Juxtaposition

I’ll be processing my trip to Swaziland for a long, long time, but for now there is one more issue I want to discuss. Perhaps these four photos will explain what’s on my heart:

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It’s pretty obvious, right? On the one hand, we have people—families—eking out a living selling oranges or onions or whatever they can grow in their small homestead gardens, or buy cheaply from somewhere else. If this is you, you probably have a couple changes of clothes, a pair of worn shoes, perhaps even underwear (I can assure you that neither Bali, Olga, nor Maidenform are doing well in Swaziland). You might sleep on a bamboo mat on the floor (which is often dirt), with a blanket or two for warmth. Electricity is available if you can afford it. Clean water is a luxury.  Your daily meal includes corn pap and perhaps some beans, or maybe rice, or even cabbage. For special occasions, you kill and eat one of your scrawny chickens.

If you’re slightly better off, you can afford bus fare to the city, minimal medical care, perhaps glass in your window, and electric lights at night.

On the other hand, we have the shops at Heathrow airport, where we spent eight hours on the way home waiting for our final flight. I was tired of sitting, having just completed an 11+ hour flight, so I got up and strolled the international transit concourse (Terminal 5, if you’ve ever been there) to get some exercise and restore circulation in my legs.

The duty free stores were loaded with expensive booze, cigars, perfumes (it was cloying, just walking past), and other luxuries. Caviar House offered gourmet foods. Tiffany’s had diamonds in the display window, Prada displayed shoes and purses, and one famous designer was showcasing a $30,000 handbag! A bored guard hovered nearby.

While I’ve never been much of a shopper and I’m not against enjoying some “finer things” (witness my camera equipment!), the disparity between what I’d experienced all week and this spectacle of excessive consumption made me feel physically ill.

The question is, where do we draw the line? Is it all right for some people to have much while others have so little? What would God have us do about it? With Christmas right around the corner, is buying a lot of gifts an appropriate way to celebrate Jesus’ birth?

And is it all about “stuff” at all? Perhaps our material wealth is blinding us to true riches! We went to Swaziland to love on AIDS orphans, and yes, we brought some gifts of food, clothing, school supplies, and other needed items. Still, I’m convinced that I gained much more from our trip than I gave.

A major benefit of going on a short-term mission trip is that it opens your eyes to the rest of the world. I find that I need to visit a developing nation about every five years or my focus begins to become myopic. As Richard Stearns points out in his excellent book, Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning, we here in the West (and particularly the U.S.) live insulated lives in the “Magic Kingdom,” while much of the world dwells in the “Tragic Kingdom.” It’s important to be reminded of these every so often.

Few of us are called to sell everything we have and give to the poor, but all of us are called to make a difference in the world. We would do well to periodically step back and evaluate how we’re doing in light of God’s concern for widows and orphans, justice, the oppressed and the lost.

There are right ways and harmful ways to help those in need. Just throwing money at a problem seldom works. In light of our call, as believers, to spread God’s kingdom and make disciples, we need to ask: what is my part? How does God want me to get involved? How does He want to use me?

I’ll leave you with these questions to ponder and pray over. Next time: some concrete suggestions to consider for Christmas (yes, already) this year.

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