Many years ago, a hurricane forced my wife Miska and me to evacuate a resort in Cancun, Mexico, where we were celebrating our tenth anniversary. On our way to the airport, I got lost and stopped for directions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the people who tried to help since they were speaking in Spanish. Finally, I called a bilingual friend and had them talk to the clerk at a service station. Fortunately, we made it in time for the last flight out that day.
The song “Go Light Your World,” has long been a favorite of mine for its portrayal of the power of the gospel. The lyrics, echoing Matthew 5’s image of believers as the light of the world, provocatively invite the church to actively seek out—even run to—places of pain that are in need of the hope of the gospel.
Two news stories caught my attention on the same day. In one, a homeless man shivered under an archway on a cold, rainy evening. Half-drunk, he was shocked when someone offered to pay for a night of lodging. With a bit of help, this man became a social studies teacher, a volunteer, and even starred in a play! In the other story, someone cruelly taunted a homeless man by showing him cash and then burning up the paper money as the destitute man watched.
One day I had a strong desire to pray for a neighbor with whom I had a distant, broken relationship. I prayed, Jesus, if you want me to talk with him, have him come up to the front of his house in the next few minutes (he was in his backyard). Just thirty seconds later he came to the front of the house where we talked for the next thirty minutes! The joy of restoration now marks our growing friendship.
Although a man murdered nearly all of a woman’s family in the Rwandan genocide, they’re now next-door neighbors. He says, “Ever since I [confessed] my crimes and ask[ed] her for forgiveness, she has never once called me a killer. . . . She has set me free.”
Darkness wrapped the jet in a quiet comfort, while a few reading lights remained on. Though it was late in the evening and passengers were trying to sleep, the loud chatter of two young women could be heard above the hum of the plane’s engine. Suddenly, an older woman seated in front of them turned around and sharply exclaimed, “Would you two be quiet!” Taken aback, they looked around to see who had heard and began laughing disrespectfully. Turning to glare once more, the disrupted sleeper settled back in her seat.
The Swedish writer Fredrick Backman’s 2012 debut novel A Man Called Ove is the tale of a man who sees no reason to live. After the death of his wife (the one person who brought him laughter, intimacy, and joy) and after losing his job, Ove plots his suicide. But then he’s drawn into the larger story around him: There’s a pregnant woman who needs his support, a neighbor in conflict with authorities who are trying to force him into a nursing home, and a young man estranged from his father. Ove discovers reasons to live as he moves beyond himself and toward others.
During a political election year, a tow truck driver was called to assist a woman who was stranded with a broken-down vehicle. But the truck driver, upon seeing a bumper sticker on the car for a candidate he disliked, informed the motorist that he wouldn’t help her and drove away. His actions remind me how we sometimes choose to ignore those who need our help.
My pastor sat down in my church office and told me about a parishioner he had encountered years ago at another church. The woman, known for her criticism, felt that he did nothing right, and she shared those sentiments with others. His sermons weren’t the kind of preaching she liked. At best, she said, they were “mediocre.” She even asked him why he didn’t preach like some of the ministers on TV. When he met to talk with her about her criticisms, she didn’t back down. But even with all of the venom he received from the woman, my pastor could say to me, “There were many wonderful things she did for the church. We’re all mixed bags, Marlena, all mixed bags. Just remember that.”
In January 2015, a terrorist stormed Hyper Cacher (a Kosher supermarket) in Paris and murdered four hostages. One of the store’s clerks, Lassana Bathily, heard the gunfire and hid shoppers in a freezer. Bathily, a Muslim whose courageous actions saved several Jews (including a child), was an immigrant who had been seeking French citizenship. As a thank-you for his bravery, authorities fast-tracked his papers and handed him a French passport during a public ceremony.
After I moved to Africa, a couple living in the US contacted me and said, “We’d like to make a financial contribution to help you with your ministry in Uganda.” Because my job at the time didn’t require that I raise funds, I thanked them but declined their generous offer.
In 2011, marine biologists around the globe were fixated on a pod of sperm whales in the North Atlantic Ocean; they had adopted a bottlenose dolphin calf. Jens Krause, a German behavioral ecologist, told one news source that sperm whales have “never been known to mingle this closely with another species.” Apparently the young dolphin had a spinal defect and couldn’t swim fast enough to keep up with other dolphins. But surprisingly, the sperm whales gathered the struggling dolphin into their fold.
On October 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing off the North Shore in Hawaii. Bethany survived, but she lost her left arm and more than 60 percent of her blood in the assault.
After Nelson Mandela’s death at the end of 2013, many stories surfaced of his genuine concern for others. In 1950s Apartheid South Africa, Mandela once saw a white woman standing beside her broken car in Johannesburg. Approaching her, he offered help and was able to fix the car.