The Poorest People On Earth

I have lived in places considered to be some of the poorest on earth and I have also lived in places considered to be among the richest and most affluent.  I have known what it feels like to walk for miles in search of water in one part of the world and yet in another part, walk on streets washed down with drinkable water every morning.    Living among those considered to be the world’s poor, I knew what it felt like to have to scramble for survival every day.  Among the affluent, I got to experience the apparent ease that comes with having plenty to meet one’s daily needs so much so that one can become oblivious to the realities of other people’s struggles for existence.

During several years when I worked on international programs to alleviate poverty, I became acquainted with the many descriptions of the world’s poor along with the long list of ills they suffered – poor health, lack of education, inadequate nutrition, the “bottom billion” and so on and so forth.  Yet as I look back through my experiences over the years with those labelled by the world as either poor or rich, I have found a very different kind of poverty that is largely unrecognized but which affects millions all over the world regardless of how much money they have in the bank.

The highest level of poverty I have observed is among those who seem unable to put their faith in God.   Such a person will go to great lengths to justify their position including seemingly clever arguments, ignoring the obvious fact that on the day they die, none of those arguments will count.   Such a person can be quite rich and even highly educated by the standards of the world, yet unable to do something as simple as believe in God whose presence is visibly manifested around them.  As a result, they go through life never knowing the inner peace that comes with having one’s soul be at rest in Christ and face the grim finality of death with no reassurance of their destiny.  In other words, regardless of their worldly status, they die poor with absolutely nothing to show for their time on earth.  As Jesus said… For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:36

Another kind of strange poverty I have observed is the inability to give to others of our time and resources.   Our current prevailing culture means that even as we gather more and more we seem to have less and less to give to others.  When everything we do and all of our pursuits are centered around our own lives, we live a life of abject poverty regardless of how much we may possess.  One of the greatest source of true wealth is to give to others.  A handful of the world’s so called “richest” people have come to this realization and devised ways to give away the wealth they spent their lives amassing.  Nothing we can give to our children can equal the time spent with them.   Giving up some of our time for others requires a sacrifice but to not do that is to live a self-centered life which only  serves to magnify problems we face in our minds and minimize those faced by others.  The more outward looking we are, the bigger the life we live.  Conversely, the self-centered life is a small life.

There is no better example than the fact that the richest person in all of eternity, Jesus Christ, gave up His wealth in exchange for our poverty when He chose to enter into our life of struggle by coming to earth.  He gave up the riches of timelessness to enter into our prison of time and then broke the limitation placed on our existence by death by defeating the powers of darkness  on the Cross.  Jesus gave up everything so that we may truly live.  To choose a life outside of Him is to live in quintessential poverty and death.

 

Cows and Cardboard Boxes

I once heard a Preacher share a very funny story about a community he had visited in a very remote place located in one of the poorest parts of the world.  The Preacher had struck a conversation with one of the men in that village and asked him what he most desired in life.  The poor man responded, “ I would like to own a cow”.  In the context of our own world outside of our church in New York City, filled with a diversity of earthly treasures that are the pursuits of men’s hearts ranging from Broadway glory to Wall Street windfalls , it was amusing that one man’s life long desire was simply to own an animal.  However, the story of this man has remained firmly stuck in my mind ever since as I have slowly come to realize that in the context of what God offers us, all of our earthly pursuits are not far off from that man’s desire to own one cow.  In that man’s remote village which represented his entire world, the only people considered rich and powerful and therefore significant were those who owned cattle.  No one owned anything more valuable than that.  Therefore in his world, owning a cow was the highest attainable goal there was.   Likewise, our desires and pursuits are moulded by what we think others around us possess and what our society labels as valuable.  According to the Bible, all of man’s pursuits are simply due to the envy of his neighbor:

Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors… Ecclesiastes 4:4 (NLT).

One of my favourite things to do during my many trips on airplanes is to look out the window in great detail at the world below as the plane takes off from any major city.  I marvel at how quickly houses considered to be worth millions look like nothing more than a cardboard box just a few hundred feet into the air.  Seconds after take off, even the most expensive cars on the road look like plastic toys and our most impressive architectural works are quickly dwarfed by surrounding trees, oceans and mountains.  Our many “treasures” look miniscule when seen in the context of God’s surrounding creation .  Yet we spend our entire lives pursuing life in the best cardboard box, driving the coolest toy, discarding one fashion item for the next or maybe simply idolising those who seem to have these things.  Like the man who desired owning a cow, we long to possess that which seems valuable to us in the context of all that we know and that our society holds to be valuable.  Yet, from God’s perspective, our earthly pursuits amount to no more than the value of cattle in light of all He has to offer us.  We are oblivious to the eternal treasures that God has prepared for us here and in the life to come. The angels must marvel at a creation that chooses to settle for so much less than it has been given access to.  CS Lewis once said we are like children who have been invited to a luxurious holiday by the sea  but who insist on playing in the mud instead.

