I was asked to share some of my experiences in other cultures, specifically impoverished places that I've been to, at church this morning. The pastor was speaking on "Learning to be content in every circumstance" and preached from Philippians 4:10-13.
This is what I shared:
The first time I ever traveled outside of the country, I was 17, and I went with a group from my school to the Dominican Republic for 3 weeks. One afternoon, during this trip, several of us were sitting on an old woman’s porch, just relaxing and talking, when my teacher turned to us and asked, “Are you a willow or an oak?” Our initial reaction was “Huh?” Our teacher soon explained to us that although an oak tree appears strong and sturdy, the branches, in great winds, are easily snapped off, whereas a willow tree’s branches merely move with the direction of the wind. At the time, I said, “I am absolutely a willow. I’m flexible and I deal with change easily.”
I’ve found, in my travels since then, that the metaphor of the willow cannot be forgotten. Some people might call it “Rolling with the punches.” Paul says this: “I have learned to be content in every situation.”
Amazingly enough, at 24, I can look back and tell you about time I have spent in 12 different countries. In those times and in those places, I have learned what it means to be a willow. (Or at least how to try…)
Many of the countries I have visited are considered THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES. To them, anyone who has money in a checking account is rich.----It is when I visit these countries, and spend time with the people, that I am brought to the realization that I have far more than I could ever need. And even when you have just enough to survive, there is always a way to share what you have with others. IN FACT, I think that the less you have, the easier it is to give away. This is especially visible in fellow Believers.
In 2002, I went to Tijuana with some high school and college students from the church. My first, and most poignant, memory of the church we visited was a woman drying the floor of a classroom with her own sweater, so that we could move our sleeping gear in quickly. I was BLOWN AWAY by her sacrifice. I could not imagine myself doing the same thing. I probably would have suggested waiting, or searched for a towel of some sort. I know this woman did not own much, and she dirtied HER sweater to offer US comfort. The rest of the week, we continued to be amazed at how much we were blessed by those that we expected to come and bless. “THEY have learned to be content in every situation.”
A few years later, during my second trip to Mexico, I again witnessed generosity on a level far-exceeding my own ability to give. Every day that we worked at the church, many of the women made us a mid-morning snack (which was far more than a snack) and lunch. They went to great lengths to make sure we were fed without the chance of becoming sick—for example, they washed all fruits and vegetables they served us with bottled water. And they served every meal with a smile. Even when a few of us were exploring the city with some of the youth of their church, they refused to let us pay for the ice cream we ordered. It is humbling every time I experience these expressions of generosity. “THEY too have learned to be content in every situation.”
But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to just be impressed by the generosity and flexibility of others. It’s a trait that each of us must develop. For me, there are several ways this exhibits itself. Before I visit foreign countries, my biggest concern is whether I’ll like the food. And when I return, my biggest hope is that I will be able to be as content and generous as those we served.
I expected a recent trip, to Cambodia, to stretch my taste buds farther than ever. Those who know me know that I am one of THE pickiest eaters. (I was in high school before I ever learned--kicking and screaming-- to enjoy Chinese food.) But I recognized that there would be no alternative food available when I was in Cambodia and God opened my mind and taste buds to new and exotic foods. I remembered from my time in the Dominican Republic that what I feared wasn’t bad, just unknown. In a simple way God taught me to be content in THIS circumstance.
While I triumphed over my own fears in Cambodia, I recognized that my freedom to have these fears was not available for the people we served. When they had food, they gave thanks. They could not say “No thank you, I don’t like it.” Every meal was a life or death situation. I NEVER before witnessed this level of poverty. Each of our 8-10 sets of clean travel and work clothes looked extravagant in comparison to the few sets of clothing each age group of orphans shared. The treasured soccer ball was one of the only toys around the home, when almost every kid here has an overflowing toy box – I know I did. Work at the home and time at school was treasured, for they recognized that they were privileged to be taken care of so well.
Every time I return home from a mission, I am convicted of all the things I can live without. The believers we met in Cambodia were not only content with what they had but they were TRULY JOYOUS and readily offered their LOVE to us!
My most recent mission trip did not take me out of the country. Although I have always had the desire to see other countries and experience their cultures, just 5 weeks ago, I traveled to New Orleans to aid in Hurricane Relief. Several of these days we brought ice and water to affected neighborhoods—EVERY neighborhood was affected! Many of the people we met were just returning to their homes for the first time. Some were ripping out carpets and bleaching the walls, while others simply turned around, and wouldn’t – or couldn’t- look back. Each person we came in contact with, we offered to pray with. I never heard a single person turn us down. One woman in particular sticks out to me. She DEFINITELY learned what it means to be “content in every situation.” All of her worldly possessions: pictures, furniture, Christmas decorations, everything was washed away. She stood in front of her destroyed house and began preaching to us (who had come to minister to her). She said “God knew I didn’t need it, so he took it away... From now on I am only going to buy things that I truly NEED… I can’t justify buying things that I want... God is faithful to provide everything I NEED.” Again, I was blown away. Would I have the faith, and be content enough, to respond in the same way. I’m not sure. When I returned home, just like every other time I have returned from a missions trip, I started to take inventory of what I have, and more importantly, what I don’t need. Do I really need another pair of shoes? Millions of people in this world have never owned a pair of shoes. Do I really need a new sweater? People are freezing every day and I have 5 other sweatshirts hanging in my closet. Do I really need a new CD? No. That money could provide food for a hungry family.
Now I see that no matter how much I think I am like the willow tree, I still need to grow more flexible and quit trying to avoid the strong winds, but welcome the storms, just as I do the gentle breezes. When Paul tells us we need to learn to be “content in every situation,” he doesn’t just mean when we are wanting, but also when we have plenty. We need to quit desiring a little bit more and look at those who have next to nothing. They are our example of what it means to be content in every situation. Each time I meet them, I am reminded of that, and I NEED the reminder.