The Rewards of Identification
Sent to Mac Pier in response to the following questions.
1) Given the theme of suffering – what are the major choices you have made over the past forty years in your lifestyle to identify with the suffering of Sri Lanka
2) As you look back after forty years – how have those choices resulted in joy for you, your family, and your organization?
I think I will answer these together.
In the providence of God, our calling was to minister to the poor and most of them were people who had really suffered greatly. To identify with such people we had to adopt a lifestyle that made us accessible to them. One thing that this involved was living a relatively simple life. I wanted our house to be a place where the poor felt at home. So we did not have things which people associate with affluence. We still don’t have a microwave oven as such things are strange to our people.
We chose to live on a Sri Lankan salary and not take anything that comes from my overseas speaking and book ministry. That amounts to five to ten times my salary. I guess the thing that we got from this was a happy home. My wife never complained about not having things that others had, and our children seemed to be happy even though they did not have a lot of the things that their relatives had. I do not think that they felt deprived. And in the end, both my children chose to work for the same ministry that I work for.
I guess the hardest part was agonizing with struggling people who, after all the pain that they had experienced, found it difficult to believe that God will look after them. How we yearned to see them have the joy we had. Instead, often they would say things that would hurt us. Hurt people have a way of hurting people! Trying to defend and minister to hurting people often resulted in those they had hurt being upset with us. But we learned not to give up on people who hurt you. We learned to look to the possibilities of grace in hope and long to see these people whole.
I believe one of the greatest needs within the church today is to relearn the Christian value of commitment to people and groups. Working long term (two to three decades) with the same group of people has taught us what such commitment means. There is no doubt that the people I have ministered among have brought the biggest pain in my life. But I can also say, that next to God and my family, these people have also brought me the biggest joys in my life. I can also say that many of them are quite advanced along the path of experiencing God’s healing grace.
Another difficult thing was the loss of privacy and the fact that the people we minister with did not understand of efficiency the way we did. The poor have no concept of privacy and efficiency like affluent people. Keeping an open home meant that I began to find it very difficult to find time for study, unless it was late at night. We decided that for private and study times we must leave home; but that our home will always continue to be an open place.
First generation Christians do not know about the international Christian scene. When those we minister to are sick they expect us to come and visit. Visiting is a wonderful trait of poor people. They visit those who are in need. And if we do not go, because we are simply too busy or out of town, they blame us. A small price to pay in a glorious ministry! This has been a challenge to us now that my wife is down with cancer. The church members want to visit her. And we tell them not to come. Some come any way. Some may stay for as long as four hours. It is very tiring for my wife who is going through chemotherapy. But most do not come. They are very poor. But every Sunday I come back from church with parcels of fruits, vegetables, soups and other things that the members have heard are good for cancer patients: gifts joyfully and sacrificially given by very poor people.
What is the reward? I guess the greatest is the joy of seeing people who should otherwise be dead, or in prison or leading underworld gangs, serving God as YFC staff, doing the kind of ministry I could never do. In addition they are good biblical preachers too. What a joy to know that people, I could not otherwise come into contact with, are now my sons in the faith. These people are now my close friends, and I learn so much about the world I was insulated from as a child. Perhaps along the way I have taught them something about the biblical lifestyle—a lifestyle so alien to them.
Let me give you three examples.
- In 1989 we had just come back to Sri Lanka from a six month sabbatical at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It was a workaholic’s sabbatical. I learned to use a computer and to type. I almost completed writing two books. I taught a class of graduate students. I preached in the weekends and sometimes mid-week and through that raised most of the money needed for a colleague to some to the USA to do a Master’s degree. All these things I could not do at home. It was like heaven!
I came back to a country that was going through a revolution. A group of extreme leftist youth in the South, were attempting to overthrow the government (This was different to war raging in the North). All the time, there were bodies floating along the river at the edge of our town. The estimates of how many died that year run as high as 50,000. Almost all were young people.
As a youth worker I struggled with deep discouragement. Schools did not function for months at a time. The rebels had stopped public transport, and most of those in our office travelled to work by bus or train. We needed to pick up our staff from their homes and drop them back. The process took three-and-a-half hours in the morning and the same time in the evening. There were three of us who shared this responsibility. I usually do not enjoy driving, but this time was particularly stressful because most people would give rides to others who were stranded. But if by chance the person who we gave a ride to was a rebel, we could all end up dead.
While I was struggling with the sorrow of the situation at home and the frustration of spending most of my time doing what I did not like to do, I got a letter from Gordon-Conwell saying that the faculty had unanimously decided to invite me to join their faculty. The attractiveness of this offer was that ample time was given for writing and for continuing my teaching and preaching ministry. But I knew that was not for me; that I was called for lifetime ministry in Sri Lanka. I especially knew that I could not leave my nation at such a traumatic time. I immediately wrote to say that I am honored by the invitation but that I did not think it was God’s will for me.
