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The truth is I haven’t known what to say about Africa. I wanted to change. Or I wanted to be able to claim a life-changing experience for myself. Or I wanted to be able to attach the credibility of going to Africa to the program of change I had decided beforehand would happen. I wanted to be stretched to the limit, challenged, and humbled. And I wanted to suffer enough that I could feel good about the experience.
Well, that all sort of happened and sort of didn’t. Most of the experiences were less shocking than I wanted them to be. I saw incredible poverty, but it felt strangely familiar. I saw people in need, but felt like I recognized them. I was stretched, but in mostly unsurprising ways. I knew that I was adaptable, but this was disappointing.
I have heard that there is a banality to evil—that even the most atrocious crimes against humanity are often carried out with a kind of bureaucratic efficiency lacking any real emotion. Great evil can be divided into manageable and measurable tasks, parceled out to agents so appointed, and conducted with the kind of detachment befitting a professional. Great evil can’t be accomplished all at once, but is the cumulative effect over time of putting in your hours while wondering whether you should take the family to the mountains for the weekend.
And perhaps there is a banality to good as well—that great good also cannot be accomplished all at once, but only in the mundane and ceaseless activity of following Christ. That it too can be divided into manageable and measurable tasks, parceled out to agents so appointed, and conducted with the kind of detachment befitting a professional. Great good can’t be accomplished all at once, but is the cumulative effect over time of putting in your hours while wondering what heaven will be like.
But maybe it’s not a choice between the banality of good on the one hand, and a great, world-moving good work on the other. Maybe good is accomplished over time as the aggregate of a thousand choices on a thousand days strung together by a persevering love. And maybe this love itself is not put in motion by one great thrust of will, but is rather animated by the one breath that I have right now… and right now… and right now.
Mother Theresa said that we cannot do great things, but only small things with great love, a diminutive thought from the diminutive saint. The problem is that I cannot seem to work up great love for each small thing, over and over, ad infinitum. In fact, I can hardly work up love even in proportion to the smallness of the task.
One of the things that strikes me the most about my Africa experience is that my self-directed desire turned into a self-exposing indictment, not just of how I went on the mission trip, but also of how I even look at the small tasks that face me each day.
Jesus said that there is no love greater than giving up your life for a friend. Then he called me friend and asked me to show him this greatest love, not in a once and for all display of heroic martyrdom, but in a thousand self-denying acts of service on a thousand days strung together by this greatest love.
There is much more to say about the experience in Africa, of course. But as with all discipleship, renunciation is a proper beginning.
I was thinking about that sermon you preached in CCF the other day…God is the end and the means. Maybe you don’t remember it, but I do, and it was really defining in my life, it kind of took me in a different direction that I hadn’t considered, as far as practically living out Christianity.
Anyway, what you are saying above, about life being a series of small disciplined decisions made for the right reasons. That has been the most recent change in my thinking on practically living out Christianity. God is still the end and the means, but the steps keep getting smaller. I really can’t put stuff in words like you can, cause God gave me other gifts. But I appreciate what you wrote, and I get it.
This is really profound and honest Peter. Thanks. It’s very encouraging.