Thursday, September 10, 2015

Laying Down Our Rights

I remember the second time it happened.  I came home from the clinic, hot from the African sun and desperately wanting to cool off in the shower, only to discover there was no running water when I turned on the faucet.  I went into the kitchen and tried the sink.  No water there either.  I knew why, and I was frustrated.  The first time it happened I shrugged it off.  But the second occurrence made me wrestle between annoyance, frustration, and downright indignation.

This is what happened: it was dry season and the water in the catchment on the mountain, which was piped to both the communal faucet in the village and to our house, had run out.  When the catchment became empty, it was only a matter of time before the last of the water in the pipeline emptied out too.  Inevitably, with so many people drawing water from the communal faucet in the village, that pipeline ran dry before the pipeline to our house.  On those occasions, we'd find children at our house, crowing around the outside faucet with buckets and pails and filling them with water to carry back to their homes.  Soon enough, like the communal faucet, the water at our house would run out too.

a well, built by a missionary in rural Cameroon

The first time there was no water in our taps, we were confused.  When we discovered why, we shrugged our shoulders because there was nothing to be done about it.  What we didn't anticipate at the time were the repeat occurrences.  There were multiple more occasions when we'd come home during the dry season and have no water - not because there wasn't enough water in the line to supply our house, but because the children would come and take everything left in it.  And I was frustrated because I wanted water too, and it was our house, and they didn't even ask before depleting our entire water supply!

After a few times of letting my blood boil, God checked my heart.  This was an issue of the heart, of laying down my rights, and of acquiring love and humility instead of selfishness and conceit.  The problem was that I assumed I had certain rights which I most certainly did not.  I thought I had a right to at least know our water was being taken in the first place, then a right to give permission to take it, then a right to be clean and cool before anyone else, as if I owned all the water that ran down the mountain.  But what right did I have?  I was just one person among the multitude who needed water.  I wasn't even a resident of the village.  I was a guest, even a guest in the house we were living in.  We didn't own the house we stayed in, and we certainly didn't own the water that ran through its pipes - the running water that few other people had.  But in those moments when I turned on the faucet and nothing came out, my natural response was of righteous indignation.  It seemed unneighborly at best, downright deceptive and rude at worst, for others to line up and "steal" our water from right under our noses.

But that attitude, that righteous indignation, was a product of my own culture.  The truth is that I'm an entitled 21st century American who was, and still is, in need of refining and humbling.  The truth is that I was born and bred in a time and place that reinforces the notion that we have certain rights, and we need to fight for those rights, and anyone who treads on those rights is in the wrong and should be held accountable.  But those are American values.  They're not necessarily the values in other countries around the world, and they're certainly not the values of Christ's kingdom.

stopping for a drink at a water catchment, on the mountain in Banyo

Christ gave up everything, including His rights, in order to humble Himself and become obedient to death (Philippians 2:8).  He alone who had rights - who was in very nature GOD - made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (2:6-7).  And He calls us to do the same, to make ourselves nothing and assume the nature of a servant.  Thomas Hale, who spent decades as a medical missionary in Nepal and who wrote a marvelous tome called On Being A Missionary, says this:
The only right I read about in the New Testament is the right to choose Jesus as Lord.  After that the New Testament doesn't talk about rights, only responsibilities....  Oh, yes, I have certain legal and moral "rights" - the right to personhood, the right to protect my nose from your fist, and all the other rights that benevolent governments guarantee us.  But disciples of Christ are called to forsake those rights for the glory of God.  Denying oneself means denying one's rights: the right to self-fulfillment, the right to job satisfaction, the right to health, to a husband or wife, to a good night's sleep, to "having my way" - and to choosing my life style.  This is a basic transaction that every disciple makes with Christ.  What rights can we seriously expect to hang onto once we have offered our bodies as living sacrifices to God?  So leave your earthly rights back in your home countries, and trust a faithful God to protect your "eternal rights" as his adopted child.  Those are the only rights that count, and we never have to look out for them ourselves (137).
How could I look out my window at the Cameroonian children filling their buckets with water and shake my fist at them?  How could I hope to share the Living Water with them when I couldn't even share literal water with them?  I couldn't, which is why God needed to hold my heart in check.  I needed to repent, to lay down my rights, to die to self, to make myself nothing and take the very nature of a servant.  I needed to remember that it was Jesus who said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:37b-38).

It was a hard lesson.  The idea that we have rights to guard and keep was deeply ingrained in me.  It still is.  But it's something we need to let go of as we prepare to head back to Africa.  We're not going to Kenya to live an American lifestyle and assume that our white skin entitles us to do and say and wear whatever we want.  We learned in Cameroon that many of our rights were virtually non-existent in the local culture.  For example, a right to space and privacy was hard to come by.  (Have I mentioned how many times visitors stopped by unannounced and stayed for a lengthy time?  Or how many children boldly stared into the windows of our house out of curiosity?)  We also learned that our right to wear whatever we wanted was left back in America.  (Have I mentioned how many Sundays I moaned and groaned about trying to get a head covering to stay put on my head?  They kept sliding off my slippery hair lest I tighten them so tight as to acquire a headache.)  We even learned that our right to a comfortable posture wasn't a given: no one was allowed to cross their legs, ever, unless they were among the important men who had the status and the right to do so.  (Have I mentioned how many times we unwittingly crossed our legs out of habit and garnered embarrassed or shocked looks?)  We had many lessons in laying down our rights.

We had many lessons, and no doubt we'll have many more when we move to Kenya.  It wasn't easy or natural then, and it probably won't be easy or natural this time around either.  It's hard to let go of something so deeply ingrained in us.  But even though we are American citizens with deeply ingrained cultural identities, we are citizens of Christ's kingdom first and foremost, and that requires laying down our rights rather than holding them near and dear.  Our prayer is that God would be working here and now to humble and prepare us for living cross-culturally and what it will require us to forsake.