“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Outside my kitchen is a small fish pond. Years ago we turned an overlooked corner into a cozy landscaped nook. Now my family enjoys peeking out the windows to watch the fish and listening to the trickling of the fountain. It’s surprising how much joy this spot brings us.
But once in a while, the pond needs some TLC. One summer afternoon, the pond was overgrown with algae and I couldn’t see the fish in the murky water. Clearly, they needed help. I decided it was time for an extreme pond makeover.
I emptied the pond, scrubbed the gunk off the walls and filter, added some decorative features and filled the pond with fresh, clear water. Patting myself on my back for a job well done, I re-introduced the fish to their sparkling new home.
The next day, I went back to admire my makeover. But instead of finding the fish swimming happily, I found them floating on the surface.
Apparently my best intentions weren’t in their best interest. Turns out fish don’t do well with such drastic change and while their environment had looked unacceptable to me, it was actually providing exactly what they needed.
I often think of this fish story—and what it taught me about serving.
Right now Haiti and the prison where I minister are the fish ponds that have attracted my gaze and captured my heart. There is no doubt these are murky places filled with people who need a lot of TLC.
How easy it would be to look down into the mire of their lives and swoop in with a radical solution. After all, I’m blessed with education, financial means, a good heart and a can-do attitude. Certainly I’m equipped with the basic tools to assess a situation and determine how to make it better.
Extreme makeovers work wonders on television. Shouldn’t they work in real life too?
I believe that when Jesus asked us to feed his sheep—to quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit the prisoners—he intended us to come alongside those we serve, not take over.
There is a young man I met in Haiti and have deep affection for. My heart yearns to snatch him out of his life of poverty and bring him home to live with me and my family. Yet, deep inside I know that removing him from his culture would be like taking a fish out of water. His spirit wouldn’t thrive in my isolated, sanitized, non-Haitian lifestyle. So instead I’m praying and learning how to come alongside his life. To love in a way that nurtures even though his environment leaves me unsettled.
Trampling into others’ pain, poverty and messiness armed with a demolition crew and redecorating team makes a great story and leaves us feeling useful/successful/good about ourselves, but sometimes—as I learned with the fish in my pond—our best intentions (often fueled by money, pride and emotions) aren’t in the best interest of those we serve.
In fact, it’s actually harder to set aside our expectations and solutions, and proceed instead with gentleness and respect. To get to know the people we serve. To listen to their stories, understand their culture and walk in their shoes for a bit. To respect their dignity. To enter into the brokenness instead of taking them out of it. And to point them to Jesus.
Because ultimately it’s not us, but the Good News that truly transforms. And meeting those we serve in the place they live may be the most loving—and life-changing—thing we can do.
Be blessed and be a blessing,
Awesome God, Ordinary Girl