One evening I had just finished a meeting and I needed to drop everyone at home. We were on a very tight schedule to complete the journey before the 11 p.m. curfew. I was angry and driving more recklessly than usual. I was going on a narrow gravel road faster than I should and I got too close to a fence. A barb from the fence caught my tire and punched a hole in the tire. We quickly changed tires and proceeded on the journey. The last person I dropped was a male staff worker. He told his mother he was safe and got into the car to go back home with me as we were perilously close to the 11.00 pm curfew, and he did not want me to go alone.
We reached home around 11.10 pm. After having a late dinner we started chatting. It turned out that this young staff worker was going through deep discouragement and was contemplating leaving the ministry. We talked till past 2.00 a.m., and I believe I was able to minister to him. This was the work I wanted to be doing. But I would not have had the opportunity of doing that if I did not have that frustrating drive before the conversation. Twenty two years later, that young staffer is still in ministry. He is now a pastor, and I am told he is a good biblical preacher.
I believe that one of the keys to my writing ministry has been the frustration of working in what seemed to be such a non-ideal situation. Frustration forces you to theologize in order to maintain your sanity and your joy. A lot of my writing is the fruit of that theologizing.
- I was getting ready for the Urbana Missionary Conference in 1990 where I was a Bible expositor. I was going to leave home around mid-night on Christmas day. We did not have a pastor at that time in our church and I had to conduct the Christmas morning service in our church. I had been very busy the days before and was concerned that I was going to arrive in the USA exhausted. I finished preparing my sermon around 2.00 a.m. and went to bed knowing that I desperately needed sleep. I must have slept only a few minutes when there was a knock at our door. One of our neighbors had a baby who was sick with a stomach infection. They did not have electricity in their home. In the little light provided by an oil lamp they mistook skin lotion for the syrup that had been prescribed for the child, and they fed her the lotion.
They wanted to know what to do. I took them to the hospital in the YFC van. As the poor are sometimes not given adequate attention in our hospitals I decided to wait until everything was done for the baby. When I came back home it was time to go to church. But I needed sleep.
I decided that I will have a nice long sleep that afternoon. After our Christmas meal, we closed the windows in our home (which usually means no one is at home), I parked the van in the garage and went to sleep hoping that no one would disturb me. We had two visitors that afternoon! I realized that the prospects of my getting sleep were bleak. So I played some games with my children instead. I was severely deprived of sleep now!
My non-stop 10-12 hour flight from Colombo to Amsterdam had only about 15% of the maximum load of passengers. I had four seats to myself. I slept as I had never slept before on a flight. I got up as we were nearing Amsterdam thrilled about the God who knew that I needed sleep when he sent that poor Hindu family to my door the night before.
- YFC gave me a three month sabbatical beginning January 2005 to go to the USA and work on a book on Deuteronomy that was due at the end of March 2005. A week before I left, the tsunami struck! I assumed that my colleagues can handle the situation and proceeded with my preparation for the trip. About three days after the tsunami it became clear to me that I could not leave. Possibly 40,000 people had been killed and there were so many needy people in need in our country. Our ministry stopped all other work to concentrate on relief for the next four months or so.
I stayed at home, and most of the time I was responding to letters, that came asking about the possibility of funding, and helping match donors with those who could use the funds. Most of our staff workers are not fluent in English so I had to handle most of the correspondence, while they were out in the field ministering to people. I decided that I won’t go to sleep until all the letters for the day were replied. Some days I went to sleep at 6.00 a.m. I sometimes wrote as many as 250 letters in a day. I was feeling sorry for myself! I was supposed to be on a sabbatical writing a book on Deuteronomy, and instead I am writing e-mails!
I was asked to speak at the staff prayer meeting on the first day of work for the New Year. I prepared a message the night before and went to sleep. When I was praying before going for the meeting, I felt that the message I prepared was not appropriate. So I quickly jotted down notes for another message and went back to praying. Again I felt the message was not suitable. It was time to leave. My daughter was travelling with me in the van, and she asked me what I was going to speak on. Like Abraham told Isaac, I told her, “The Lord will provide a message.” As we were nearing the church where we had the meeting, some thoughts began to flow through my mind. When I reached the church I quickly jotted them down and gave that message.
My colleagues told me that I should write that message down. A senior pastor had earlier told me to write something for the pastors who did not know what to tell their people after this terrible tragedy. I wrote it down and sent it to some of my friends by e-mail. A Chinese website asked permission whether they could translate it into Chinese and post it. A Dutch newspaper carried it in their pages. RBC Ministries decided to print it in English, Sinhala and Tamil doing a total of 100,000 copies with the name, After the Tsunami. Then a great earthquake hit Pakistan. The booklet was translated into Urdu with the name, After the Earthquake. Then came hurricane Katrina in the USA. RBC Ministries in USA printed 396,000 copies of this booklet naming it, After the Hurricane. A German book and a book by IVP USA included it as a chapter in a larger book. Burmese and Japanese editions followed. Many people have written to me that the book was a help to many after the recent tsunami in Japan. RBC’s television program decided to follow up the booklet by producing program in their series The Day of Discovery, called, “The God of Joy; the God of Pain.”
That little message God gave me that day had impacted well over a million people. And I was complaining about not being able to write! This year I finally sent the manuscript of my Deuteronomy book to the publisher, six years late!