Saturday, September 3, 2011


It is an adage so old, it has become outworn: “'Tis better to give than to receive.” One of those “truths universally acknowledged” that we all know, but – do we really live it? And if so, how? I’ve only begun to learn… and one thing that is helping me is – sponsoring a child through Compassion International.

When, last spring, I approached the Compassion Table in the lobby of our church it was with the conscious intent to sponsor a child – to fulfill my obligation as a follower of Christ, and help provide for the widows and fatherless. What I did not intend – what I could not have imagined – was God’s intent for me...

The children had all been classified in terms of gravity of need, and so it happened that the Compassion Representative slid a crisply laminated piece of paper across the table to me. My eyes flicked past the red sticker labeled “urgent,” and I saw, for the first time, the stalwart face of Omary, an eight-year-old boy from Tanzania. A stab of something like pity pierced my heart: Omary stood on a dirt ground, his arms at his sides, his feet pressed together like a soldier standing in line for a drill. In his over-sized shirt and voluminous jeans, the too-big belt and army boots, he looked so … brave but also so … vulnerable, as though he were making a particular if unconscious effort to look presentable, to look worthy of sponsorship.

Though it’s only been a few months since we’ve begun our correspondence, I’ve already come to learn, in a deeper sense, how fatuous it is to give only money to worthy causes. Financial contributions can be tricky in the sense that they have the potential to subtly affirm our false perception of ourselves as “good people,” people who give… so that poor children in Africa can attend school, and receive basic medical care.

It is much more difficult to engage a child personally, to share myself – writing letters, exchanging pictures and artwork – and not just my resources, with the ultimate hope of encouraging the child toward Christ.

For example, do I really believe, and can I really say, that Christ is all Omary needs? That Christ is big enough to “compensate” for his relative – and by American standards – profound deprivations? Do I believe that if this child has nothing but Christ, he has everything?

Those are awfully presumptuous - even audatious and outrageous - claims to a great majority of people; and it is one thing to try and make this argument abstractly. But I am not writing to “the poor” in an abstract sense … but this person… this boy… this child. Omary. An eight-year-old living in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. A boy who has no father, to speak of. Who likes to play soccer. Who lives with his mother – a woman who is “sometimes employed.”

Is Christ big enough for him?

In my attempt to tell him so, in language that is so feeble and imprecise, I realize in new and deeper ways that if Christ is big enough for Omary, He is big enough for me, too. In the act of reaching out to one poor child I discover my own spiritual poverty - and the wealth which God has made available to me in Jesus Christ so that I can say, with confidence, "my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4.9).

In his first letter to us we learn, through a translator, that Omary likes to play with toy cars “although for now his car is lost.” I am struck by this one word – car – for it reveals the stunning fact that Omary has only one car; and this car is lost. Yet his letter brims with gratitude, generosity, and child-wonder: “He says he is thankful for your sponsorship…” “He is asking how are you?” “He says he is thankful for your love…” “He says he invites you in Bagamoyo…” “He asks you to pray for him to be an obedient child and who respects people…” “He says he will pray for you to be peaceful…”

Omary – thankful? For our love? But what have we given him? Only $25 a month to go to school, and be treated at the local clinic.

I feel ashamed, to be thanked for such a small gift. Humbled, that God would allow me to give what He has freely, and quite undeservedly, given me. Resources, which I can take no credit for (1 Cor. 4.7). Which have been granted to me, in large part, by nature of the fact that I was born in a very particular part of the world, at a very particular time in history. For what was America, but five hundred years ago? Hardly a place on the map…

Civilizations rise and fall and are forgotten. But here I have an opportunity to do something which will last forever – to give to some-one who will last forever. And do I? Will I? Yes, of course I will. Because to sponsor a child is not to give a gift; it is to receive one. In fact, I think if it were up to me I would change the words to that old adage: for giving isn't just better than receiving; giving is receiving. And I cannot but stand in ever-widening circles of awe and wonder that in giving me the gift of Himself, Christ would chisel space enough in my heart, and time enough in my days, for a little boy whose life and love I would otherwise most suredly never have known.

No comments: