Beyond Our Comfort Zones

Twelve years ago, I visited Indonesia for the first time. I was a twenty-two-year-old American citizen, freshly graduated from university, filled with hopes and dreams. I visited the Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor team, staying with them in a slum community. And I sensed Jesus inviting me to join them and make my home in a slum. My life would never be the same.

In our world today 1.4 billion people live in urban slum communities, and that number is constantly growing. Are Christians in the West even aware of this global reality? And, if so, do we have the faith to believe that Jesus’s good news is not only for Christians sitting on comfortable church benches, but also for those living in slum communities around the world?

I share my story of following Jesus into the slums in my new book, Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta. My journey in Indonesia that began twelve years ago continues to this day, now with my husband and two young children. But this book is not a success story. Its pages are filled with pain and sorrow—and also the joys and surprises that come while following our good Savior.

Pain. The pain of fires, evictions, floods, sickness, and death. The daily sorrows of seeing beautiful people living in a physical reality that is not worthy of human habitation: haphazard homes pieced together, piles of rotting trash as playgrounds for children, rats and mosquitos and diseases running rampant. What could I possibly offer in such an ocean of pain and suffering?

But as I continued on year after year, learning and laughing and crying with my neighbors, I have found beauty. There is joy, even when surrounded by unspeakable darkness and pain. There is a juxtaposition of living in service of our King—seeking His Kingdom here and now and knowing that His Kingdom is stronger than all the pain and all the sorrow—but also knowing that the Kingdom is not quite fully here yet and that there is still so much that is not right with the world.

This book does not offer solutions to solve the urban crisis of billions of people living in slums. But it does invite you to come and hear stories, come meet some of the beautiful children and parents who have become my friends over the years. Come and experience Jesus outside the walls of our comfortable church buildings, gated communities, and comfort zones.

“As I live within this garbage collecting and recycling community, I am learning about God, the pemulung[1], who sorts through mountains of trash day after day, searching for anything of value. Back in first-century Palestine, Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.[2] Two-thousand years later, I imagine Jesus coming to this place and saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you pemulung of people!’

“Jesus tells those whom the world views as garbage, ‘You have value. Though others have cast you off, you are a treasure.’ As we follow Jesus, our pemulung, to the trash heap, he is longing for us to help him build up those who have been pushed down, plant and nourish those who have been uprooted, be merciful to those who have experienced disaster, and encourage those who are afraid.”[3]

         You can find the book here.

[1] Pemulung means scavenger, someone who looks for recycling
[2] Matthew 4:19
[3] See Jeremiah 42:10-11

Some Seeds Die

When I was growing up, my family often sang prayers before mealtime. Our repertoire included “God is good and God is great,” “Hands, hands, hands,” and “I owe the Lord a morning song.” Another family favorite was the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Perhaps your family also sang this song. Based on the historic figure John Chapman, the legend of Johnny Appleseed has made its way into Disney movies, folklore, and prayer-songs[1].

The second verse of this song has not been sitting well with me for years. We sing:

“And every seed I sow, will grow into a tree.
And someday there will be apples there,
For everyone in the world to share.
The Lord’s been good to me.”

While I appreciate the encouraging, hopeful words, in recent years I have found that they grate at my soul. Is it ok to teach our children lies or half-truths, even in the context of a children’s song? Not every seed will grow. Jesus was clear about that. But this song gives us a nicer, cleaner, easier way to teach our children that seeds grow. We do learning activities with our children, and we assume that the seeds we plant in the little pots on our porch will grow.

But often they don’t.

I have learned this over the past decade of ministering in a slum community. Quite literally, many seeds do not grow. There is a grassy field only a stone’s throw from our house. We would love to plant small trees there, or flowers, or vegetables. But the roaming sheep and goats immediately devour anything edible. We recently tried transplanting a fairly good-sized tree from a pot to this field. Within an hour the goats had devoured all the leaves and left it a bare stick. Our six-year-old son cried as he watched our plant get eaten.

Even the pots on our porch often fail to produce the plants we were expecting to grow. Whether it is the neighboring chickens that wander onto our porch to eat the new seedlings or a curious child who decides to pick at the pots, new seeds often have no chance to grow. We did a gardening activity with thirty of our elementary school students recently: planting spinach, chili peppers, and kangkong. We faithfully watered the thirty little pots. Hopeful sprouts sprang up. But now a month later, two small pots are all that remain.

Sadly, ministering in hard settings often yields similar results as our gardening efforts in the slum. Have you been in your location for years but not seen anyone come to know Jesus? Do you know the heartbreak and despair of sowing for years but not seeing any fruit? Have you poured yourself into the work and not seen what you had hoped to see? Or perhaps the pain and disappointment is related to your team? Have people you trusted and mentored not produced the fruit you were hoping for?

These past few months have felt like a season of pruning for me. Teammates have left. We had to send an intern home suddenly because of a breach of trust. And multiple students that we had poured into have stopped coming to lessons. Sometimes the heartbreak feels too much to bear.

So I have started singing a new version of the Johnny Appleseed song with my children:

“And every seed I sow will grow into a tree.
But that is not true, ‘cause some seeds die.
And then I’ll sit on the ground and cry:
‘The Lord’s still good to me. Even when the seeds die.’”

This feels more in line with Scripture. Some seeds die. Three quarters of the seeds, in fact, if Jesus’s parable of the soils is mathematical. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on rocky soil and cannot grow. Some seeds begin to grow but are choked by the worries and riches of this world. Only a quarter of the seeds fall on good soil. (See Matthew 13 for more details.)

Wherever you are, wherever you are sowing seeds, may you be encouraged today. Not with an “everything will be ok” or “every seed will grow” lie. But may you be encouraged to lament the areas in your life and ministry that are disappointing. May you know today that God sees, God hears, and God cares.

And may we be able to join our voice with the voice of the prophet Habakkuk and proclaim:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)

[1] As I wrote this article and googled the song, I discovered that it was actually created by Disney in 1948, originally titled “The Lord is Good to Me.” However, the words that I grew up singing are different than the original.