Friday, February 20, 2009

Giraffes that Teach Lessons?

I have always loved giraffes. I can even remember writing a report about them in the 4th grade. To this day, I marvel at how God came up with a creature so unique in construction, pattern and physical grace. Just yesterday I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine about a unique species of giraffe that live in Niger. The article only made me appreciate these beautiful creatures even more.

One of the most interesting things I learned about them is that they enjoy being in the company of other giraffes. Apparently, they are very affectionate and enjoy being in constant physical contact. They can often be found intertwining necks or walking so close together that their flanks touch.

I can appreciate their need for contact. Their need to be with others. I think if I were to become an animal perhaps I would be a giraffe because I am acutely aware of my need to be with others. I have become more and more aware of this need over the last year as I have been working from home.

While this affords me a great deal of flexibility in my life and schedule, what it doesn't afford me is the opportunity to be with people. I have no one to share lunch with, no one to share a quick chat with, no one to help me break up the monotony of my day with a smile or a laugh. And there are some days I feel that I will go crazy! Sure my husband comes home in the evenings -- and I'm grateful for his company when he does -- but for 10 and a half hours of the day I'm alone -- and I miss people!

The story of the giraffe's need for contact resonates with me. And not only that, I believe it illustrates something about human nature. (Well, I guess it's giraffe nature, but I'm going to extrapolate a bit!) I believe that God made us to be in community with others. We were never meant to be alone. God has placed in our hearts a desire to connect, share and relate to others. To meet the needs of others and to have our needs met by them. This includes all type of needs -- from physical and material to emotional, spiritual and relational.

This morning as I did my daily devotions -- I was struck by Acts 27:3 where it says that "Julius was very kind to Paul and let him go ashore to visit with friends so they could provide for his needs." I can just picture Paul hopping off the boat and showing up at the front door of a friend --perhaps a bit bedraggled and worn out from the journey and his constant trials. Then, this friend just swings wide the door and begins to meet his needs--to feed him, to encourage him, to listen to him, to just be with him -- what a beautiful picture of friendship! And I wonder, if a friend just showed up at my door or yours -- would we be willing to put aside all of our pre-arranged plans to do the same?

I have been reading a lot about the importance of small groups in the church lately -- and how it is most often through relationships, and God working through relationships, that we become transformed and healed and able to become more of the people that God wants us to be. Not only do I believe this, I can see how it has been at work in my own life -- although I never would have been able to pinpoint exactly how it worked before. But all the reading I've been doing lately has really got me thinking. . . What is our purpose in life if not to provide for the needs of our friends? And not just our friends -- but anyone in need. (And not to judge those needs trying to determine whether or not they are "worthy" of meeting -- but just to meet them!)

I am proud that my church's mission statement echoes this idea:

The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.

I believe that people's lives will change not just when we meet their needs, but when we do so through loving relationships. I also believe that God wastes nothing -- nothing at all. Funny, isn't it, how He can use a giraffe to teach me more about myself and how He wants me to live?

As I write this blog while sitting in my living room, I'm staring at two framed paintings/photos of giraffes. Another hangs over my bed. (I told you I liked giraffes!) Not only does God teach me. . . He finds ways to constantly remind me!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Danger of Despair

On Sunday, one of our pastors shared the story of a family of five in California who became casualties to the economic crisis. Both the mother and father had lost their jobs and it looked as though they might lose their home as well -- so the father took a gun and killed his wife and three children before killing himself. The story is tragic and devastating -- a father in such despair over how he will provide for his family that his solution is to take their lives.

Yet as I set there in the pew, thinking about this story, I couldn't help but realize that the situation that the family was now finding themselves in is no different than the reality lived by millions of people all over the world every day. And yet, it is rare to read stories from third world countries in Africa or South America or anywhere around the world where parents find themselves in such despair that they would take their children's life.

In these countries, poverty -- and the questions of where the next meal will come from or where one's children will sleep that night -- are daily realities. And no matter how hard or impossible things get, people just keep pressing forward, living day by day, grateful for what they have and depending on God's mercy and the mercy of others for their survival.

If this story has taught me anything, it's taught me that:

It is only when we have something and lose it that we go crazy.

When we have always been in a secure place and lose that security, that's when we fall into despair. I'm pretty sure that the people living in the third world do not derive their sense of self from their job or income as we do. How could they? Instead, it has to come from something deeper -- from appreciating the gift of life itself, and perhaps the community that is born of hardship.

My husband constantly reminds me of this reality. He grew up poor in Colombia and knows what it means to be hungry and to wonder where your next meal will come from. I, on the other hand, have always had all of my material needs met, and met far beyond what I actually need.

When my husband doesn't have work, I tend to get nervous and start worrying before we have even hit a place of hardship. My husband remains calm -- he knows that it will work out -- he's been there; he's walked that road before. And strangely, when he speaks of some of the most difficult times in his life, he does so with a smile. He is remembering the closeness of his family and friends -- and the good times they had even when everything around them seemed to be crumbling.

The other thing that astonishes me when I think about the tragedy of what happened to this despairing family is the fact that in our country, the USA, there are a number of social service programs that help the poor. I am certain that there are people that fall through the cracks, but in general, there are many places to go to seek help and find resources. If help can't be obtained from the government, a number of churches and charitable organizations have provisions to help families in need. My own church, the Salvation Army, is always assisting those in need on just about every conceivable level -- from help with groceries and utilities to providing a place for homeless families to stay.

This is in sharp contrast to the poorer countries of the world. In Colombia (and I'm sure many countries like it), if you don't have a job, you don't collect unemployment. There is no welfare or food stamps. The country doesn't have the structures or resources to help those in need. There is nowhere to turn. And yet still, the people living in these countries do not sink into the same depths of despair that we, who have many avenues of help available to us, do.

I believe that we have much to learn from the poor people of this world. From their understanding that life does not consist of security; to their willingness to share with their neighbors even when they have nothing for themselves. From their resiliency that refuses to let the depths of despair swallow them. To their ability to live and love --- and to love and appreciate life even when it seems like they'd have no good reason to do so.