Do you remember these questions? I remember a trip to Busch Gardens in Virginia with a truck full of teenagers, and one of the boys reading question after question of whether you would rather fart pink smoke or sneeze blue bubbles (or something outrageous to that affect).
Thankfully, some of the questions were more serious. We would find ourselves in conversations about death and how we live. Jesus himself has a really great would you rather question that I would like to take some time to discuss. It goes like this:
Would you rather follow me and find life, or gain the whole world and forfeit your soul? (See Matthew 16:24-27)
The bottom line is I don't want to miss it. Then again, who does?
Let's consider a situation I had this weekend where I missed it.* Every Friday, I go to cook with the teenage girls in the institute. They are now not only learning to bake or cook, but learning how to sell what we make so that they can save money to buy various items for their children. Which means that it is helpful that I don't go alone. Someone is needed to teach; someone is needed to play with the kids; someone is also needed for those who can't help in the kitchen due to space, to pass the time drinking mate or chatting or playing cards.
A cultural issue to be conscious of is not only do most volunteers not arrive on time, but they are inconsistent. I have found myself, ahem, consistently, trying to develop the need for faithfulness to commitments the volunteers have made (even if the title volunteer might express otherwise). So when I received the phone call from the girls that they couldn't come, I used a phrase I had learned from my mentor, "Then who will help?" It is a question aimed at the desire to make the person(s) aware of their commitment.
I asked them to pray for someone to come in their place. When I hung up, I went into a mini panic mode seeking someone to accompany me for the visit that would take place in less than 2 hours. The same answer was heard from every person. "No."
I stopped to pray in my room. "Peace, Lord. I need peace."
In last resort, I asked the brother of the sisters who normally come with me to take their place. He said he would talk with them and see. In a few minutes, he told me he would come. Exhale.
At the same time, while I was asking him, my mentor happened to be close by. She grabbed my arm, lovingly, and says, "Their mom is really sick today." Now, I know that Friday is the day for chemotherapy for Marta, the mom of this family of persons who serve so much. But I didn't understand why she told me what she did. Of course she is sick! She has cancer!
But he said yes..
.. only for minutes before leaving, he tells me no. "I am so sorry, but I have to go to the hospital now."
I was frustrated because I needed, or thought that I needed, someone to come with me. On the bike ride over, I was praying for wisdom on what to do. It's not like I haven't gone by myself plenty of times, but this time felt different for some reason. Then a prayer, coming from what seemed out of nowhere, escaped my lips. It was as if straight from that verse in Romans:
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)
My prayer was, to my surprise, "God, don't let Marta die this weekend. Don't let her die the same weekend as Sol's birthday. I don't want Sol to have any bitterness on a day meant for celebration."
I continued on my way, and the time at the institute turned out to be nice. In fact, I had a rare encounter with a sad Gladys. Her aunt had promised her to spend the weekend together, but she didn't come. I reaffirmed the permission for Gladys to come with us to church on Sunday, and this seemed to make her happy for the moment. Poor girl, as if she hasn't had enough feeling of abandonment in her lifetime.
Overwhelmed from the day (Fridays are full from morning to the middle of the night), I decided to stay home and just read and study the Word. The week in general had not allowed too much time in Bible study, so I wanted to make the most of what few hours left in the week to do so.
In the middle of this time, the girls called again to talk with Laura. I had a chance to ask how things went for them, and to tell them that I had been praying. "Thanks Sharayah, yeah, everything went well." Secondly, Sol texted me to say that there would not be a party for her birthday on Saturday after all; we would celebrate another day. I called her to make sure everything was okay. I was more insistent than usual, because for the first time, the situation felt more grave than I had imagined. "No, no, everything is fine," she tells me again and again.
I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. (Psalm 4:5)
Went to the girls' house for a Bible study in the afternoon, and decide to stay with them for awhile longer. We made pepas, played cards, laughed..
The doctor came over to check up on Marta. The doctor also happens to be my mentor. She mentions to someone else who had come for a visit, "I didn't think Marta would make it to today. She was hanging by a thread." That was when it hits me that the situation was much worse than what everyone had been communicating to me. Or at least, how I felt that everyone was communicating with me.
Because no one wants to deal with death, so no one says how they are really feeling. I can understand that.
Equally difficult is pointing at one or the other and say, "You are in sin, and that's why this and this happened." Or even say, "You are right to do this, because.." I try to include as many details as I possibly can to help us all realize that every situation is very complicated.
We are messy people who just have to admit that we were wrong. Ahem.. I was wrong. I missed it.
I don't want to miss it.
Which is why I come back to Jesus' question of "Would you rather..?" I would rather have been more aware of the situation; to not have been so stupid in being angry with those who told me they couldn't come. To realize the prayer that the Spirit instilled in me should have made me more gracious with my friends.
I don't think Jesus' question points only to the choice between following him once and for all. I think it has to do with our daily act of being aware of his kingdom here and now. Will we be aware of what God is doing among us as we read/type/breathe? Aware of the greatest commandment to not only love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and stuff**, but to love our neighbor as ourselves?
I would rather be ignorant of the material world, and aware of the needs of my friends. The stuff of life will never love me the way that my friends will. Even if their love is imperfect, it is much more satisfying than my computer, bicycle, saxophone, or even less tangible, knowledge. If I pour my life into these things, I will most certainly have forfeited everything that matters at the end of the day. At the end of my life.
What about you?
*The more I am in ministry, the more I am made aware of my mistakes. I thank God for answering my prayers to see those very mistakes more clearly, even if the act of seeing them does not always make me feel good. How important it is to remember "The Lord disciplines those he loves.." In addition, to remember that God is willing to use someone as broken as myself to complete some pretty amazing tasks. I don't understand it, but I am thankful.
**After more study of the Shema, it seems that a better translation for "strength" in this verse would refer to possessions, even money. To love God in showing responsibility for that which he first gave us. If that makes sense..