"Pray for me? No, God doesn't care about us." I looked past the middle-aged Ugandan man, to the small hut in which he lived with his family. And then at the other huts all grouped together, just a few feet apart. Hundreds of them. Thousands, actually. An "Internally Displaced Persons" camp in northern Uganda. For 20 years they had lived like this. Not starving to death, thanks to the good will of others, but never satisfied. No hope of leaving, or of anything better. Poverty. Dirt. Sickness. Crowds of people. Death. And fear covering all like a blanket.
I had just asked this man, naively it seemed now, if we could pray for him. His simple and despair-filled answer knocked the wind out of me, and I had nothing to say. What could I say? In a few days I would be back with my family, in our home, far away from this dreadful place. What did I know of his suffering? What kind of comfort or hope or answer did I really think I could offer?
Fortunately, I wasn't alone that day. My friend Kasozi, a pastor from southern Uganda, was there. And he gently, but confidently, shared the gospel with this man. He shared about the love of Jesus that is true and eternal, no matter what may happen in life. He spoke of the God whose power can transform people from the inside-out. He even dared to speak of hope.
I don't know the rest of this man's story. I never saw him again. But I do know a couple of things. Later that day, I met with others who were in the same situation as he. Living in the same camp. The same conditions. The same lack. And yet they were singing and praising God with exuberant joy. They had discovered something in Jesus that brought them peace in the midst of this awful, chaotic, horror. Truly a peace "beyond understanding," as Paul had claimed. I also know that, ten years later, unbelievably, against all odds, there are no more such camps in northern Uganda. The long, seemingly endless war is over. People have gone home, and are rebuilding their lives.
I know that later that night, in my room, I repented. I asked Jesus to help me to never again doubt His power. To never lack the courage to speak the Gospel. To never again believe the lie that I have encountered a person for whom Jesus is irrelevant or insufficient. He convicted me to the core of my being with the truth that Jesus Himself is the prize. There are billions of people alive right now who have problems that I cannot hope to understand, let alone solve. Refugees fleeing war and death in the Middle East. Women being exploited in Mexico. Men and women living on the streets in every American city. I do not have the answers. But for each person living in these realities, Jesus is still the great prize, and I can show them to Him.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 13:44-46)
The Kingdom of heaven is the rule of Jesus. It is the presence of Jesus Himself. Those who are in the Kingdom are those who have put themselves under His rule. They are those who know Christ and trust in Him. To be in the Kingdom is far and away the best thing that could ever be. Nothing comes close to comparing with it. In fact, it would be worth it to give up absolutely everything else. Reputation. Money. Possessions. Family. Friends. Safety. Job. Home. Health. Even life itself. If we gave up all of that, along with anything else we value, it would not even come close to having amy significance as compared with the Kingdom. As compared with being in Christ. Jesus made this point over and over in the gospels.
If this is true -- and if we believe the gospel at all, we have to confess that it is -- then what does that say about "ministry" to people? What does it say about love? What of value do I truly have to offer any other human being?
I can offer many things. I can offer money, to the extent that I have it. I can give my time. I can use my knowledge or my skills for the sake of others, to help them have a better life. I can offer friendship. Those are good. But, what if I could offer the most ultimate prize in the whole world? What if I could offer the Kingdom? Could offer Jesus?
What about those who are less fortunate than me, as far as worldly goods and position go? The poor. Refugees. Orphans. The addicted. Imprisoned. The homeless. What do I have for them?
Maybe another way of looking at it would be this. What is the biggest tragedy in a person's life? Is it that they are unemployed? That they have enemies? That they are homeless or in prison or on drugs or in a refugee camp? Is it that people are trying to kill them? Those are all hugely tragic situations, and, as a follower of Jesus, I should do whatever I can to help overcome them. Without a doubt.
But I submit that there is a deeper, darker, and more sinister tragedy by far.
"And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” (Luke 9:25).
Is it possible that we could help someone overcome drugs, and get off the streets, and get a job, and have friends... But they still be lost or destroyed? That we could in fact help them to 'gain the whole world,' and still they lose everything?
Or, looking at it from another side, is it possible to help people overcome the deepest tragedy of their existence (their separation from the Father), and yet much of their lives still be extremely hard? Is it possible for us to help someone discover the greatest prize in the universe, and yet he still be materially poor?
There was a time someone wanted to follow Jesus, and Jesus responded by saying, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58). If you want to follow me, Jesus told this hopeful seeker, you'll have to be homeless -- at least for this next season. But it's worth it.
Don't worry. I am not advocating that we don't try to help people get housing, or jobs, or stability in their lives. That we not seek solutions for refugees or rescue for the enslaved. Not at all. In fact, I'd love for us to do more along these lines. It is good and right for us to labor in this. It is the heart of our Father.
But in those discouraging moments when we all ask ourselves, "what are we doing?" there is a more significant answer. We are pointing people to the entrance to the Kingdom. We are showing them the field in which the greatest treasure in the universe is buried. We are guiding them to Jesus Himself. At least, I hope that's what we're doing.
Over the past six years, I've seen a good many people get off the streets into housing. And I rejoice every time. It is amazing, and worth celebrating. And yet, my heart still breaks for some of them, because they have not discovered the treasure. They have what they thought was the greatest thing they needed. A home. In some cases freedom from addictions. In some cases a job. They will often readily acknowledge that God helped them get what they have. But still many have not found the pearl of such value that they would lay down all that they have gained in order to attain it. And so, sadly, as Jesus warned, they are still on the wide path that leads to destruction. And my heart breaks. Some of these I have know well. We've shared many meals together. They have been in my home. We've talked about Jesus and His Kingdom.
There are others -- and my heart hurts for them as well -- who are still living on the streets, or in poverty, but they are living in the Kingdom right where they are. Do I want them to get a better situation? Yes, I do, with all my heart. But I also rejoice for them, because they have found what is the most important.
Sometimes we are tempted to let Jesus be the means to what we consider a greater end. We want people to encounter Jesus, so that Jesus will fix their lives. Sober them up. Get them off the streets. Jesus will not be used like that. He is after far more. He is the means, for sure. But He is also the great end. The purpose. The prize. The goal. The only One worth losing everything else for.
I often ask myself, or am asked by others, "What are we doing on Thursday nights?" I still maintain that what we are doing is hugely important. It's not about the food, really. It never has been. It's about us building relationships with the poor and the homeless and the outcast. But it's not ultimately about that either. It is that through the relationships we build, we can actually lead our friends into the relationship that will change everything. The relationship with Jesus.
The prize is Jesus Himself. And He has given us the power and the ability to bring Him to others.
“For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, 'Come back to God!'" (2 Corinthians 5:19-20)
This is amazing. It's what it's all about.
Jesus is the prize. Our friends can know God. And we can help them. Sometimes -- many times, I hope, by the grace of God we can help them get off the streets. Sometimes that won't happen, or it won't happen quickly. But even so, our friends can know God.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.