It was late afternoon as our airplane approached Abuja, I could see out the window that we were about to land in a place very different from where I come from. I had never been to Africa before. I was really excited, and more than a little afraid. Over the next couple of weeks, our travels would take us through some areas not safe for westerners or Christians. Our hotel for this first night was on the outskirts of Abuja, in an area of new development. It was a huge open field - maybe a couple of square miles where the weeds and grass grew thick and taller than my head. There were a few buildings scattered around, either under construction or falling apart, it was hard to tell which. There were no roads, just dirt trails that criss-crossed through the weeds. Some of the trails were big enough for a pickup truck, others just for foot traffic.
Our hotel was not prepared to feed us dinner, and we were famished - we’d been hopping from airport to airport for the last day and a half with only those tiny airline meals to eat. Our local guide, Reverend Matthew, said there was a place to get food, but it was a couple of miles away and we’d have to walk. We began hiking through the bush, and night was falling.
As we hiked along the dirt paths, we realized that we were in the middle of an entire community of families living at the subsistence level: in lean-tos made of scraps scavenged from construction sites and eating and wearing whatever they could get their hands on. I’d never seen anything like it. Night fell as we walked. The darkness was total. There were people in the grass all around us, we could hear them, but not see them.
Our restaurant, when we finally reached it, turned out to be a shack with an LP burner - that was the kitchen. There was no menu, you’ll eat whatever they’re cooking. Dining was at a plastic table out in the yard. We sat down, and an oil lamp made just enough light for us to see each other’s faces. We talked quietly, the six of us, as we waited for our food. I became aware of a woman standing half inside and half outside of the circle of light. She was right beside me. She was slender and pretty and held a child by one hand. Her other hand slowly reached out - palm upward - and she said - almost whispered - in English - “hungry, please”.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked around the table to see if anyone else saw her. At first, I was the only one, but then as others realized she was there, our quiet conversation stopped. She said it again, “hungry, please”, and the six of us, three Christian missionaries and three ordained pastors sat there in silence, heads down, looking at our hands in our laps.
I think of that night in Nigeria often. I still don’t know what the right response would have been, but to do nothing doesn’t seem right, either.
The only thing exotic about this story is the location: I’m telling this story from Nigeria, but we could find the same need anywhere in the world - in any city or any rural community. We can probably find someone who needs something just by looking across our backyard fence. Whether we respond and how we respond to the needs of others, I think, is a matter of how seriously we take our call to Christian discipleship.
I have this feeling that for my Christian faith to be authentic, I have to not just believe something - I have to be something and I have to do something. Jesus was a man of action. He had an expectation that his followers would continue his ministry. I don’t think the work is done, and I don’t believe that the passage of two thousand years has released me from his Great Commission.
Now, I’ll admit that I’m doing a pretty poor job of this discipleship thing - I’m at least as selfish and as callous as the next guy - but I am aware that this is God’s plan for me, and, honestly, I think it is God’s plan for you, too, if you call yourself a Christian. We’re all included in this. As I pursue, in my own imperfect way, this calling to discipleship, I’ve seen some things that convince me that the world and the church need Christian disciples and that we, ourselves need to be Christian disciples.
So, how do we know when we’re doing it right? What is a disciple of Christ? I suppose there are lots of ways to define a disciple. My favorite is pretty simple, and it’s more of a description than a definition, and it comes from Jesus himself as recorded in John 13:34-35. On the night of the last supper Jesus is talking to his crew and he gives them this instruction for how to continue when he’s gone:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Did we show any love to that woman in Abuja, standing by our table, hand out, “hungry please”? I feel like we failed as Christians that night.
So, what should we have done? I don’t know. If discipleship means that I have to meet the immediate need of everyone I encounter, then I’m in trouble. The world is full of need, and I’m only one guy. In many situations of need, I don’t know how to help, and in fact, I don’t always know how to determine when a need is real. While I want to help those who are hungry or hurting, and I want to stand up for justice for those who need me to, I also don’t want to be drawn into fraudulent or false causes. I don’t want to be duped by sentimentalism. I’m not going to write a check just because an actress is crying on TV. I don’t want to fall for every sob story or be emotionally manipulated by every video with a swell soundtrack and pictures of African kids with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes. Maybe it is a little harsh to have said it that way, but remember, I’m a video producer and I know how easy it is to play with peoples’ emotions through pictures and sounds. And also remember that I’ve been there. I’ve seen the African kids with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes and they break my heart.
