March 26, 2008

Living Now

I couldn’t help being impressed when I met Jenny Sequeira, a graphic artist with a master’s degree in public health. Humble yet passionate, clever yet thoughtful, Sequeira’s focus and compassion were admirable. While I was in my comfy cubicle reporting, she was out there doing, helping, showing Jesus through her actions—living the very aspects of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5. Now, after 11 years in international public health, Sequeira opens up about her job, her life, and her faith.
KM: Tell me what compelled you to pursue your current calling.
JS: My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in the very different cultural settings of Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Idaho. When I was 8, I had an encounter with Gladys Martin, a friend of the family and a public health worker in Ethiopia. She asked if I brushed my teeth every day. I thought it such an odd question, so I asked my parents what she did for a living. I found out that she was quite a revolutionary character in public health in Ethiopia. She worked with isolated communities and church groups on health projects. I knew I wanted to do something similar. I just didn’t know that it was called public health. The older I got, the more I realized that this was something I really wanted to do. A two-year stint with the Peace Corps in The Gambia shortly after getting a degree solidified the idea to keep working in this field.
Why is this type of work important?
I think all constructive work is important, but it’s crucial to do the work in the best possible way. Thinking things through intentionally, showing kindness, and using elbow grease all feed into it. Someone once said, “If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”1 This statement is especially important to think about in the field of international/global public health and development, because there is example after example of cookie-cutter approaches—of using the same method in Oaxaca as Ouagadougou.
2008 1509 page20In terms of my profession in public health, I think it is important in the sense that my work focuses on health promotion, prevention, and strengthening public health systems so that all people—not just those who are better off—have access to good health care. It tries to address root causes, but often fails miserably. My profession sometimes makes me think of a Thoreau maxim from Walden: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
To whom is it important?
That’s a good question. Ultimately, it’s important to me because I believe that God wants us, as an expression of committing our life to Him, to live the upside-down life outlined in the Beatitudes. And I hope that the work I do contributes toward helping improve the lives of others. But that focus sounds so self-centered. What I do is important to me, but in the whole spectrum of things, what I do is not so important. Rather, how I live my life is the ultimate point. I like the way Oswald Chambers puts it in My Utmost for His Highest: “‘Do not bother about being of use to others; believe on Me’—pay attention to the Source, and out of you will flow rivers of living water” (February 21 reading).
Explain how you see Jesus in your work.
The Bible shows a Jesus who focused first on meeting people where they were. As followers, the challenge is to keep that big picture. If we let Him, God will work through us in ways we have no inkling of. In those around me I see God all the time. My colleagues come from a wide range of backgrounds, religions, and cultures. I see God in how people from many beliefs work together for issues surrounding child health. Instead of polarizing Christians and Muslims, as is so often portrayed in the media these days, in my line of work I see concrete examples of people rolling up their sleeves, trying to figure out how to solve problems together.
Ironically, some of the problems [being worked out] may be caused or exacerbated by extremist Christian or Muslim factions using God’s name in vain. When you see how base and unscrupulous humans can be to each other—particularly how the powerful can act on the powerless—you see the opposite of God’s will. It makes you realize how much the world needs a message of tolerance, love, and equality.
Can the messages in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) fit in a world full of the selfish, the selfless, and those somewhere in between?
The message of the Beatitudes isn’t such a smart fit with this world. It goes counter to conventional wisdom—like carving wood against the grain. The carving will never come out structurally sound by expert standards.
It always amazes me how 12 whining, small-minded, and argumentative men rattled the world forever. This quarter’s Sabbath school lesson hits the message home about surrendering your will to God, becoming a disciple, becoming a misfit, and “jamming a spoke into the wheel.”2 Living intentionally in a way that doesn’t fit this self-preservation-focused world means you may not have a very easy time of it.
The irony of the Beatitudes is that they so sparingly and simply highlight the very opposite thing of what Christians are often accused of—fixating too much on what comes after. As a friend often jibes, “some people are so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good.” A surface reading of the Beatitudes can make them sound next-life heavy. But they are not. Read the first part of each stanza. They’re about living a thoughtful and compassionate life in the here and now. The rest doesn’t matter if you don’t habitually care about the “now.”
Could those you serve be classified as hungry and thirsty for righteousness? Explain why or why not.
There is a marked distinction in the way Northern and Southern Hemisphere countries view and digest spirituality. Most of my work focuses on Southern Hemisphere countries. I’m continually astonished by the very stark spiritual differences between the hemispheres. The “hungering and thirsting” is so much more palpable in the South. The god of the North now appears to be the iPod. It’s cliche, but rings as true today as in Jesus’ day—materialism seems to snuff out that thirst. Are our throats too Velveeta-coated?
What have you learned through helping others about those who may be searching for Christ?
“Helping others” in the context of social work can really harden you, and when you do something inappropriate you shamefacedly get jolted back to reality—like the time in Azerbaijan when a man came up to me, threw himself down at my feet and cried on my shoes for money to feed his family, and I refused to give it because I didn’t think he was telling the truth. . . . or the time in Gambia when an old grandmother came rushing up to me, shouting “Money! Money!” and I yelled back, “What? Just because I’m a foreigner doesn’t mean I have money dripping off my fingertips!”—only to realize seconds later that she was, in broken English, saying “Morning! Morning!”
“Helping others” is tricky business. Jesus keeps reminding us of this. It’s when we think we’re “being of use” that we’re often acting in arrogant and self-righteous ways. Like Peter looking down at his feet, we start sinking into the deep murky waters.
The Beatitudes can be life-changing. How have they influenced you?
I am, by nature, prone to cynicism—who isn’t in this modern era (the cynic in me would say)? And the work I do tends to nurture the cynic. A cynic might very well describe the field of international development as poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.
More than anything, the words of Christ, especially in passages such as the Beatitudes, pull me back from cynicism. They keep my heart pliable.
Where do you see yourself in a year? In five years?
In a year, in five years, I hope to still be working in international public health. I also plan to continue living a life focusing on God and His message of love, tolerance, and equality. But like the scorpion clinging to the back of a frog swimming across a wide river, my egocentric nature is what it is and wants to keep returning to its self-centeredness—even though that is not God’s way of life. Where I fix my gaze and how I foster my habits is where it’s at.
1Largely attributed to Anthony Robbins.
2Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.

