Advent Reflections from the Field

Somehow, in reading the Christmas story of a poor family traveling around on a donkey, looking for a place to stay at night, collides in my mind with rather ratty looking folks in front of the bazaar asking for anything we would give them.

Winter is not an especially nice time to be poor. Being outside is cold, and being inside is boring, if you don’t have electricity.  If you don’t have enough money to buy coal, or stock up on wood, you then spend the summer making [fuel cakes]. Manure is usually free, so if you cake it and dry it, it becomes fuel.  Those cakes smoke a lot when you burn them, but they will heat a small room up.  Keeping life contained to a small, warm room saves a lot of money.  But it wears on you.  And your walls get black from the smoke.

Our project work is focused on helping people take a step out of poverty—helping families start greenhouse businesses, sewing businesses, fruit drying businesses, even skin tanning.  We are working on our year-end report now, but it will have amounted to hundreds of businesses started, and we have to go through and figure out how many have been prophetable.  Err.. profitable.  Sorry.  I was thinking about the prophet.  That’s the next story:

I changed money yesterday at the bazaar – I went between the two cash machines in the city and hoped to find one with dollars in it.  Then I took our dollars to a guy changing in front of the bazaar, and got [the local currency].  I always ask for small bills (about $10), because none of the sellers in the bazaar have change for bigger money.  How would they?

After the transaction, I said I would pray a blessing on the guy changing money in the name of the poorest prophet. His face lit up – he knew immediately who I meant.  All the prophets in Islam have some different special thing about them, and the Son of Man who had no place to put his head, is well known as the poorest.

Last week, a neighbor lady on our street asked if we had been burning coal yet.  She was hoping for our coal dust to mix with her [fuel cakes].  We didn’t really have much, but if we had, honestly we would have given it with gritted teeth.  We have helped her many times, and shared the gospel openly with her, and given her the Word of God.  Yet we hear from others how she gossips about us, and in fact even bragged that she helped turn one woman who decided to follow Jesus back to Islam.  It is hard for us personally, and in fact she has a difficult personality.  She is divorced twice.

I am reading Generous Justice right now by Tim Keller, a pastor in Manhattan.  I like him just because he decided to pastor where nobody believes in Jesus anymore.  Well, almost nobody.  Feels like a Muslim country. He talks about God’s calling to care for the poor.  He writes how being righteous and just in God’s eyes means caring for others:  the fatherless; the widow.  He also talks about helping those in our eyes who don’t “deserve” it, because as we see it, they have made “bad” decisions.  And his point is that we didn’t deserve the gift of Christ.

So I guess that is why we who are moving through Advent, contemplating by candlelight just what kind of gift we have been given while being completely undeserving, might also consider the just and righteous thing to do in serving others.

As a young lady magnificently exclaimed in wonder:

…He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful… (Luke 1:52-54)