Sometimes it seems the needs are so great and no matter what we do the world just never seems to get any better and so why even bother reaching out as a loving disciple of Christ?
On our first trip to Nigeria, Mark Fransdal and I visited Rev Eli Yaku, General Superintendent of the UM Central Conference. He gave us a new perspective on this question of “why bother”. His office is in an undeveloped, rural community on a dirt road. There is no electrical grid, no running water, no land-line phones and no TV signal. He took us outside and showed us the hospital right behind his office, built by United Methodists from USA and Germany. He led us around the other side of the building and showed us the community communications center with the satellite internet link, built by the Iowa - Nigeria Partnership of the UMC. The hospital is now run by the government, but it was built by the Methodists and from day one it has served Christians, Muslims and others equally. And the communications center connects everyone in the community to the outside world regardless of their faith. Because Christian disciples made the effort to improve the healthcare and communication in this community, Muslims in the area recognize Christians as compassionate people and they respect them for it. As a result, Muslims and Christians in Bambur are able to live side by side in peace in a nation where that’s not always the case.
While we won’t win every time, the world needs Christian disciples - caring and peaceful people reaching out to each other.
I love the travel and the challenges of where mission work has called me, and I love that it completely humbles me. Two days after that scene unfolded at the Abuja dinner table - remember that woman, hand out, “hungry please” - two days later we were in Karim Lamido, a hot, dusty, outpost where the “paved” road turns to dirt. We pulled into a Christian compound to exchange our minivan for a 4x4 to keep going over some rougher terrain. A crowd gathered to gawk and wave at the white people. The crowd was friendly and curious because they don’t see many of us. A scrawny woman approached and grabbed my hand. In my cynical way, I wondered what she wanted from me. She and I had absolutely nothing in common - we were different in every way possible: different colors, different genders, we spoke different languages, lived on different continents. We’d never seen each other before, and never would again. This woman grabbed my hand in the way that they do when they’re saying something important and they want you to get it. She leaned close and repeated the same word over and over in the local language. It sounded like “sunnogo”, but I’m not sure because I didn’t try to write it down until later. She held my hand and kept saying it over and over until I finally repeated it back to her … and that made her smile. I asked for a translation, and was told that it meant, “we are one person”.
We are one person … at first I was afraid that I’d just agreed to marry her! “We are one person” sounds a little new-agey, but this was a Christian woman. “We are one person” is an idea that comes from the Apostle Paul when he wrote that we are all parts of one body of Christ. And that’s all the woman wanted ... to share a message of brotherhood and sisterhood with the stranger passing through town. It was an awesome moment. It was one of those moments that I felt a big truth had just been revealed. A big truth, shared by a perfect stranger, 8,000 miles from home. We are one person - that woman reminded me that we are all children of God.
The church needs this … the church needs Christians coming out of the crowd and meeting people face to face and sharing our message of hope and love … a message that transcends national boundaries and social status in a way that no other message in history ever has and it is the disciples who carry this message. This is how we fulfill the great commission. The church needs us to do this.
So, the world needs Christian disciples, and the Church needs Christian disciples, and I need to try, hard as it is sometimes, to live as a Christian disciple. Our discipleship makes us better, not just in a moral or faithful or religious way, but also in the sense that our lives become more complete.
Discipleship is an education and an adventure and you don’t always know where it will lead you. I’ve been able to go places and do things that I would otherwise never experience. I’ve had the thrill of riding a motorbike in the African bush - with live chickens tied to the handlebars - how cool is that! I’ve had the challenge of navigating New York City - when I went with our youth group to work in soup kitchens a few years ago. Every morning we’d have to find our way to the day’s work site - what a great way to see the city! I’ve enjoyed the peace and beauty of a misty Appalachian mountain morning, as we’ve sent teams to Red Bird Mission. I’ve also ventured into some of the “dangerous” neighborhoods here in my own community.