issue header 2008 1509 27
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).* 

2008 1509 page27 cap STOOD ON MY PILE OF WOODEN CRATES, an 11-year-old girl, silently screaming at the stormy sky. I had good Christian parents and fun siblings, but sometimes life is hard simply because you breathe. Although no sound escaped my mouth, my body shuddered and swayed as each molecule yelled at God to prove His existence, to prove He could save me.
I learned three important things that day: First, God does not play by our rules. No thunderbolts or drenching rain bursts rammed me in response. Second, though the wind whipped against my hair, God communicated to me in a much more powerful way (see 1 Kings 19:11-13). And finally, a relationship with God begins with raw honesty.
Oddly, the times I’ve felt the closest to God are when I’ve been most honest with Him: opening my closet of infinite questions, pulling the bandages back to reveal my latest wounds, or crying angrily at God as He holds me.
The Ageless Quest
Though every close human friendship is founded on honest communication, I’m still in awe that God expects His friendship with humans to be made of the same stuff. Built on 6,000 years of patience, that friendship must be rediscovered by each newborn who enters our world.
2008 1509 page27And just when we discover God for ourselves, He reveals Himself with a myriad of seeming contrasts: God is love, but He also demands justice. God gives grace, but He demands we act on that grace. God constantly pursues us, yet just when we become “caught,” we begin pursuing Him.
On the first day of my college class, studying the Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century, my professor adjusted his glasses and read these words from Friedrich Nietzsche: “If you desire peace and happiness, believe. If you want to be a disciple of truth, search.”
While Nietzsche used his search to discard God, his words make a valid point for Christians looking to find Him. How can we be satisfied with bubble-gum Christianity when the desire for more truth—in all its tangled complexity—is what led the first Adventists?
Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will keep searching, stretching, and struggling throughout their lives to understand more of God’s perspective and reflect Him better.
To be righteous, we must have the character of God. To have God’s character, we must truly know Him. To know Him means to confront and explore all His apparently contrasting qualities.
“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child,” wrote
the apostle Paul. “When I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). As a new Christian, Cheerios and applesauce devotions were perfect for breakfast. As I grew, I needed more substance to get the same nourishment. This is the “hungering and thirsting after righteousness” that causes us to reexamine the tough questions we thought we had settled in junior Sabbath school class.
The seeker pursues the tough questions and desires to know each aspect of God’s personality. It’s the “aha!” banana cream pie moment that gives greater insight and feeds the soul. It requires daily nourishment and even occasional feasts. And we’ll never be fully satisfied while sin washes over the earth.
The Seekers
My friend Walter has this crazy idea. He wants all the religions of the world to share their beliefs through personal testimony videos on cable TV and on the Internet.
“If everyone is sharing their beliefs there,” Walter reasons, “then I could share what I believe as a Seventh-day Adventist too.”
He reasons that if scientists, philosophers, teachers, and mystics from all religions could share their experiences, people could easily sift through the main reasoning behind each and discover the truth. He’s convinced that when compared with all the other religions, Christianity will make the most sense. If it doesn’t, Walter says, he’s willing to switch religions.
Being a seeker is risky. It means asking God to let us peek around the door to truth; it means having the courage to pry our fingers from our eyes. It means reevaluating our ideas, reaffirming those based in truth, and dismissing others.
Be Ye Perfect
Reevaluating our typical complacent attitudes is at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount that stretches over three chapters—Matthew 5, 6, and 7. After one of Jesus’ toughest commands—to love our enemies—one of the most frustrating commands is issued: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
It’s no wonder the American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.”
If “all have sinned and fall short 
of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), wasn’t God setting an impossibly high bar when He said, “be perfect”?
Don’t just do good deeds, Jesus says, but do good deeds that no one else will ever know about.
Don’t pray only for friends, but for rivals, too. If someone sues you, give them more than they expected. Instead of celebrating because we no longer hate our colleague, He says to help that coworker succeed.
To every Sabbathkeeping person in that crowd, Jesus said, “Don’t stop at being good; strive to reflect more of God’s character.”
God’s idea of perfection suddenly seems very different from our own. Instead of a goal attained, perfection is the process of letting God form us into His character. Jesus’ idea of perfection spurs us to action, because there’s always more we can do. Yet it also comforts us because the attainment of the goal is not as important as the training it takes to get there. God’s perfect people refuse to become complacent. Instead, they constantly ask the extreme question: “What more, God, would You have me do?”
This desire to stretch, to learn, to see another aspect of God is the hunger and thirst for righteousness that is satisfied only with Living Water. While we might prefer to imagine that perfection means drinking once and being filled, Jesus says perfection means coming to Him again and again while admitting our thirst. Thankfully, just like the rest of the Beatitudes, Jesus gives us a promise that begins in heaven: one day we will be satisfied, even while we spend eternity thirsting after Him.
God never did play by our rules.
*Bible texts in this article are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
Becky Dewey is a senior communications major from Union College, currently studying Italian adverbs in Florence as part of the Adventist Colleges Abroad program.