August 30, 1998 / Luke 9:23-24
The mantra of modern times could well be this: "I’ve gotta be me!"
The task of modernity could be expressed this way: "Find yourself!"
And the theme song for such a time would, of course, be the Sinatra-Presley hit: "I Did It My Way."
In the name of "self-discovery" and "authentic personhood," people who were high school and college classmates of mine have broken their parents’ hearts and left a trail of used-and-discarded mates, lovers, and children in their wake. They have done drugs and stolen rather than work for things they wanted. They have died of cirrhosis of the liver and drug overdose, self-inflicted gunshot wounds and AIDS.
I read the apocryphal account of a farmer and his wife who went to town for the man to have a physical. He hadn’t been feeling well lately. After a thorough exam, their doctor called the wife into his office for a private conversation. He handed her a piece of paper and said, "Here are the things you need to do for your husband, or he will certainly die." Fear seized her heart as she silently read over the list: (1) fix him a hot breakfast every morning before he goes out to milk the cows at 5 a.m., (2) surprise him with a homemade pie or cake every day at lunch, (3) insist that he lie down and take a nap after lunch, (4) wake him with the newspaper and a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade, (5) let him hold the TV remote and watch sports whenever he desires, and (6) bring him a bowl of ice cream with some homemade cookies when he watches television.
As they drove home together, the farmer looked over at his wife. Seeing that she looked a bit pale and knowing that his physician had talked with her, he asked, "Well, what did the doctor day? Am I going to be all right?"
She replied, "He said you’re gonna die."
It is getting more and more unlikely that anybody is going to extend himself for someone else’s sake. Mates will not be overextended for one another. Parents will not be inconvenienced by their offspring. Children have no obligation to their forebears. Citizens think in terms of what their government should provide them and can hardly believe there was ever a time when people were willing to die for their country.
Our culture teaches us to live selfishly. The individual is more important than either family or country. The elusive notion of personal happiness is paramount over duty or commitment. One may lie or betray, withhold or steal, swear falsely or allow others to commit perjury, abort or euthanize — all things are legitimate when the goal is immediate gratification. To avoid pain at all costs is regarded as the minimal entitlement of all people. The positive notions of sacrifice and self-denial appear simply inappropriate for the way we think today.
In such a context, other people I know stand out in bold relief as counter-examples of noble character. A hurt and confused teen-aged girl gives herself to a boy rather than be dumped by him. When he finds out she is pregnant, he dumps her anyway. She wrestles with her conscience, confesses her sin, and accepts the responsibility of the baby she is carrying. A married couple has problems, and one or both is tempted to have an affair with "someone who really understands me." The two of them remember their commitment to God, get help sorting through their problems, and are happily married twenty years later. Another couple retires to enjoy time together traveling and seeing the country. Then she is diagnosed with cancer, and his intention to travel and photograph the wonders of nature becomes a career of nursing his wife through chemotherapy and radiation. The love and unselfish devotion of such people tell all of us who watch that faith, integrity, and character still exist in the world. Our lives are enriched by knowing them. Our own weakness is challenged by their strength.
Against all our experiences in a world that calls itself to self-discovery and self-fulfillment stand these words from Jesus: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).
Jesus’ words challenge us to understand that there are two fundamentally different approaches to life. A humanistic ethic puts man as the measure of all things, whereas a theological ethic weighs all things against God’s own person and nature. The content and outcomes of these competing systems are predictably different.
When Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves, he was asking something that was no less difficult in the first century than now. We human beings have always been selfish by nature. We much prefer a call to self-discovery over one to self-denial. Yet those who have followed his example of self-giving, self-emptying love — whether then or now — have simultaneously experienced something that we might call "self-discovery." That is, they have discovered life as it was meant to be lived. They have found out what it is to be fully and authentically human rather than animal, "in the image of God" rather than merely carnal in nature.
I saw God at work to reveal this truth about the meaning of life to a lady in Nairobi, Kenya. Her name is Maria. And she gave me permission to tell you her story. In fact, she wrote her story down for me — and showed me some of the actual places where key events took place. It is a sad and tragic story. In fact, the opening line of her spiritual autobiography reads: "My name is Maria Ndiko and my life has been through hell." Yet it is a triumphal and joyous story. It is a story of grace and gratitude. It is the story of a woman who was blessed by God to survive what has destroyed many other people — and to tell her story for the encouragement of others who may be in despair.
Jim and Laura Reppart are dear friends whom I respect beyond my ability to communicate to you or to them. They are career missionaries who have been in Nairobi for about fifteen years now. They have reared their three children there. They have planted and nurtured churches as well. And they have modeled the presence of Jesus to many, many people. Laura had the original vision for a ministry to "street kids" in the area around the building where the Rainbow Church meets. But I am getting ahead of myself in telling you Maria’s story. Jim and Laura introduced Maria to Jesus at a critical time in her life. Let me take you back a dozen years.
