And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. –Jesus, Matthew 10:42
Sustainability is all the rage and “hip” trend right now in world missions. To be clear, there are some wonderful, innovative, strategic and beautiful things happening because of this focus.
The mission organization I lead, ServeNow, also engages in some sustainable and self-sustaining projects. For example, we have provided water tanks to pastors in communities where they have no clean drinking water so that they can reach out to those most in need. In Asia and Europe, we consistently host anti-trafficking skill training programs for women at risk, so they can learn a marketable skill, open their own business, generate an income, and become independent.
There is also a good imbalance being corrected by initiatives like this, where certain communities, countries, churches and people have become completely dependent on outside or foreign aid in an unhealthy and damaging way. In some cases it has also set us up as the “hero’s who know best” and leads to an arrogance and ignorance towards others and how best to help.
Many books and documentaries have highlighted these extremes and some new initiatives to correct this has been a good thing. However, recently I have begun warning of the other extreme. The pendulum always tends to swing to one extreme or the other and there are ditches on either side of the road.
Perhaps what triggered my sensitivity to this was after recently being pushed over the edge by a foundation I was meeting with to discuss partnership opportunities. I felt not only like I was being interrogated, but looked down on and lectured for over an hour regarding the issue of sustainability. Their position, along with the foundation I met with an hour before them, was now only on funding “sustainable” projects. I was questioned in fact, on why we give away anything “for free.”
At one point, I had enough and said, because if we don’t they will die! While we sit here and talk on a very strategic, theoretical and “smart” level, people are dying!
There is a time and place for developing sustainable initiatives, but I want to make the case there is also still a place for “unsustainable” but life changing initiatives.
I am writing this while in an airport coming back from speaking to hundreds of leaders from around seventy countries around the world. I decided one way to attract them to my workshop would be to ask this question: are we in danger of becoming smarter than Jesus?
Afterwards, I had many humble leaders serving the poorest of the poor come up to me and thank me for speaking to this. One even said, your the first American I have heard speak about value still being in unsustainable projects!
So let me explain what I am talking about. In the passage this post opened with, we find Jesus concluding a training session with his disciples and future leaders of the church. The passage quoted at the beginning was the closing instructions and promise to them.
Here is simply what I take away from this: Even just a cup of cold water given to the most “insignificant” person or child, matters. A cup of water might not be a permanent earthly solution, but it can make a permanent impact and will be rewarded in eternity.
It’s as simple and profound as that. But are we in danger of being smarter than Jesus?
Here is another way to ask it. As I was speaking to this group of leaders about serving children in the four to fourteen age range, I asked them, and now you, to think back on your life when you were that age. What was it that had the most profound impact on your life at that age? Was it something “sustainable” or was it something as simple but significant as an encouraging word of a teacher, a coach who believed in you, an adult noticing you, an act of kindness from a stranger?
I shared that for me, what I most remember was one elementary teacher who greeted us each morning with pure joy, a big hug and a lipstick smeared kiss on the cheek. None of those things were sustainable the rest of my life, but they left a permanent mark on mine, and many other tender, affection hungry hearts.
This winter, we were giving out warm winter blankets in the Himalayan mountains. These are people who have no heat in their homes and yet temperatures fall below freezing. Hundreds get sick and/or die every year, especially children and the elderly. The blankets we give are very good quality, but they might not last forever. However, again and again I see in the eyes of these beautiful people and children how much that simple act of kindness means to them.
One woman shared with us the following this year, I experienced God’s love for me and my child through this blanket you gave me.
Or have we become smarter than Jesus?
Let me share one more story. During the summer months in an Asian country, we provide clean water every week for entire small villages, communities and families. These are the poorest of the poor.
However, we only do this for a couple months during the hottest part of the year. We also aren’t digging wells as a sustainable or long term solution. As I mentioned, we have provided water tanks in some communities, but for the purpose of this article let me stick with our main approach and explain why we do it this way with these three reasons:
First, we enable the local church to go family to family to give clean water in a very personal and relational way. It’s not just about meeting physical need, but other deeper human needs. (Many people Jesus healed physically, also experienced a spiritual or emotional healing as well). This also often opens up hearts to share the Good News of God’s love in a powerful way. In some cases this has opened the door for the Gospel to be shared openly for the first time!
Secondly, this helps the local economy and businesses. We even had one water company become so inspired by what we were doing that they offered water at a discounted price!
Thirdly, in many of these villages, a well is not practical due to ground conditions and other socio-dynamics (caste system). In some communities a well already does exist but has dried up, or those of lower caste are prevented from drawing water from the well.
Regardless, here is what it comes down to for me. It was Jesus himself who said even a cup of water has eternal implications and matters. As I shared with these leaders serving the poorest of the poor who do not have the resources or ability to do more “advanced” sustainable projects, I saw them breath a sigh of relief. My sense was that they were starting to feel they weren’t “doing enough” “doing it right” and struggling with the fact that they are surrounded by people in need that they simply want to serve and show God’s love to even if simple and unsustainable.
Maybe you too think you can’t make much of a difference. Maybe a cup of water sounds too insignificant. Maybe because you think your “small” efforts won’t matter…you do nothing. Or maybe you are discouraged wishing you could do more.
Jesus himself makes clear that even the smallest gestures of compassion matters greatly to him and even eternally for you. And it matters perhaps more than you think to the one you serve, no matter how small it may seem, and temporary it might be.
Let’s not over complicate it. And let’s certainly not become smarter than Jesus.