Moving from Advocacy-driven Religion to Follow Me Faith
By Jonathan Merritt
Hear Jonathan Merritt live on Dr. Tim Clinton’s American Family Radio show, “Turn it Around.” Click here to tune in at 12p.m. (ET), today, August 16. Free book giveaways on air!
The Kolkata sun was just peaking over the horizon when I awoke. I’d been in India for a little more than four days but my body was resisting the time change. Rolling onto my back, I stared into the barely visible ceiling of my room at the YMCA.
Circling my head, one pest finally landed on my cheek and pricked my skin; my reticence to move almost convinced me to let him finish his breakfast. I begrudgingly swatted into the air, and as my insect wake-up call flew away, I rose to begin my day.
I had been traveling with my friend Chris Heuertz, executive director of Word Made Flesh (WMF). The mission of WMF is “Serving Jesus Among the Poorest of the Poor.” From building orphanages for children with AIDS to rescuing women from the sex trade to ministering to people who are poor in South America’s most destitute favellas, WMF pursues their mission in places that would make most American Christians cringe.
Our seventeen-day trek would land us in two Indian states as well as Kathmandu, Nepal and Bangkok, Thailand. This day, we were in Kolkata where Chris had arranged for me to serve in one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the infirmed and dying.
On this particular day, I rose just after six to begin getting ready for my work. Due to water rationing, I was unable to take a shower-an inconvenience I came to realize was normative for many Indians. Luckily, I filled two buckets with water before going to bed the night before. Stripping off my clothes, I squatted on a concrete floor to pour the frigid water over my naked body. Alongside the water, my thoughts also washed over me, and I wondered what the ongoing work of the inevitable “Saint Teresa” would be like.
A WMF field director soon arrived, and we sped through the congested, polluted city of more than fifteen million. Arriving at the Missionaries of Charity convent around seven, I stopped by Mother Teresa’s grave for a moment to pay my respects. Her simple white stone grave aligned her death with her life-no extravagance, no decoration. After a few moments of quiet, I left to meet Sister Mercy who registered me for service and sent me on my way.
A short bus ride later, I turned up at a massive facility in the middle of a dilapidated slum. The trash and begging poor created a gauntlet of obstacles in route to the entrance. A sign atop the building read, “Premdan,” meaning “house of love.”
As we entered, we were not greeted by anyone-no volunteer coordinator, no facility manager. No, there was too much important work to do. I froze, overwhelmed and unsure about where to begin. I walked over to the male ward where volunteers scurried between patients, bandaging their wounds, shaving their faces, and cutting their hair. This is what I think the Pool of Bethesda must have been like as I wandered through a hoard of males, most of them lying on the ground in the courtyard, quietly looking into the distance.
I couldn’t imagine the shame these men must have felt; I coveted their thoughts.
My feet led me up the stairs of the men’s housing unit, and the conditions surprisingly worsened. Beds were laid out on a grid throughout the expansive room. Emaciated bodies lay upon the sheets, and moans filled the air. I could only imagine that the aches of their illnesses worsened in the isolation of their pain. I stood motionless for several minutes. Contemplating. Processing.
“You sir,” a man said clasping my shoulder. “Come assist me.”
From his accent, it was clear that the man was German. The ripples on his sun-scorched cheeks led me to believe he was about eighty years old. Following him, I approached a patient lying next to the door whose foot was swollen to three or four times the normal size. The skin’s green hue told me it was probably gangrenous.
“He hasn’t bathed in more than ten years,” the German informed me. “The skin around his wound is like the scales of a fish and must be scrubbed before we can treat him. It’s going to be very painful, and I’ll need to hold him down.”
He reached into his pocket and handed me a wire brush like the one I clean my grill with.
“Scrub,” he barked, grasping the man’s shoulders and pressing him into the wall against which he was leaning.
“Scrub with all your strength!”
As soon as I began, the man started screaming. I pushed through his cries, continuing to scrub his foot. Dead skin accumulated on the tops of my sandal-strapped feet and made piles between my toes. His skin bled in places but the German continued to press me.
Despite my efforts to ignore them, the cries of the patient were impossible to block out.
“Please, Baba,” the man begged me. “Please stop. Please.”
“Baba” means father. The man thought I was a priest. Tears pooled in my eyes as I relentlessly scrubbed.
Finally, we finished and the German handed me a small jar of Vaseline and some toe nail clippers.
“Now make him love you again,” he said.
I rubbed the salve into the fresh skin on his leg before clipping his gnarled toenails. His breathing patterns returned to normal.
“Thank you, Baba,” he said.
I turned to depart, already looking for a place to slip away and have a good cry, but the German bellowed from across the room.
“We have more work to do.”
I rushed to his side where he was attending to a skeleton lying on his back. From what I could tell, every strand of muscle tissue on this man’s bones was gone. Skin hung off his appendages like bat wings. His protruding hipbones looked like ball bearings.
We rubbed down the stick figure of a man with coconut oil and cream, being careful to mind the bedsores. The man groaned.
“Make him comfortable,” the German instructed as he rose to walk away. “He will be gone before morning.”
I continued to gently massage this man’s body, lifting his sides to access his back. I stooped to pray in his ear as tears fell from my face to his pillow, but I knew not whether he could hear me. His jaw hung open and he stared into the air; his eyes were empty.
When I finished, I washed my hands and again joined the German, this time accepting my role as his assistant. No interview necessary-there was no time. For the next several hours we performed humiliating procedures and unspeakable tasks for the infirmed and dying.
Finally, a bell rang.
“It’s time for tea,” he said tossing his gloves into a rusty trashcan.
I took my time walking to the pavilion. Entering the open space, I took a plastic cup filled with black tea and milk and joined the German who was already resting under the shade of a tree. I felt like I needed to be alone, but this man had become my boss and my friend over the past several hours. The least I could do is engage him in some actual conversation.
