“You can’t go!” said young Daron. He’d said it in such a playful way the first time, so I assumed it was a game. He was blocking the door we were exiting. He continued, “You can’t go!” and then it struck me that Daron’s playful tone masked something painful. He and his younger brother had been playing with my boy for the last hour and he didn’t want us to leave because he knew the evening wouldn’t be as fun, or as comforting without us.
“Please, don’t go!” Now, Daron was clutching the door handles so that we’d have to push our way out if we were still going to leave. Pity was welling up in us now and it hit us head on, or should I say “right in the heart.” We’d realized something we hadn’t experienced in quite a while; the genuine longing for friendship. The last time we felt this was during our visits with our African brothers and sisters in Greece. We’d gone there to teach the Bible and left there feeling like we’d reunited with a family that truly valued our presence.
Daron and his younger brother were going to spend another night with their mother in a strange place without the typical comforts of home. Yet, home is an operative word here. It seems that as Americans we want to ease the suffering of others instead of meeting others in their suffering. It might make us feel better to imagine that giving things, even special things, will make others in their suffering forget their pain, at least temporarily. We might be tempted to make Daron and his younger brother more comfortable in their present situation. They don’t have a “permanent” residence right now. What if we were so wealthy we could just buy them and their mother a house in what we would think is a decent neighborhood, so they could go to a decent school, and have a decent life? Surely God could work in that circumstance, right? Of course, but what do I or we mean by that?
There was a young man named Kingsley that we met in Athens in 2010. He had been learning about the Gospel and made the decision to be baptized on the night all of us would be attending. We’d experienced such an event several times and expected nothing new. We’d watch the person being immersed and sing hymns before and after. Kingsley had something else in mind that broke our hearts that night. He brought a birthday cake.
Kingsley was so excited that he was learning about Jesus, and to compliment that momentum he’d just been hired two weeks before by a local bakery. For those unfamiliar with life in Athens, the acquisition of such a job by an African in a very biased Greek culture was unusual, to say the least. We’d heard of occasions where Africans were beaten by Greeks in the early morning hours on their way to the Bible Institute. Many Africans were in Greece because they snuck in, often by making life threatening decisions to do so. Some tried for three or four years, living in different countries, apart from their families, hoping to make a decent wage. Their families back home depended on it and expected it. So, when speaking of the palpable tension between Greeks and Africans, it wasn’t surprising to hear stories of suffering. However, we didn’t hear the stories from the Africans. We heard them from the Greeks and the Americans there. Students were sometimes late to class in the morning and it was clear they’d been attacked, but there was no sign of shock by those students. They simply expected such behavior and kept their cheery demeanor throughout the school day. . . .Kingsley had good reason to be excited about his new job and especially about his new faith in the Lord. He brought the cake, having paid for it himself, for his baptism, to share with everyone else. We left that night feeling as if we were the beneficiaries of the assembly, whether we led it in some way or not.
Why tell this story after telling the one about Daron? Because there’s a great obstacle in the in the road many Americans travel on; progress. To many, the key to success is the opportunity to acquire things for self. “If we just get the right opportunities then we’ll be happy!” After all, America is the land of opportunity. But there is more than one definition of the word opportunity.
We might assume that what Daron and his younger brother might want most in their time of suffering is comfort. Better toys, a better room to proud of, video games, better food even. What we were reminded of is that they want a friend. Their current misfortune has separated them, not just from things most Americans take for granted, but from relationships. Life can be treacherous without proper relationships. Without the right friend, father, mother, or relative, lives can easily spiral out of control. We can’t live life the way God intended without good friends.
In the case of Kingsley, the odds were heavily against his happiness, yet many of us witnessed it in spite of the circumstances. Simply put, Kingsley had a small, but supportive community. He might not even recognize us if we were to see him again because he was surrounded by so many friends that valued him. Kingsley and many other Africans had something that was contagious to us. It certainly wasn’t wealth or opportunity. It was a joyful community.
It’s difficult for so many to imagine that the Lord was the inspiration for so many in Israel because He was the strange promise of joy. There was something curiously new about life with Jesus in its future. I have a sneaking suspicion that he had the ability to meet people in their suffering and even though it may not have changed their circumstance it certainly changed their view of what life could be like with a genuine friend. America isn’t the first nation to be fooled into
America isn’t the first nation to be fooled into thinking that progress equals joy. Israel had the same problem in many ways. Then all of a sudden Jesus grew up among them like a young plant, like a fragile root out of dry soil. We get the impression from Isaiah that the servant would appear pitiful but God would be extremely happy with him, not because he would make everything comfortable for Israel, but because as a great friend he would meet Israel in its suffering and share their pain.
There is one head-on collision we can be thankful for. Sometimes, in the midst of hurt, others we would never expect can remind us of how valuable our friendship and joy can really be. Jesus must have surprised people all the time and in the greatest way.