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

Revelation 3:17 (NIV)

God has so much more for us than our cows and cardboard boxes and in Christ, He is constantly inviting us to give Him our rags in exchange for His true riches.  In His infinite mercy, He does not deny us the pursuits of our heart but as the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, He longs to transform and enrich us in ways that our finite minds cannot even begin to comprehend.  If we would only draw near to Him and put our lives, our dreams and all of our pursuits in His loving hands.

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him I Corinthians 2:9 (NKJV)

 

Would You Like to be a Star?

Some of the most popular TV programs today are designed for people seeking stardom even if at the expense of great public ridicule and humiliation.  Thousands of people line up to be given the opportunity to sing in front of an audience, dance or even cook a creative meal.  All do it with the hope that they will emerge as the one shining star who will go on to a lifelong career on the world stage.  Most will not make it to this goal.  The handful that do are momentarily celebrated and admired and then promptly forgotten as soon as the next “star” comes along.

The names of most oscar winners will be forgotten within a decade, majority of singers are fortunate if they get to produce more than a couple of successful albums, most supermodels are considered obsolete by the time they hit their thirties and even the President of the United States will be mostly consigned to the history books a few years after he or she steps down from office.

That’s why it is so amazing that there is one group of people whose stories have endured through centuries of human history.  These are the characters of the Bible.  Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther and Paul to name a few are recognized worldwide in just about every nation and across every culture.  Their stories never seem to grow old.  Even today, movies and books about their lives continue to be a big hit.  Last year, the number one show on cable TV was the Bible series which dramatizes major events and characters of the Bible.  It grabbed the attention of major news networks and was watched by over 100 million people.  It has since sold over a million DVDs and has been dubbed a “historic TV event”.

A little girl once said that life is a stage, God is the Director and we are given the choice to follow His script or ours.  The Bible’s hall of fame is a showcase of lives lived on God’s script.  This is why many of the characters we encounter in the Bible had the same weaknesses and struggles that we do.  Abraham took matters into his own hands sometimes, Jacob cheated his way into God’s plan, Moses struggled with a bad temper.  David committed adultery and then tried to cover it up with murder, Gideon was cowardly, Paul got Christians killed and Peter whom Jesus assigned the title of “Rock” denied knowing him right afterwards.

The human desire to shine on the stage of life is one that has been implanted in our souls by God Himself and He is the spotlight.  He has written a script for our lives and His intention is for our stories to have a good end and be of eternal value.  When He is the Director of our lives, our weaknesses and failures don’t matter in the end because He ensures we end well.  When we choose to follow Christ, our lives become eternal and forever celebrated.  When Jesus died on the Cross, He did it so that our stories may be woven into His because that’s what History is all about – It’s His story.

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  – Jeremiah 29:11 

 

 

The Hope of a Broken World

A man named Wilfrid once sailed along the south coast of a great island in the North Seas along with a hundred and twenty companions.  Their journey had started well enough until they ran into some gale-force winds.  The ship was now being driven towards the much dreaded, low, shingle beach of the island that stretched along the northern edge of the sea.  The reason it was dreadful soon became clear as the sailors saw the wild, yellow-haired men of the island gathering on the shelving beach.   As the ship was driven nearer to the coast, all on board could now see the men of the Shingle Beach waving spears and axes.  These men on the beach were pirates who swooped on vessels that were swept ashore and slay the men, carrying off the women and children as slaves.

A great wave hit Wilfrid’s ship and soon it ran aground as the wreckers rushed down the beach brandishing their spears.  The island men stormed the ship as the men on board fought back by beating down upon their heads as they climbed up the ship’s slippery side.  The savages were beaten back at first and they seemed baffled until their priest leapt unto a mound of sand, lifting his naked arms to the skies, called on their god of war to destroy the men on the ship.  The savages were filled with a new frenzy and stormed the ship again while Wilfrid gathered a few friends around, knelt down and prayed to God for deliverance.  The savages were again beaten back.  After a third unsuccessful attempt to storm the ship, a pebble from the sling of a man on the ship struck the savage priest on the forehead killing him.   The savages momentarily lost courage and became enraged again when the tide swung in, lifted the ship and took it back out to sea.

