For at least the first week and a half afterward, it is like I had an eye transplant. Old eyes gone… a new set dropped into their place.
And then, inevitably, I realize that the old eyes have returned… slowly resuming their assigned duty. And then I stop and wonder: which one of these is real?
That is one way I would describe the experience of participating in a short-term mission trip to the developing world.
Going in, you expectunique, eye-opening, out-of-the-ordinary scenes. You are not overly shocked when you drive for miles and miles and miles and see endless vistas of poverty set among lush, tropical greenery along choppy, pitted, asphalt roads.
When you walk among people who stand an average of ¾ your height because of a lifetime of chronic malnutrition, you rarely jump back in horror. This is what they told you it would be like.
Slowly, gradually, it starts to work on you. Awareness begins to dawn that THIS is the reality of life for the vast majority of your fellow earthlings. You start to grasp that the life of shopping malls, six-lane superhighways, Starbucks drive-throughs, daily mail delivery, four bedroom Dutch colonials, and Netflix is the exception, not the rule in the world.
It doesn’t come as headline breaking news when you walk the dirty, noisy, chaotic streets of the Third World and see your paradigm morphing right before your eyes.
Nevertheless, I still find myself surprised when I return from Guatemala (or Haiti, or Mexico, or the Australian outback) and discover how different everything looks back home here.
I mean, it is exactly the same familiar setting I left behind last week. At yet, it is somehow surprisingly foreign.
And much to my surprise, I also realize there is something inside me that wants it to remain foreign. Justice seems to demand that I remain alert to the scandalous level of resource consumption involved in my suburban, North American lifestyle.
I really should retain the ability to be appalled at the ease with which I turn the lights on and off, the thermostat up or down, flush the toilet, turn on the tap, reach into the refrigerator (or pantry) for a bite of something, don’t fret a bit about my physical security, or the effortlessness with which I travel from place to place.
And – like I said – for about a week and a half I do.
But then I don’t. The new eyes fade and the old eyes pop right back into my head.
So what am I saying? I’m not really suggesting that we First Worlders need to walk around in a continuous cloud of guilt-ridden angst all day, bemoaning our affluent fate.
But maybe it would be a good thing for each of us to find ways to regularly come nose-to-nose with the huge economic imbalances in our world. And then maybe it would ALSO be good for us to realize that our place on the advantaged side of the ledger mostly has nothing to do with pluck, work ethic, ingenuity, or any other virtue we ascribe to ourselves.
Part of our task – I believe – is to try and avoid opening our eyes here on third base and telling ourselves the story that we hit a triple.
I think Jesus also provides us with a pretty clear set of marching orders when we do eventually wake up to our positions of advantage in the world. In the New Revised Standard translation of Luke 12:48 he says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
Much has been entrusted to me. Much has also been entrusted to you.
The key questions are: what is now demanded? And how will we (I) choose to respond?