Like all the fundamental things in life, one's Christian identity requires regular renewal and conversion. I can honestly say that I have been striving to follow Jesus Christ for years now. If you think about it, however, when you follow you never arrive. Following means moving. It entails a constant coordination between taking your next step and fixing your attention on the one leading the way. As long as the one you follow moves on, you never arrive. You follow.
Recalibrating My Worldview in the Middle East
Jesus moved on and led me to Lebanon lately. It was one of these steps when you do not quite know where it will take you. I did not know what to expect, I simply followed. Lebanon is a country made out of a thousand treasures. Most of those treasures were very new to me and I admit that they had not played any major role in my worldview, at least not in a very concrete way. Of course, I knew of the political and social conflicts that reign in the Middle East. Of course, I had an idea of the richness of Arabic culture. Of course, I had seen before how differently people act, talk, eat and live in places far away from home. But these things never quite affect you until you experience them. Only when you are truly surrounded by another world does your own world open up to it.
Well, at least eventually it does. For, during the first few days, I felt as if my mind was trying to somehow place what I saw within the neat little boxes that were already there in my head. Don’t get me wrong: I despise thinking in boxes and always try to not simplify our world. Alas, you cannot help having your mental categories; you cannot avoid organizing your experiences in a meaningful way; you cannot deny that you have a certain worldview. In fact, you should not. For it is part of our life’s quest to make sense of what we experience and to find meaning in what we see. Step by step. Lebanon was a new step altogether.
My mind eventually understood the scope of the experience. This was no side story. This was one of those significant steps when following Jesus means leaving behind a box and allowing Him to renew you, to convert you, to transform you. Your heart, your worldview, your Christian identity.
You see, Jesus did not lead me to Lebanon so much in order to get me out of my cultural comfort zone and toss me into the breathtaking treasures of oriental spices, ancient ruins, delicious hummus, and the hurry-scurry of Beirut’s spontaneous infrastructure. From Rafic Hariri Airport, Jesus led me through winding backroads high into Lebanon’s mountains to the place where these roads end. And at the place where the roads end, He introduced me to Lebanon’s most precious treasures.
Lebanon’s Most Precious Treasures
I was not alone on my mission. I was surrounded by friends and family. Even though many of these volunteers had been on this very mission many times before, we all shared the same kind of timid expectation. We were all about to meet our treasure. And we all knew that each one would be solely responsible for one gem. Jesus stood behind me and nudged me from time to time: “Follow me,” He would whisper.
Lebanon’s greatest treasures are the guests that arrived shortly after us at the place where the roads end. The place is called Chabrouh. Other than extravagant holiday residences, Chabrouh has seen the growth of a very special place during the last two or three decades. Under the direction of the Order of Malta, a middle-sized center took shape up there in the mountains. Two shabby buses pulled up in its small parking lot. And there they were, our treasures: The broken, the weak, the castaway. Thirty persons were either carried or guided out of the buses. The group cheered and sang as is only proper when you meet highly important people. We all smiled and approached to get a good look at Lebanon’s treasure. I for my part, did not see it yet. But Jesus kept nudging me.
You see, our mission consisted in taking care of about thirty severely handicapped women for one week. They usually live in a giant facility run by a community of nuns who take in those with the most severe sufferings and who - in the hundreds - are despised by the rest of the society. In short, they house those who nobody else wants. For one week, the Lebanon project of the Order of Malta wants to serve these poor people by facilitating full-time dedication, care, and love which these persons rarely or never enjoy. Each volunteer receives one person as his or her personal guest. “Your mission is simple,” the team leader would explain to us. “The person entrusted to you is like a lord or lady for you. Treat them like you would treat Our Lord.”
We have all read the Gospel. We should all be reminded of Jesus’ teachings at this point. But to hear it and to live it are not the same things. And I wept when I thought of Jesus’ words in the sight of the poorest of the poor lined up in front of me on that parking lot. To step forth and embrace them meant leaving behind boxes. All of us stepped forth. And an experience commenced which we did not control. I was sure of it from that first day on, and I can testify to it, even more, a week later. Nobody of the volunteers was the same after spending a week with these treasures. Why?
When You Open Your Heart
I mentioned how I felt the Gospel coming alive before me during the first encounter with our guests. But I also admitted that I did not see the treasure quite yet. There was nothing sparkling there aside from the saliva seeping out of flabby jowls. There was nothing majestic about the way people were seated in an armada of wheelchairs. There was nothing sweet about the uncoordinated gestures and confused mutterings of our honored guests. There is no point in trying to embellish it: This was a sorry lot. Why did these little angels transform us all?
The six days we were able to spend with our protégées followed a clear routine: clean, feed, entertain, pray, feed, clean, clean, clean… Verbal communication was mostly impossible, either because our guests did not speak at all, or because we were simply too bovine to make sense of the words or signs our guests threw out there. There was only one constant: the unconditional and indefatigable dedication of our whole person to the treasure entrusted to us. Our eyes needed to stay focused at all times, our hands on deck, our faces friendly, our feet ready. One day, and then another, and another. Soon we forgot to complain, to sigh, to question. Soon we became one with our guest. Soon our hearts started to silently open.
What happens when you open your heart? A million circumstances will determine what exactly it is that will happen to you. But one thing is certain: when you open your heart, your deepest inner self is transformed. Our guests helped us to open our hearts in a way which can only overwhelm you when you observe or experience it. And once your heart is open, you see the treasure sparkle right in front of you.
This week was not simply a generous mission of a bunch of volunteers who return home all smug and self-righteous for having done some “charity work.” This week was about encountering Lebanon’s most precious treasures. If you open your heart, you learn to love and to be loved. No sparkling jewel, no majestic idol, no sweet pleasure can enrich you as much as a person whom you set out to love unconditionally. We gave all we had during that week. The more you give in love, the more you receive in your heart.
To feed the hungry. To give water to the thirsty. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To visit the sick. To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive. To bury the dead. – Jesus has led me to Lebanon to remind me that the corporal works of mercy are an essential part of Christian life. Nothing opens your heart in quite the same fashion. If you do not encounter another culture, you may simply remain confined within the boxes of your mind’s comfort zone - a pitty that, but no drama. If, on the other hand, you do not serve the needy, your worldview will lack an essential element of the Christian identity - for a disciple of Jesus, that is a no-go.
Follow Jesus. He will lead you to His treasures eventually.