His name was “Helmut,” and he’d been coming to Premdan for ten years in six-month rotations. During this time, he had become something of a self-educated doctor, but in his pre-Kolkata days he’d been a Lutheran minister.
I was struggling to find something profound to ask this sage.
“Some great theologians have come from Germany over the years, huh?” I asked as a where-did-that-come-from look appeared across my face.
Helmut said he believed the best days of the German church were gone. Church leaders in Germany were struggling with an increasingly secular society. They started focusing energy on petitioning the government for institutional recognition. The church in Germany was so busy fighting with businesses and government trying to get everyone to recognize their existence and their preferences. But along the way, he said, they’d lost themselves and they’ve lost sight of their mission.
“I suppose the German church and the American church are not so different as one might think,” Helmut said.
“I suppose not,” I agreed.
He turned to me with a look that only an aged and experienced person can give. It was as if his eyes were prophesying, telling me to listen up because I was about to receive some great wisdom.
“Christians in America and Germany forget that it is not what you think or how much power you have or how you vote that changes the world. It’s your hands that do the changing.”
He wiggled his pruny digits.
“I held that man as you cleaned his feet. Did we change him? Perhaps. But he’ll need to be cleaned again. I do know that he changed us,” Helmut reflected. “In a small way, God worked through us and, as a result, this world moved just a touch closer to what he’d have it be.
“That’s really why I’m here,” he continued. “When I had my own congregation, I’d read Jesus’ words in Matthew about being the salt of the earth, but I didn’t fully understand it.”
He turned to look out over the courtyard.
“Now I know.”
I sat in silence, stunned by the way this man had summed up everything I’d been feeling. He’d seen the way the Church had been led astray from her mission, seduced by power and lured by partisanship. Reconciling the teachings of Jesus with the actions of his Church was difficult for him. He’d come to Mother Teresa’s hospital confused and hungry, and there he found everything he’d been looking for-hope, inspiration, and answers.
Helmut looked down again at the gnarled hands in his lap, and the bell rang for work to begin again.
The experience is as fresh on my heart today as it was when it happened. I keep seeing Helmut’s hands in my mind, and I keep thinking about Jesus. I find myself weighing the old man’s words against the stories of the Gospels-from healings to feedings, from Christ’s life to his death and resurrection-and I think he’s onto something.
Jesus didn’t begin his ministry with an outlined agenda. Instead, he launched his public work with two simple words: “Follow me.” And then he set out on a living lecture to illustrate to us what following him looked like. He healed the sick and fed the hungry, he worked miracles that still boggle modern minds. He preached the kingdom, promoted a new way of living, and then bore his cross to a hill called the place of the skull where he offered his life as a sacrifice for all.
When religion squelches our childlike faith, we’re driven back to Jesus’ first words. When we feel alone in our spiritual journeys-those moments when we find ourselves staring into the stars and begging the Creator to speak to us-Jesus’ words echo into our lives. “Follow me,” our Savior says. “Press your feet into my footprints. Look at my life and walk the path I’ve carved out for you.”
Jesus was always touching people, playing with children, and rubbing his spit in someone’s eyes. He was present with those who needed him, never content to let his disciples do the work for him. If following Jesus means living like Christ did, then it must cost something.
Even our lives.
Jesus’ life was actually the key to Jesus’ effectiveness. When he opened his mouth, he was a great teacher and his words melted the crowds. But there were countless good teachers in his day. What set Jesus a notch above them? The scripture says that Christ left people slack-jawed “because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:29 NIV)
What could Matthew possibly mean? Jesus may have been a rabbi, but he didn’t have a synagogue. He was a teacher, but no school claimed him. The difference is that Jesus didn’t just prophecy from on high, promoting a list of rules and claiming to care about “issues.” Jesus embodied everything he taught.
As Jesus-followers we can’t flip through the browning pages of the Bible, reading about Jesus’ life and then go do something else-vote or mobilize or advocate. We can’t rely on others to do the work for us. We must be present among those who need us, giving ourselves to them and for them. Jesus’ life is in stark contrast to most culture warring Christians. He didn’t just advocate. He lived and dwelled and touched and healed.
The Apostle John was getting at this idea when he said, “This is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:5-6 NLT).
John speaks a word for us today here by saying, “If you claim to love who Jesus is, you should walk like Jesus did.” Today, two billion people on planet earth claim to follow Jesus, and I wonder how many of their lives look like his. Does yours? Does mine?
The formula for following Jesus is simple: Follow. Jesus. Walk like he walked, live like he lived, give yourself to others, and share the good news that God has brought freedom to us all. Being faithful disciples of Christ in this century is no different than it was two millennia ago. If that’s what we claim to be, we must make good on our professions of faith.
Is it enough to “advocate” for the hungry when we can satiate their hunger? Can we claim to follow Jesus if we do nothing ourselves for the poor he cared so much about? And what of the plight of orphans and the abandoned elderly? Does God let us off the hook when we ignore their problems except every fourth week in November?
A hospital is filled to overflowing with the sick and dying in Kolkata, India. And in Russia. And China. And Nigeria. They are waiting for the good news of Jesus to be declared and embodied. And I have a feeling more than a few here in America-the broken, the abused, the outcast, the poor-need the same.
Like Helmut, may we engage our hands for Jesus through service and sacrifice for others. May we scrub the wounds of those who need it, realizing that it’s often as painful for us as it is for them. May we press our feet into the steps Christ once trod, following him away from an “advocacy only” religion to a “follow me” faith.
Jonathan Merritt is author of A Faith Of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. This article is excerpted from his book. Copyright Faithwords, a division of Hachette Book Group. Reprinted by permission.