Despite this experience, Wilfrid had a desire to visit the men of the Shingle beach again and one day several years later he went back to the island, this time on foot.  He was surprised to find the savages were now a mere shadow of themselves.  A severe drought had left them starving to death.  Surprised, Wilfrid asked them “Are there no fish in the sea?” to which the men answered “Yes, but we cannot catch them”.  Wilfrid then showed the men how to make nets, and as they watched, he went out to sea in a little boat hauling in a great catch after catch as the men looked on hungrily.  Wilfrid returned at last as the men eagerly and joyfully lit fires and cooked the fish.

As they ate, Wilfrid gathered the men, women and children around and told them of a God not of war but of love who sent His only Son Jesus Christ to tell the world about His love.  He told them how Jesus fed the hungry multitudes by the seaside and how he Wilfrid, had been sent to them to demonstrate this love by feeding them fish from the sea and His love.  The wondering savages, listened with spear in hand, shaking their matted hair as they tried to understand it all.  They had come to trust Wilfrid and began to love the God He told them about.

These Savages were the great, great grandfathers and mothers of the English speaking peoples of the world.  The North Sea Island was Britain and the year was AD 666 and 681, twelve hundred and fifty years ago.  Just as in the days of Jesus Christ, the message of the gospel has continued to travel through every part of the world from Africa to China and beyond through heroic men and women like Wilfrid, telling of the love of God through Christ and transforming peoples and societies from a wretched life of war and poverty to one of peace and productivity.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed…                                                                                    Jesus Christ                                                                                                                                 
Luke 4:18 (KJV)

Reference: The Book of Missionary Heroes – Basil Mathews (1922)

The Weight of a Human Soul

I love people.  I love to meet and get to know all kinds of people from all walks of life.  I have found this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of life itself.  The unending opportunity to engage other people from various backgrounds on an individual level.  Each person carries a soul print that is unique to them – their life experiences, talents and ties as well as hopes and dreams.  Every once in a while, I am challenged to enter into and partake of another person’s pain or sorrow.  It is during these times that I have come to realize how much one human soul weighs.  One human soul with all its joys, pain, disappointments, expectations and aspirations weighs far more than any one person is able to bear.  This is why no human relationship is fully able to sustain the weight of another person’s soul.  This inability is the source of disappointment and much heart ache in marriages, friendships and families.

We only have to engage intensively with another fellow human being once to quickly realize we are limited in our ability to fulfill their every need.  We can help alleviate another person’s suffering, bring comfort to them and share their burdens and this we must do but we are unable to mend a heart that’s been torn apart or heal a broken soul.  Even as we extend ourself to another, we ourselves must face our own internal battles of unmet needs, unfulfilled desires and unexplained loneliness.

I was extremely fortunate to have been brought up by loving parents who strived to give me the best of what they had to give.  But I found that even my own wonderful parents together with their very best intentions still had shortcomings.  Like me in my many relationships with others, they also found themselves falling short sometimes.  None of their shortcomings mattered in the end because they had taken care to do the one most important thing which was to point me and my siblings to a Heavenly Father who could never fail.  In other words, they ensured our souls were anchored so that no matter how strong the storms of life were, we would remain secure.

The only person capable of bearing the weight of a human soul is the person who created it.  So when God came to earth as a man in the person of Jesus Christ, that’s just what He intended to do.  He, through much suffering and pain, came to pay the huge cost of reconnecting our souls back to Himself.  The crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ was especially brutal because He carried the weight of not just one but every human soul with all of its brokenness, pain, joy and aspirations.  He was crushed beneath the weight of our souls.  The Book of Isaiah which spoke of the death of Christ 800 years before He came to earth put it this way:

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

Isaiah 53:5

One of the most influential and recognizable hymns in the world today is the one penned by Horatio Spafford titled “It is Well with My Soul“.  This hymn written by Spafford in the 1870s and still sung worldwide today was birth from the soul of a man who experienced the many tragedies of life.  Horatio Spafford was a prominent and highly successful lawyer in the city of Chicago.  He and his wife Ann, were very well known in 1860s chicago and were also close friends and supporters of the evangelist DL Moody.  In 1870, tragedy struck when the Spaffords lost their only son to pneumonia at the age of four. The following year much of the city was destroyed in the Chicago fire  and Spafford lost most of his fortune which he had invested in real estate just a few months prior to the fire.  Two years later, the economic downturn of 1873 dealt a further blow to Spafford’s remaining fortunes.  At this time, he sent his wife and four daughters to England on a ship, intending to join them shortly after for a much needed vacation and to listen to his friend DL Moody preach in England.

