world should work and so he offers some guidelines for how society will run best. Five different times throughout the composition we are reminded of a chorus, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” (Deut. 24:22) The final refrain concludes a section regarding how the citizens of this new way should be mindful of the poor among them.
My son is only 3 months old, however I sponsor a thirteen-year-old boy named Reyis from Ethiopia. I was prompted to investigate some basic differences between the lives they have. I found out that while Patrick (my son) lives in country where the life expectancy is 77, Reyis’ is 30 years less at 46. The mortality rate for Children under five in the US is 8 compared to Reyis’ homeland of 169. In Patrick’s context 100% of the population uses clean drinking water, only 22% have access to clean water in Reyis’ homeland. Where Reyis lives there is 1 telephone set per every 100 people to where in the US there are 113 telephone sets to every 100 people (yes we have 13 extra per 100 people). Why does Reyis live in one place and Patrick in another? Did I get a say in the matter? Did Reyis choose to be born where he was? Geography is not a result of privileged standing.
What is the point? We are called to remember that the world is not section off between “us” and “them”. It is simply us. We are to remember that even if we have not ever lived in poverty, this story is bigger than simply ourselves. This is a story about us, and we are called to care for us.
We are called to React.
All too often we hear these things or see these things as feelings of compassion flood our heart, they disperse just as quickly. In the book of Leviticus, God is giving more instruction to the same group of people as before. In a way of answering, “why should we live this way? Why should we do this?” We hear, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2). We are called to react in the world because the one who created us calls us to. We are called to love those across the world, because He loves them. To be truly human is to embody true compassion for the suffering of others. It is the way we were created.
We are called to Respond
God calls us to do something. That’s about how brief the answer is. What should we do? Anything. There are literally a million options from going on trips to offering money to buying clothes to collecting used or unused goods. With such a plethora of responses the point isn’t to do any one thing, the point is to do at least one thing. Gary Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission once offered an interesting insight into how this partnership between God and us may work. “What’s God’s plan for the world?” Haugen asked, “Turns out that we are his plan. And God doesn’t have a backup plan.”
The world is a place of both beauty and pain. Shall we be remembered as those who turned our back on pain, or who were ambassadors of beauty?