Maria was raped by a man she did not know when she was a girl of seventeen. When she discovered she was pregnant from that horrible event, she went to the clergyman of a church her family had attended for some time. She was bewildered as to what she should do. When she told the man her anguished tale, he proceeded to manipulate her by the power of his position — and raped her a second time! So she fearfully awaited the inevitable birth of a child and wondered how she could provide for him on her own.
When she gave birth to Eddy, Maria had to survive for his sake. "So I did the one thing men had taught me how to do," she writes. She sold herself to men in bars like Buffalo Bill’s. "I found myself becoming numb in heart, mind, and soul. This is what began a series of relationships that I thought would rescue me but only led me further into hell. I went from ‘Johnny’ to ‘Johnny.’ I learned to turn switches off — switches of my emotions and thoughts. I thought this was the only life I would ever have."
Maria became the mistress of a foreigner who was working in Kenya — a "relationship of convenience" that gave some stability to her life. She traveled with him to Berlin and met his mother. She came to the United States with him. It was there that he began abusing her in his alcoholic rages. She fled back to Kenya and the wrath of her own family. In African culture, a failed relationship of whatever sort is always blamed on the woman. So there was no place for her in her mother’s house, and she was on her own. What options did she have? What was she to do?
On December 26, 1996, Maria was in a $2-per-night hotel that had no water but an abundance of cockroaches. She had drunk herself into oblivion on Christmas Day and woke up on the 26th "feeling like I had been knocked down by a truck. During these days of darkness, I decided it was better to die. So I cut my wrist and hoped that I would bleed to death. There was nothing left inside me anyway. But some people at the hotel heard me, knocked the door down, and took me to a nearby hospital. I was past caring — but I know now that God wanted me to live for a reason."
She went back to her bar life of picking up men. Then God put it on Jim’s heart to begin trying to minister in the Nairobi bars. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know what to say to people there. But he believed God was telling him to go, so he went! And he met Maria.
"He was different," says Maria, "because he told me about God. And instead of asking me to go to bed he invited me to church — and gave me a Bible." She writes: "I told him that of all the gifts and things men had ever brought me, no one had ever thought to give me the most important thing on earth, God’s Word. I still keep that Bible by my bed and read it. I was beginning a whole new chapter in my life. I began going to church, and that’s where I met new friends. But I also saw some people whom I knew from my past life. Believe it or not, they would not encourage me at all. But I was ready to change, and nothing nor nobody could come between me and my God." [Note: I tried to help Maria see that these people were more likely reacting to their own bad memories of the past and insecurities about their own present situation than to her as a person. She is a living reminder to some of them of what is too painful to recall. She may also stir the fear in some of them that they could become ensnared again in their own living hell. I hope this alternative way of looking at the situation helped Maria — and that it is the correct view of what those people have done. Of course, they need help to mature in their own spiritual lives so they can deal with her differently. Forgiven people should be the most eager of all to forgive, accept, and encourage others.]
Maria’s effort to find meaning for her life turned out to be God’s search-and-rescue mission into her hell! Now she knows that life is not self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and self-congratulation over getting out of alcoholism and prostitution. She understands that life is God’s gentle, gracious pursuit of sinners like her, Jim, and me. God has loved us enough that he has come among us. He went into the bars — and still sends his Jim Repparts there — to tell used and abused women that there is a pure, redemptive love reaching to them. And Maria reached back! Now God has given Maria a new reason to live and a ministry of her own.
During my fifteen days in Nairobi, I saw the area blasted by a terrorist’s bomb that killed more than 250 persons and injured more than 5,000 more. A bomb that blew a crater forty feet around and twelve feet deep devastated a two-block radius of downtown Nairobi.
Jamey Ramey directs a Street Kids Ministry for the Rainbow Church. About forty boys ranging from about eight to sixteen years old are ministered to by the church. They had lived on the streets of Nairobi — eating from garbage, sniffing glue, being abused and preyed upon. Jamey was sitting in his truck in a double lane of traffic in front of the American Embassy when the bomb exploded. And his was the only vehicle in a wide area that was still intact and working after the blast! He started the pick up again and ferried several people to a hospital for treatment. (He and I ate lunch together the week following the bombing — then used his truck to haul a goat and Jamey’s wife, Charlene, to their house!)
A few months ago, Jamey made an announcement about needing volunteers to help with the Street Kids Ministry. Guess whose heart leaped at the call? "When they announced that they needed volunteers, I knew that that was what I wanted to do," said Maria. "I was always concerned about the street children of my city. So the very next day I went down to the Rainbow Church, and Jamey put me to work."