On November 22, 1873, while Ann Spafford and her four daughters were crossing the Atlantic on the steamship Ville du Havre, their ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all four Spafford girls – eleven year old Anna, nine year old Margaret Lee, five year old Elizabeth, and two year old Tanetta.  Anna Spafford survived the tragedy and upon arriving in England sent a telegram to her husband beginning “Saved alone.”  Spafford sailed to England, going over the location of his daughters’ deaths and as he did, he wrote the lyrics for his now famous song “It is well with my soul”.   The music to his lyrics was composed by Philip Bliss and named Ville du Havre after the ship on which Spafford’s daughters died.  Philip Bliss himself along with his wife Lucy were among 160 passengers who died in the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster in December 1876 when a train they were traveling in fell into a ravine and caught fire while crossing a trestle bridge in Ohio.

Horatio and Anna Spafford would have 3 more children after the loss of their four girls.  Once more, in 1880, they would lose their only son Horatio Goertner Spafford, this time to scarlet fever.  in 1881, the Spaffords and their two remaining young daughters moved to Jerusalem where they founded a group called the American Colony which together with Swedish Christians brought much needed relief to the poor and the suffering during World War I.  Horatio Spafford would die of malaria, 4 days before his 60th birthday on October 16, 1888 and the colony which he founded later became the subject of the Nobel prize winning Jerusalem, by Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf.

Horatio Spafford knew what it meant to lose what is most precious in this world yet have his soul, which is the essence of his person, remain fully intact in Christ.  The song that came through his unique soul print continues to bring comfort, healing and hope to the souls of millions of people around the world today over a century after he wrote it in what must have been one of his darkest moments on earth.

 

LYRICS: IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
(Refrain)

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
(Refrain)

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
(Refrain)

And Lord haste the day, when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
(Refrain)

Video

Why we Live in a Broken World

We live in a broken world because we, its inhabitants are a broken people.  Our brokenness became immediately evident once the first humans willfully chose to follow their own thinking thus separating themselves from God.  The consequences of their choice was immediately observable.   Poverty, suffering and pain instantly became a part of their existence.  Their own son Cain, murdered his older brother in cold bold.  The knowledge of the existence of paradise by Adam and Eve continues to echo in our hearts today so that we struggle to come to terms with the pain, evil and death in our world.  The forbidden fruit they ate was after all from the “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.  Thus there is a deep awareness in our heart that a perfect eternity exists and this knowledge makes us restless and causes us distress.  The common question that is often stated as “Why does God allow suffering?”   is really saying, “Why must evil be present when perfect good exists?”, confirming what the Bible tells us that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) as well as the knowledge of His existence (Psalm 19:1-4).

Even our best efforts cannot completely rid our world of evil and no amount of effort can produce a perfectly good person.  This does not mean we do not try.  The Bible recounts the stories of men and women who through faith overcame evil to establish justice, conquer kingdoms and even bring the dead back to life.  Jesus Christ who is described in the Bible as the visible manifestation of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), came to earth for the precise purpose of overcoming evil and death on our behalf.  He came to do for us what we are incapable of ever doing for ourselves.  He took on the weight of our brokenness allowing Himself to be crushed in the process.  He carried all of our pain and sorrow.  Finally, He went ahead of us to destroy the power of death over our lives so that in Him, our souls will never die.  When we choose to follow Him in the path He has laid for us, we have a concrete assurance that we are reconciled with God and will be re-instated in paradise, our original home, fulfilling the longing in our heart.

In the meantime, with the grace and strength He makes available to us, we must contend with a world that remains broken and work our way through our own brokenness as well as that of others around us.  Most of the pain and disappointment we suffer as people comes from our interactions with one another and our unmet expectations.  Marriages end in divorce simply because the expectation for perfection is not met.  Children become rebellious often because they cannot come to terms with the failures of their own parents.  Our courts are always busy with a backlog of all manner of human brokenness manifested between couples, businesses and even the government or law enforcement versus its own citizens.

