“We are on the news!”
My friend’s text surprised me. Laura and I had spent about two hours that afternoon volunteering at a local food bank in the Bay Area. I had seen a camera crew at the venue but did not give it much thought. Immediately, I grabbed my laptop and searched the website of the local news. There it was! Buried in the news feature was a two-second clip of me directing traffic at the drive-thru food distribution center. Delighted, I sent the link out to family and close friends.
Most of my friends shared my excitement of being on the news. Some, however, pointed out that I was putting myself at risk by going out during the quarantine. Surprised, I responded by assuring them that I had taken all the necessary precautions. The supervisors at the food bank scanned the volunteers for fever. We wore masks and gloves and kept our distance from each other. Still, my friends believed I was risking my health by volunteering.
Why did I do it?
When the shelter in place began in California, the rapid spread of the virus and the death toll shocked me. Scientists and government leaders were still grappling for answers and cures, while men, women, and children around me were dying. Many died alone in hospitals. A heavy cloud of grief settled on me. Nobody I knew had passed away. But seeing the mounting number of sick in the hospitals on television and the unusual, bare funerals on my social media feed sucked the joy out of me.
I took my burden to God, lamenting the helplessness and powerlessness of science and the inequalities in the socio-economic systems of many countries. Why did the poor suffer more than the rich? After I cried my eyes dry, I asked God, “What do you want me to do? Why am I sitting around and watching this tragedy like a spectator? Am I not called to be Your hands and feet on earth? Show me what to do.”
Determined to find ways to help, I browsed the Internet for volunteering opportunities and signed up to assist a local food bank to pack food boxes. I also got in touch with some seniors in my Bible study group and offered to help them with groceries and errands.
When my friends criticized me for volunteering, I shook my head in disbelief. They were like me, young and healthy, with jobs and income intact. We had the means to alleviate the suffering of others. Why did fear take such a strong hold of their lives that they could not step out and help?
Before I got more judgmental, God put the brakes on my thinking and refreshed my memory. Not too long ago, when my son and I were walking our dog in our neighborhood, we saw a homeless man sitting on the pavement. Through his tattered jeans and grey T-shirt, I could see sores and bruises. His hair was overgrown and matted. Dirty fingernails. Bloodshot, empty eyes. I felt compassion for him, but it quickly dissipated when my instinct to protect myself and my family took over. The man did not “look” sane. What if he attacked us? Instead of greeting him or even smiling at him, we crossed over to the other side in an effort to avoid him altogether.
Christian charity can fade into the background when self-preservation or self-interest kicks in. I came out of the quarantine determined to take a closer look at why at times my empathy does not translate into practical action and what I can do about it.
What is it that keeps me from carrying out Jesus’ command to love others in the same way that I love myself?
Opportunities to love and serve others are plenty and within range. Sometimes, busy-ness prevents me from noticing them. Frequently, I see the need but walk away for fear of being attacked or ridiculed. Fear of being rejected, not being helpful enough, not providing the right kind of help. If I have to be honest, selfishness is probably the main reason why I do not always obey Jesus’ second commandment. I do not want to be inconvenienced. I want to stick to my daily routine and calendar. I want to guard my time for self-care and entertainment.
But I also sincerely wish to be a disciple of Christ who embodies selfless and sacrificial love. How do I reconcile my selfish desires with a desire to be an authentic follower of Jesus?
The answer lies not in beating myself up or trying in my own strength to be a Good Samaritan, but in embracing the tension. The struggle is real, necessary, and here to stay. It fuels my need for God and my dependence on Him. When I walk with God, the Holy Spirit convicts me of my shortcomings and empowers me to overcome them. He enables me to love God and love others, even when it is inconvenient or disruptive.
And I can count on the Holy Spirit to remind me that courageous, costly love put Jesus on the cross. I can take risks and be reckless in loving others because I know God’s love protects me, even from death. His love frees me to love others. I don’t aspire to make it to the news every time I volunteer. But, I do long for faith in action so radical and brazen that it can point in just one direction—toward Jesus Christ.
(This article was first published here in Courageous Magazine.)
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