whoever loses his life for me, will find it
--Jesus of Nazareth
I didn’t set out to give my life away. In fact, as I think about it, I never really did give my life away. At least not in a conscious, on purpose sort of way. But somewhere along the way I did more or less lose it.
I imagine myself, at the beginning, standing at the edge of an immense wood pondering the possible paths that will lead me through it. I strike off through the forest on a well marked trail of my own choosing. It doesn’t take too long for me to realize that I like this path. Many pleasant miles have passed unremarkably when, off to one side, through the trees, I catch a glimpse of something intriguing. Lured off the path, I’m soon good and lost… but also in a magically better part of the wood.
The original path I set out on followed a rough script that included a lot of me, bit parts for others, and the curious notion that someone else was directing the whole thing—a passing reference to an allegiance to God. To my fellow travelers this allegiance looked perhaps quite strong: I made much of this thing we called ‘following Him.” Certainly, looking backwards down that path—and this still amazes me—there’s no question that He was right there the whole way. But me following Him? No. And yet I know many of my peers thought this was true of me, and for this they are easily forgiven. After all, the path I chose led me to leave behind the comforts of the West to settle in Papua, Indonesia to serve as a missionary pilot to some of the most remote and isolated people groups on this planet. Still, it was my path.
But at some point along the way, God, in His gentle and unhurried manner, nudged me off my path and onto a journey that feels profoundly different than the one I’d started. I keep wandering back onto my old path—it's easy enough to find—but I’m spending less and less time there. The rays of sunlight filtering through the canopy in that better part of the forest pull me away more frequently now.
What pulls me off the path? I kept stumbling into the writings of a first century guy named Matthew who had recorded a couple of pages worth of Jesus’ teachings. The words, for the most part, make no sense. Really.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.
If that line immediately resonates with you then you are an amazing person…or you don’t live in the same world that I do. It’s just plain backwards. Not natural. And nobody actually lives like this, at least not in my world. Still, my eyes are drawn back to that line like the promise given by a glimpse of a sunlit meadow through the trees. There’s something better out there. Something richer. Something deeper.
My wife is thinking of doing something different for Thanksgiving this year. Something is wooing her off the path. Typically at this time of year, we enjoy a traditional American Thanksgiving meal with missionary friends. Sometimes we even have a real turkey. If you live on the island of New Guinea, putting a turkey on your table takes drive, commitment…and deep pockets. Sometimes it’s just pretend turkey…the biggest chicken we can find. Regardless, it’s a wonderfully warm, comfortable time of hanging with friends.
But something off the path has caught Sheri's eye. At the dinner table, she paints our son Cameron and me a picture of our family. I don’t like the picture. Wish she’d just kept her eyes on the path. Sheri describes a privileged threesome who, having been abundantly provided for every day of the year, set aside a special day to pile even more on our overflowing table…while many around us have never even been to a nice place to eat. Turkey, real or otherwise, is off the menu. Instead we’re going to take Johannis and his family out to the best restaurant in town. I hesitate for a moment, then follow Sheri off the path.
Johannis teaches Cameron and his classmates Indonesian language at school. He is a member of the Sentani tribe who for as long as anyone can remember have been living around lake Sentani at the foot of a mountain they call Dafonsoro. Just a month before our dinner time conversation, Johannis lost his wife, leaving him with 5 young kids to raise. They had hardly finished putting dirt on her grave when, in a bit of tribal unpleasantness, he lost his house as well. The six of them now make do with a single 10 by 15 foot room.
We’re sitting down in a fancy, air conditioned restaurant. Best one in town. Johannis’ kids are in their best clothes. They’re shy and a bit uncomfortable. We try some small talk for a minute or two…and God takes it from there.
I’m seated across from Johannis' oldest son, Evans. He’s looking intently over my shoulder at something. Suddenly he erupts with “Dad! It’s Yeremia!” Like most Papuan males over the age of 3 months, Evans is crazy about sepak bola…soccer. Originally from Cameroon, Yeremia is one of the best players in the Indonesian professional soccer circuit. For this 12 year old, it’s as if Michael Jordan just walked into the room. “Let’s ask him to have your picture taken with him” I hear myself saying. Evans nearly faints at the idea of getting that close to his hero. Yeremia turns out to be a very kind young man and we’re soon taking group shots with him. He scoops up little Harry, Johannis’ # 5 son. I don’t think Yeremia has a clue how much this means to this rag tag bunch of half-orphans.
With dinner done, and Evans still tugging at his Dad’s arm, “Can you believe we met Yeremia?!” we wander upstairs to one of those playland type places full of netting and several hundred thousand cheap plastic balls. Progress has indeed come to Sentani. The kids have the place to themselves and need no encouragement to do what kids are supposed to do in these surroundings: they start a ball war. Within minutes it dawns on me that my son is having more fun than I’ve seen him have in ages. Yohana—used to holding her own with her four brothers—has Cameron cornered and is pelting him with a never-ending supply of well aimed cheap plastic balls. Cameron is laughing so hard I think he’ll hurt himself. The melee continues for almost an hour as the kids completely forget who is rich, who is poor, who is black and who is white. They’re all rich.
As predictable as it sounds, we get back to our house telling each other that we have just had the best Thanksgiving ever. Together, we wandered off the path towards the glimmer of light Sheri saw through the forest, not really sure where we’d end up. We found ourselves in that magical place, wanting never to leave.
Thanksgiving was on my path. My life was on my path. Leaving Thanksgiving behind, we lost it…and then found it again, in a form so much better that we hardly recognized it. My life has been the same way. Slowly I’m spending more time away from my path, leaving my life up there on the well trodden and familiar trail. Losing it. And finding it again, well off the path. Jesus keeps wooing me off my path towards something better. Infinitely better. I can hear him saying, softly
whoever loses his life for me, will find it.
If this patchwork attempt at writing down some of the things that God is teaching me off the path comes close to drawing even a few of you off your path and into that wonderful place where you re-find your life...well, then what I hardly dare hope for will have come true.