We must walk through a broken world to get to the destination Jesus has prepared for us.  He has not promised us that we will be shielded from the pain and sorrow or disappointments from the world that we live in.  Saints and sinners alike experience loss, pain and death and the former are often more likely to suffer persecution.  However we do have many promises from God and that is that through Christ, we shall make it to a prepared destination.  As for the treacherous road ahead He simply reminds us:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;                                                                                                     and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.                                                                             When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;                                                                                                    the flames will not set you ablaze. – Isaiah 43:2

Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Failure

I have never succeeded at anything that did not first require that I walk through the dismal valley of failure.  As a young student, though I generally performed well in class, standardized exams represented a minefield for me.  Nevertheless, I decided somewhere along the way to explore a PhD program and right after graduation ended up in such a program in New York City.  I had already carried out a year of lab research as part of my undergraduate study and knew that a doctorate in science was a very tall order.  Conducting lab experiments required being prepared to fail 99% of the time.  In other words, you were looking for a needle in a haystack.  The purpose of your PhD was to add to the knowledge base of your field by proving something new.  You had to formulate a hypothesis based on previous knowledge and then methodically test and prove it in the lab.  Your results had to be validated by publication in a peer reviewed scientific journal of worth.  Most students who made it through spent an average of about 6 years earning their degree.  Two of my colleagues quit the program in frustration, one of them after 5 years of trying.  A scientific PhD was so tough that many US schools literally  paid you to do one.  Tuition was free and we were paid a stipend to conduct lab research.

Despite my earlier academic struggles, a PhD surprisingly turned out to be the easiest and most successful of my academic experience particularly because I had a lot of experience with pressing through failure to success.  I had also developed a habit of working and studying for many hours at a time even during personal difficulty. So I found that I had the stamina to endure long hours and repeated “failures” in the lab.  My most significant accomplishment came after I had worked on an experiment for about 12 hours a day for six months which had repeatedly ended in apparent failure.  The experiment required working with a live guinea pig heart.  The equipment I needed to conduct the experiment cost $20,000.  My lab did not have a budget for it so I had constructed the equipment on my own at the cost of $500.  This was possible because the equipment was mostly made out of glass and I had by divine providence discovered an old grumpy man  who worked as a glassblower out of a basement nearby.  I was able to design the equipment from previous experience using one, providing the glassblower with precise specifications that enabled him to create a replica.

Now I had to get my home made $500 lab equipment to work.  Day after day, the equipment failed causing the heart to fail.  One night, while in the lab alone and feeling at the end of my rope, I tipped the experimental drug I was working with into the failing guinea pig heart.  The heart suddenly came alive!   Those results instantly became a cause for great interest and set a new direction for my research lab after 25 years of focusing on a different area.  The experimental drug which was initially being investigated as a painkiller for use in childbirth became a potential candidate for the treatment of heart failure.  I had been so meticulous about recording the details of my failed experiments that we were able to successfully reproduce the results, a necessary requirement for further research.  I eventually got my equipment to work after reaping the rewards of my many failed attempts, and graduated from my PhD program in half the usual time.  Most importantly, I left with the understanding that I could succeed at the toughest things if I am willing to endure through faith.

The bible puts it this way :

 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment…

Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)

Failure is one of our most difficult of human experiences.  It can be debilitating, discouraging and sometimes downright humiliating.  Yet it is hard to see anyone who made it to the top of their field who has not had to walk through this minefield. Sometimes failure may be due to our own actions or inactions or perhaps the actions of others around us, adding the pain of rejection or betrayal to an already difficult experience.  Other times, failure happens despite our very best efforts.  Paradoxically, failure is often the dirt upon which the seeds of great success must be planted.   Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple recognized globally as a genius, was once fired from the same job.  Walt Disney lost his job for “lack of creativity” before going on to create the global phenomenon in his name.  The billionaire talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, got fired from her job in Baltimore, prompting her to move to Chicago, where the highly successful Oprah Winfrey show was born.  The boy dreamer Joseph, found his way to the palace via a prison cell.

When we confront failure, we are forced to assess our shortcomings and seem to face a frightening choice between life and death.   We either rise up and fight for victory or lay down and drown in our pain and sorrow.  The little shepherd boy David may have slain Goliath but as a King, David lamented his own personal failures and the terrible pain caused, crying out to God :  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”  (Psalm 51:1) God commands us to boldly come to Him for help in our time of need including for grace, which is always our greatest need (Hebrews 4:16).  Whenever I struggle with failure personal or otherwise, there is one scripture that has always brought instant revival to my soul:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him – I Corinthians 1:26-29

This reminds me that even when I do succeed, I do so simply and only by God’s grace.

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