I met Maria at her work. She is amazing to watch with those boys! They love her. They respect her. They listen to her. And they want her approval. They want her approval so much that they have stopped sniffing glue because of her determined work with them! As she supervised some of the kids washing their clothes in front of the church building, she pointed to Barnabas. He’s about ten and was totally out of control because of the glue. Now he is sane and functioning. He has a future. Just as God used Jim to reach Maria, he has used Maria now to reach Barnabas.
Let me read you some more from Maria’s handwritten autobiography:
The boys crawled up to my lap, played with my hair, and began calling me "Mama." I have found new men in my life. These are my little boys. They don’t want to use me. All they want is my love and care, and I want to give them the best I know how.
I have found my place, and I know now why God saved me. I have become a mother to forty boys who don’t have a mother to care about them. I help bathe, teach, and feed them. I have even helped them to stop sniffing glue. Imagine what God can do! I thought I was useless and that my life would be one Johnny after another and one bottle after another.
Now I have purpose and meaning because of what God has done in my life. I love the boys so much. They make my days. Every morning I wake up, there is meaning for the day. I don’t have to care where I will get the next Johnny or the next bottle. God has given me hope for the future — a future that used to look so dark and desperate but now is filled with joy and promise. By God’s help, I want to see these boys — and my own Eddy — get through their lives.
Jim told Maria about the Woodmont Hills Church. He told her that we were a church of people that cares about women in bars, that we host 12-step recovery groups at our church, that we have members at Woodmont Hills with backgrounds like her own. And he told Maria that our church acknowledges, accepts, and loves people who come among us thinking that they have no future. On some of her most discouraged days — when some of the people who had once shared her life couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge her at church — Jim told her that he knew a church where people like her belonged. And he told her that I was coming to Nairobi — to teach the church, to see the health clinic Woodmont Hills is helping to fund, and to see her!
What a reputation to live up to! And how grateful I am that Jim knows about you and could tell Maria about you! And how grateful I am that I could be your representative to Maria — to acknowledge her, to accept her, to love her!
Maria had some questions about Jesus and Christian living that Jim and Laura wanted me to study with her. So we talked. We studied the words of Jesus. And we prayed. As she told me her story, I had the audacity to ask her to write it down. And she agreed to do so — so I could share it with you today.
It is my strong, strong desire that Maria can be one of a half dozen or so members from the Rainbow Church whom the church’s leadership wants to send here next spring to be among us for a couple of months. They want some of their key people to spend time in the atmosphere of a healthy, Spirit-filled church. They want them to see some of the things you do — and take them back home to Nairobi. Oh, I hope their plan materializes. I want you to meet Maria.
Maria honored me with her trust and friendship. She told her story. She gave me permission to share it with you. And it was her decision, by the way, that I should use her real name. When she comes here next year, she wants you to know who she is and where she has come from. I think she wants to test Jim’s claim that nobody here would turn away from her!
I gave Maria a copy of the book The ABCs of the Christian Faith and signed it to her as a "survivor" to whom God was revealing himself. She received it with a tearful smile. And she said she would like to take Jim and me to the one place that represented all that was evil and wretched from her past. She wanted to go there to "shake the dust from her feet" — not her words but mine borrowed from Scripture about her resolution. She had wanted Jim and Laura to see it before. Yet she had not been able to bring herself to go there again. Not, that is, until last week.
Jim and I went with Maria to the Bora Bora Hotel. She was shaking as we climbed the stairs to the floor where she had slashed her wrist twenty months ago. Jim and I weren’t sure whether we should go through with it, but she insisted. When we arrived outside the door of the room, she began sobbing. But they were not merely tears of pain remembered but tears of gratitude for grace.
Jim took my Bible and read aloud a text from the Psalms that he knew was important to Maria. After he gave her a Bible last year, she soon came back to him and said, "This is my psalm!" It was Psalm 40, a psalm of David. As you read the words, you will know immediately why it is important to Maria. Then, after we read it, I prayed over Maria — and thanked God for making this "Maria’s Psalm of Deliverance."
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.
As I told Maria in Nairobi, she has discovered what so many, many people need yet to learn: Life is not about "finding yourself." It is not even about finding God. It is about being found by God, for he is the one who has taken the initiative about our salvation. He has created us in his own likeness and wants us to have an abundant life in Jesus. So he has shown grace — at the cross, in rescuing us from our personal hells on earth, in planting our feet on solid ground.
Now I want you to join me in praying for Maria, for Jim and Laura, for Jamie — and for the other things God is doing in Nairobi. And I want to give thanks for what God is willing to do in the life of anyone here today who is still in the "slimy pit" of sin. He is ready to put your feet on the rock-solid Jesus, your "firm place to stand" and your platform for "a hymn of praise to our God."
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