When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.
Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.
So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?
Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.
So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.
Oh, that it were that easy.
In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.
Knock, knock, knock.
No matter how far I’ve traveled, self-centeredness always knows my address and is able to relocate with me. Resisting that knocking is a daily challenge. And while I like to think that I usually ignore it, there are also times when I pull the door wide open and invite it in to sit with me on the couch. And there I am, at the center of the earth again.
When we first arrived at our new home in Asia, it was a temptation to think we’d arrived at the pinnacle of Christian service. Look at us! I got used to writing newsletters about exotic day-to-day happenings, sharing about our ministry, and eagerly anticipating answers to the prayer requests we emailed to supporters—supporters, those people who gave sacrificially to our work, to us, trusting we were worth the investment.
Before our move, we sold most of our possessions, and that was a good thing. Surely not having to keep up with the Joneses would help me focus less on myself. In a recent discussion of Eula Biss’s book Having and Being Had at Mockingbird, CJ Green quotes a missionary as saying “Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things.” “Her point,” Green explains, “was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing.”
Yes, that’s true. But ministering to people rather than things still gave me enticements to elevate myself. I was American but not like those Americans. I may have left materialism behind (OK, not really), but it was easily replaced by more spiritual forms of self-focus. How does my ministry compare to that of other cross-cultural workers around me, and around the globe? How much does God value me and what I’m able to do? How much effort is Satan concentrating on me to stop my threats to his kingdom? How much more strategic is my work in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood?
And then, from time to time, when we travelled back Stateside, we got to speak on stages, attend carry-in dinners hosted in our honor, and accept thank yous and donations. And we were treated like royalty at the homes where we stayed. One time, someone even gifted us a trip to Silver Dollar City.
Knock, knock, knock.
OK, now here is where I need to interject something. Some of you are already feeling guilty about receiving funds, taking vacations, and the like, and it may sound as if I’m saying those things are the problem. They are not. The problem is the temptation to respond to them in the wrong way. It’s not as if removing all those things automatically makes that temptation disappear. The knocking can just move to a different door.
And to those of you who are underfunded or under-appreciated or worn out, to those who are praying for a hand up, not out of entitlement but out of need, please hear this clearly: Self-advocacy is not the same thing as self-centeredness. Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-importance. Being self-aware is not the same thing as being self-focused.
Ok, I needed to say that, but now back to me, because, you know. . . .
When we returned to the States for good, we got rid of most of our belongings again, but among the things we kept were a suitcase filled with been-there-done-that t-shirts and a desire to hit the ground running again. Reverse culture shock and a recession meant that we hit the ground at more of a slow crawl, but in time we made progress—and we now own an old house with plenty of repairs to be made, two cars that need upkeep, and several phones to update, upgrade, and replace. It’s hard not to be devoted to that ministry of things.
We like the community where our house is located. It has its own personality and the people here know each other and take pride in the neighborhood. We can see that in the Facebook page our neighbors use for sharing news and concerns. Their posts show us that there are lots of lost pets needing to be found. There are also lots of suspicious people walking around who look as if they don’t belong and are up to no good. We know that there are growing instances of crime in our area (rifling through unlocked parked cars and even a couple home intrusions and robberies), but there’s another kind if disturbance that’s got me concerned. It’s that pesky knocking at my door that’s started up again. I wish our neighborhood group would let me know when self-centeredness—and nationalism and ethnocentrism and egocentrism and other forms of meisms—are making the rounds, jiggling doorknobs and peaking in windows.
I like the community of cross-cultural workers we’re part of, too, those who are getting ready to go, those who are there, and those who have been. How about we share with each other the unwelcome guests doggedly trying to gain entrance into our homes? If your problem isn’t self-centeredness, I’m sure you have your own unwelcome visitors who keep dropping by. How about we keep an eye out for each other?
Knock, knock, knock.
Now If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and not answer my door.
[photo: “Target,” by Martin Deutsch, used under a Creative Commons license]