My experience in all these places is that human needs - physical and spiritual - are huge and when met or even acknowledged by Christian disciples, the gratitude is profound. I’ve had a Nigerian seminary student named Mary tell me, “We are saying very thank you to our Iowa brothers and sisters”. “Very thank you” - your English teacher would hate that, but I think it is beautifully stated! The gratitude is profound.
I’ve had homeless people in Brooklyn, New York say, “God bless you”, and really mean it, as a crew from our church washes the trays they just ate lunch off of. The gratitude is profound.
And, I’ve had a quadriplegic guy on a respirator - a hose sticking out of a hole in his chest to a machine that breathes for him - laying on his back in a bed in a dark, smelly, crappy trailer in Kentucky just stare at me, unable to move or speak or grasp my hand, but his eyes start to water as we’re introduced to the man whose roof we just fixed. His wife said that until we came, there was no place in the trailer they could put his bed that he wouldn’t get wet when it rained.
I’m always touched in a powerful way in these moments of personal connection. While what I hear is the voice of someone saying “very thank you”, or, “hungry, please” I wonder if it’s really the voice of Jesus saying, “Chris, this is why you’re here”. These people whose paths cross ours are the ones that God has given us to minister to - and the cool thing is that they minister right back at us. The world needs disciples, the church needs disciples, and I need to be a disciple, and I need to have other disciples around me. Discipleship makes me better. It makes me more whole. It defines why we’re here.
I want to keep doing this. I know that not everyone can go to Africa … not everyone has to… but everyone can do something. I want to keep traveling and doing - not because I think I’m saving the world, but because I’m seeing the world. I’m learning how blessed my life is. I am learning that the efforts of a few people who care can have a big impact on others. I am learning that we are one person. I’m learning that the world’s need for a savior is as strong as it has ever been. I’m learning that my need for a savior is the same as everyone else’s.
So, there’s a woman and a child standing beside our table, hand out, hungry please. I tell this story, not because it’s a great example of discipleship, but because it isn’t. We don’t get it right every time. There’s an emptiness … a sense of failure and shame that comes from not handling this situation in a loving, Christ-like way. We didn’t dig deep into our pockets and shower her with cash - there are lots of good reasons to not do that. But we also didn’t pull up another chair and invite her to join us for the meal - there are fewer good reasons to not do that. We didn’t ask the kitchen to prepare some food for her to take home. We didn’t bother to learn anything about her life situation. We didn’t pray with her. We didn’t even pray for her. Eventually, we coughed up a couple of bucks, but it wasn’t because we loved her, or cared about her. It was uncomfortable having her stand there beside the table, so we paid her to go away. And I still don’t know what the right thing would have been.
But, I do know this...in a skeptical and cynical world which is watching the church and the people of the church very closely … a world that is more than willing to believe the worst about us who are inside the church … the integrity of our faith depends upon each of us us coming to see our life as a ministry - taking seriously our call to be Christ’s disciples today. So that when they see us, they see people going into the world with words of Christian encouragement and acts of love. The way we live our lives is the best evangelistic tool we have. But, it means we might have to get a little dirty. It might mean we have to give up a bit of our time. It means praying for ourselves ‘cause we’ll need it and praying for others, ‘cause they do, too, and this is our job, not just the professional pastor’s. It’s our job as Christians to go to the stranger and say, “we are one person”.
This story from Africa - hand out, hungry please - is a picture of what happens when the call to discipleship is ignored … when the people of God who are aware of their calling to discipleship and who are equipped for their calling to discipleship choose to ignore the ministry opportunity that is right in front of them. I don’t think we can over-estimate what’s at stake for the world, the church, or for us. When the call to discipleship is ignored, seekers remain lost, the dirty remain unwashed, the hungry remain unfed. The work that God intended for us to do goes undone. The purpose and the potential for our life, goes unrealized.