s I sat in Hong Kong International Airport en route to India, I couldn’t help anticipating the adventures that lay ahead. Since I was a child I had wanted to do something like this. I used to sit on my mother’s lap as she read me stories about missionaries in faraway lands. I listened eagerly to tales of witch doctors, wild animals, diseases, and how Jesus turned every uncertain event into something beautiful, miraculous, and inspiring.
In the years since I listened to those stories the excitement never left me. They instilled in me a passion to serve the Lord.
A Dream Come True
When I arrived in India, I smiled when I realized it looked just like those books I saw as a child. Through sunglasses I looked at all the colorful flowers and exotic brown-eyed people in radiant clothing crowding the sunny streets. I saw oxen, goats, even elephants lumbering alongside women in flowing saris who carried water jugs on their heads. I saw street vendors selling papayas, mangoes, and bananas. As I looked out into the flurry of activity, I felt ready to embrace this unique culture.
However, as time wore on, I began to realize all that mission work entailed. This was no vacation! Those stories I listened to as a child neglected to mention the personal sacrifice involved. Pollution and contamination meant we had to be very careful about what we ate and drank. Many American foods were unavailable to us, and I quickly started to lose weight. I began to crave certain foods. I had dreams about sitting at a table overflowing with an abundance of succulent delicacies. What I wouldn’t do for just a plate of spaghetti and a fresh garden salad!
Toward the end of our trip we went into a high-class Indian restaurant and, much to my delight, I recognized “Spaghetti Neapolitan” on the menu. I grinned and licked my lips when I saw it coming. I twirled my fork and eagerly took a bite. But wait! This wasn’t tomato sauce; it was flavored with sweet and sour sauce!
As time passed, food wasn’t the only thing I missed. I missed my family, my friends, and all the socializing I was accustomed to back home. I have a close circle of friends, and there’s always something new going on. What were they doing? I missed playing basketball, guitar, and rock climbing with them. I missed my down comforter and my fluffy cat that likes to sleep next to me. I wanted to hear my Christian music. I missed my fast computer and the Internet with a world of information and entertainment at my fingertips.
As time went on my heart longed for home!
A New Reality
Then it hit me: When I took my mind off myself and began to look around at others, I was shocked by what I saw.
Our translator, a hardworking man who loves Jesus, is away from home 10 months out of the year so he can travel and tell people about his Savior. His wife cries every time she has to say goodbye because she doesn’t know when or if she will see him again. She can’t travel with him because it’s not safe. There would be no proper bathroom facilities, since he travels from village to village, sometimes sleeping in barns and eating whatever he can find.
He was not the only one who put others before himself. Everywhere our group went, the Indians inconvenienced themselves so we would be more comfortable. Even though they didn’t have much money, they brought out their best food and entertainment to welcome us. They fed us coconut milk, cookies, crackers, and fresh fruit—including apples, which are an expensive delicacy for them.
We learned that a lot of Indians eat only one meal a day, yet children gave me gifts of food. When we declined their offer of food, they insisted that we eat. They would take time off work to throw a celebration for us, complete with music, flowers, and dancing. One time we even got to tour the village by riding on top of a decorated oxcart. The Indians often gave up their seats for us. They held umbrellas to shade us from the sun so we could have both our hands free to greet people and pray for them. They would even have given up their beds if we stayed in the villages, so we opted to travel two hours to a hotel.
One of the men who coordinated this adventure is American. He gave up living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world to live in a country where much of the population lives in extreme poverty. He gave up bright job opportunities in the United States to work for a modest salary in India. Dust and smog hangs in the air so heavily at times that the men and women take their saris and scarves and hold them over their mouths and noses as a filter. This man and his wife chose to raise their family in that kind of environment so they might serve.
All the translators, coordinators, and Bible workers we met had made huge sacrifices. One man asked us to pray for him because his wife was in labor and he could not be with her because he was doing evangelism. This same man came from an upper-class family that works for the government. But when he learned about Jesus, he gave up his inheritance so he could be a Bible worker. He risked the loss of his family and their respect so that more people could learn about Jesus.
And I whine about the absence of spaghetti!
Little by little I began to learn a concept that was mostly foreign to me: sacrifice. How could I fully understand Jesus’ tremendous sacrifice when inconvenience was practically a foreign concept? I came to India to teach people about the sacrifice Jesus made, and I found that Indians are much closer to understanding that sacrifice than I am.
I began to see Jesus as hungry, tired, lonely, missing His Father. I imagined His arms outstretched as nails were pounded into those hardworking, self-sacrificing hands. I finally caught a glimpse of the meaning of salvation. It clicked. I began to understand what it took to set me free. It took something as dramatic and traumatic as Christ’s death on the cross to take my focus off myself and refocus my attention on just how far and deep is Jesus’ love for us.
I also understood that Christ’s saving blood is what gives people the power to make the sacrifices they do. Like Paul, they find it an honor to suffer for the Lord’s sake: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
What Do You Think?
1. What would you miss most if you had to live in a country less developed than your own? 2. In what ways do we try to insulate ourselves from the world's poverty, misery, and superstition? List at least five.
3. How do you combine the concept of sacrifice with the face that so much of God's creation delights the senses?
4.If you wanted to embrace the concept of sacrifice, what would you go without, and how would that benefit someone in need?
My perspective about sacrifice began to change. I no longer saw sacrifice as a negative concept but a positive one. Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). By denying ourselves, we are brought closer to Christ; and anything that brings us closer to Jesus is a good thing! More about Jesus, less about me.
Back to My Reality
With these thoughts in my mind, I made my journey home. After three days of traveling, I stepped off the airplane in Pasco, Washington; but my thoughts were still in India. Who will tell all those people about Jesus?
Our whole culture is set up to avoid sacrifices. Our entire society is built on serving ourselves. Bigger, better, faster, and more beautiful might be our motto, if we had one. We want more, more, more.
After having been in India I understood salvation better. I missed my family, my fluffy cat, my warm bed, and spaghetti. I was gone only about a month. Jesus came from His glorious, indescribable heaven to live on earth 33 years. He made huge sacrifices, knowing full well that many people would reject Him. What amazing love!
Jesus wants us to long for heaven as I longed for home. So I pray: “God, never again let me take for granted the sweet, pure character of Jesus as He hung upon that rough cross for me.”
Geneva Mertens lives in Bangkok, Thailand, where she works in public relations for Ekamai International School of Seventh-day Adventists. (Published October 8, 2009)