We all want to finish well, don't we? If we think about the end of our lives and what people will say about us once we are gone, our hope is we will be loved, missed and appreciated. We want our lives to have stood for something great. Sometimes I think it is pretty easy to focus on the end - but what does that look like in process? We know we want to finish well - but what does our personal race look like?
The last few weeks I had the privilege of spending time in Africa once again. This journey was designed as a vision trip with a dear friend (she is also a Pastor at my church). We were looking at what our church has been involved with in the past as far as missions and where we were headed in the future. Even though many of the contents of the trip were different than normal for me, many factors remained the same. We were exposed to extreme situations of need, pain, heartbreak and perseverance.
We met people who were starving, people with no employment, people with lifelong illness, children with no family, children with no family who are sick with AIDS. I could go on, and on, and on. It doesn't matter how many times I am exposed to these hard life circumstances, I am always broken over it. I suppose there are people out there who can see and touch such tragedy without being moved. God, however, did not create me with the ability to remove myself emotionally from the despair. I feel it down to my core and frequently find myself brimming with tears in the moment. Later to be sobbing my night away into my pillow. Sleep is rarely something I am able to enjoy when immersed within a culture full of extreme difficulties.
On each trip God has an amazing way of directing my attention to the most broken of the broken. I can't tell you how many times I have created a heart-string with a child, only to find out they are an orphan. Then quite commonly I will hear the even sadder news, they are an orphan who is also HIV positive. Every time I hear this I have to stop myself from immediately saying out loud to God "Are you kidding me God? Of course!" It seems part of my journey is to feel deeply for these precious ones. They are so innocent. Not one of their own decisions led to the consequence of their life circumstances. They are alone. They are persecuted and abandoned. Being HIV positive in Africa is a life sentence of being shunned and alone for life. There is no place for someone who is HIV positive unless they are lucky enough to find a support group with others who are struggling the same way. For true hope Jesus has to be at the center of their lives.
On this trip I was asked to spend some time with a group of children (in photo above) at one of the church's we visited while in Kenya. The hope was I would speak some words of encouragement into their lives. I wan't prepared in advance for this, but as one of our missionaries in Kenya always quotes to me:
"Be prepared in season, and out."
So, off I went to try and encourage the group. During our time together one girl in particular, who was sitting right next to me, kept melting my heart. Her little eyes kept looking up at me as if she was soaking up everything I was saying. I always LOVE asking children what their life dream is, and what their favorite school subject is. (Typically the answers to these two questions link together.) I really find great joy listening to them dream and encouraging these children to reach for their dreams. This girl was actively engaging in conversation with me, almost leaning into me. She had big dreams.
One point of our time together was for these kids to take any false names they have been called by others to God - to nail them on the cross knowing full well this is not their true identity in Christ. Then to pray to God asking for new names about who he created them to be. Little did I know at this point many of the children in our group were orphans. Like 75% of the kids. Even further from my thought process was the news I would learn in about an hours time - that the girl wrapping herself around my heart would be HIV positive with symptoms harassing her. Talk about lives that were being tagged with labels, false names, hurtful actions. These children were a prime target for the assault.
Yet, as our time together concluded this little girl lifted her voice to heaven on my behalf. She poured out words asking God to be with me, to bless me, to love me and to protect me. She thanked God for me.
As I said before, at the time we were meeting in the church I was not aware of her circumstances. It wasn't until we visited the Pastors home, where the children were living, that my eyes were opened and my heart broken. There she was - looking at me with sparkling eyes. The little precious had joy. She knew her creator. She was in relationship with her Abba Father. She had purpose. Despite the horrendous situation life had dealt her she could still shine for Jesus.
To me this is the ultimate picture of running the race well. She isn't spending her days thinking about the end of her life. She is simply looking at what is right in front of her and doing her best with it. No matter how much difficulty she is knocked down with she just gets back up and brushes herself off. She moves forward in love. I am guessing she doesn't even spend a lot of time focusing on herself. If you could have heard the sweet words she whispered as she prayed for me. It could not have been more obvious that this little girl honestly cares about others. There I was - a complete stranger - appearing to have much of what the world has to offer and this little girls caring words saw through it all. I sat there overwhelmed to the core by the loving action of this girl.
I wonder if that was my life - in the midst of my pain and suffering - would I be able to truly have such concern for another. Or would my circumstances weigh my mind down to self-focus? If I was in physical pain, had been abandoned, and was being shunned could my heart still cry out for the cares of a stranger? Actually it would look more like this- would my heart care more for the stranger than for my own problems?
This is what running the race well looks like. This is how we end well. We put others before ourselves. We honestly care and love others in the name of Jesus, with the heart of Jesus. We can't do this ourselves. It takes Jesus in us and through us, transforming us with his love in order for us to die to self.
Sometimes we even have to strip off things we have been using to guard and protect ourselves. In the photo below many of those racing in the Sports Ministry Day relay in Kenya took off their shoes to get a better grip, better traction on the ground. They needed their feet set firmly on the foundation to move forward at their best. They wanted to run the race unhindered.
I wonder what we might be hanging onto in our lives that we believe is protecting us but in fact is really hindering us from running the race well.
PRIDE - REPUTATION - IMAGE - MONEY
FEAR - FALSE BELIEFS - INSECURITY
My prayer is that I will never forget the prayer of this precious girl. That I will remember to ask God to reveal anything in me that hinders me from running the race well. As I go through life I know God will continue to reveal new areas in my life that need to change in order for me to become more like him - but that I will have a willing heart to change on a day by day basis...for the sake of LOVING OTHERS well. If I can focus on loving others well,day to day, there is no doubt at the end there will be victory. However, if I only focus on the end I will miss out on what is right in front of me and fall flat on my face.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. -Hebrews 12:1