I could sit and listen to stories forever. It is what I do for a living right now, in fact. Real live stories give me hope that we can really change. Recently, my husband and I sat with our friends Ryan and Amanda and celebrated the birth of their new son, shared a meal, engaged in some healthy debate and enjoyed stories from their time in Northern India. They will return there soon- returning “home” to the people to whom they have given their hearts.
They have both immersed themselves in medical education of various kinds because their experience has taught them that simple practical hands-on help is what is most needed there. Their friends haven’t been taught even the basic understanding of what we would consider common sense care, such as how to cleanse a wound to keep it from becoming infected. Ryan and Amanda have been trained to dress wounds, diagnose ailments, prescribe medications, replenish fluids and other basic things that can only be done by an MD here. The simple things they do are literally life-giving. It gets me to thinking of how very much each one of us here truly has to offer a hurting world.
But even more than all of that, what I see is that their compassion has a beautiful direction. They are ones who seem to have learned the elusive quality of “serving up”, that is, serving the poor as Christ Himself. Often my compassion does not match this. I feel angry at injustice but too often it feels like a demand that we get off our high horse and do more for the “downtrodden”, a word that implies “lesser”.
Ryan told a story of a young mother from the lowest caste. Her baby had at least four different skin ailments, including infections and infestations. The baby was also caked in dirt from head to toe. He felt his anger begin to burn at this child’s suffering and as he taught the mother how to bathe her child in gentian violet to clear up the infection he grumbled, “Here, this is your job”. He glanced at the mother and saw that she also was caked with dirt from head to toe. Those of the lowest caste believe that they are unworthy, the least of the least, less than dirt. Why bother to live as someone you can never be?
He heard himself yelling at her. “You are worth more than this! You need to get some soap and bathe yourself, and bathe your baby. Brush your teeth. You are designed to be greater than this!” Later, he felt bad for losing his temper. He knew he shouldn’t have yelled at her. His anger was probably fueled in many ways by the ongoing frustration of dealing with a whole societal system that crushes people and the stubborn ignorance that is not easily dissuaded, especially by foreigners.
But a month later she returned to him. She and her baby were clean, teeth brushed, hair gleaming, clothes clean. She smiled broadly. Her baby’s skin was almost fully healed. And the smile, of course, told of a deeper healing. Truth, which at times comes in a way as searing as antiseptic to an open wound, had penetrated and won this woman’s heart. She was worthy.
Philip Yancey says, “We in the West are still learning the difference between acts of charity and the more difficult task of changing a person’s self-perception.” Acts of charity do display compassion. But changing self-perception comes from deep lived-out belief. Ryan probably won’t be packaging his method of dealing with this particular lady for books and seminars. But I think she may have gotten it because he truly believes that she, like those in her village, are Christ in His distressing disguise. He truly sees her that way. That kind of gaze upon another is healing.
I have felt this gaze in my own life. I have a mentor/friend who has had a profound effect on me. His belief in me literally changed the course of my life. I once asked him just how he did it; what magic did he use? It certainly felt extraordinary. “I believe,” was all he said.
Once again I am praying for eyes to see. For me, it is not too difficult to see Christ in a woman like the one in the story. But it is much harder for me to see Christ in those in my own culture, more specifically those whom I think are doing the dance of the Pharisees, because of the hurt they have wrought. Perhaps to grow eyes to see I must learn, as my friends surely have, to have enough faith to not look down, but up. In what new surprising way will my Christ present Himself to me this week?