“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand–shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
Two weeks ago I returned home from our annual senior high Impact mission trip. This year there were 41 of us who went to work in the village of Las Majadas in the western highlands of Guatemala. This part of Guatemala is known as the indigenous center of the country, similar to visiting a Native American reservation here in the United States. Over the years, the Mayan people had been forced into the highlands due to political conflict. Las Majadas and the other villages in the highlands are comprised mostly of indigenous Mayan women and children. The majority of the men have gone elsewhere to try to find work and those left behind struggle to provide for themselves. They live in small, one room mud huts or dwellings made out of wood or tin. The families all live, sleep and eat in one room together. Their houses were smaller than your bedrooms. A few of them had electricity which would mean one bare bulb hanging in the center of their house. They enjoy very few of the modern comforts that we consider essential for
everyday life. For example, they do not have beds. They sleep on the dirt floor or a wooden board and they have no plumbing or bathrooms. The Mayan communities are stuck in cycles of poverty and dependency in which they have become entrenched, due to oppression from the government and widespread discrimination.
The week before our trip, there was a volcanic eruption in Guatemala that closed down the international airport and that was followed by a tropical storm that caused mudslides and sink holes. You might have seen pictures of the devastation in the news. It seemed likely that we would have to cancel the trip, but with a little faith and a lot of reports from people on the ground assuring us that we would be safe, we went ahead with our plans. It was such a blessing that we did.
For six months the community of Las Majadas had been hoping and waiting for stoves, yes, stoves, such a simple thing. Imagine your stove at home. With the ease of the turn of a knob or the flick of a button you can whip up a meal in a matter of minutes. Not so in Guatemala. First they have to collect wood, lots of wood and then make a fire in the hut that serves as their kitchen. Smoke billows around them, harming their lungs and causing severe respiratory problems. Children wander by dangerous flames sometimes being scorched. The women wait and wait and wait, just for water to boil. I think of those commercials for the newest Electorlux stovetops that can boil water in 90 seconds. Try waiting for an hour. Sadly we couldn’t give them the latest appliances, but we did work with them to build stoves about 4 and ½ feet long, 2 and ½ feet wide and 3 feet high made of cinder blocks, bricks and mortar.
We had the privilege and honor of working in their homes alongside them, getting to know the families, joking and playing with children and pets. We managed to build 20 stoves that will reduce the amount of wood used to cook by 70%, protect children from the fires and filter the harmful smoke out of their houses. Something so simple and yet it will have such a significant benefit. We all had a strong sense of accomplishment by the end of the trip. Through the experience we saw the potential we have to make a real difference in someone else’s life and accomplish things we didn’t know we were capable of doing. None of us had ever built a stove before but we learned and grew from the process.
We all have such potential to make life better, fuller, more meaningful for ourselves and others. With the comforts and privileges we enjoy here, we can often shield ourselves from the darkness that others experience in the world because of injustice, oppression, prejudice and poverty. As Christians we are called to be a light in the darkness. The world is huge and its problems great but we should not let that deter us. Sometimes I think that our fear of losing what we have stops us from sharing with others in the ways we could. Sometimes I think we don’t believe we can really make an impact. Whether you are motivated by a desire to follow Jesus or just your desire to help your fellow human beings, each and every one of us can bring love, light and goodness into the world. It only takes one person to change the world.
Author James W. Foley illustrates this in his writing that I would like to share with you. It is called One Solitary Life.
“Here is a man who was born, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in an obscure village. He was a carpenter until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant teacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had children. He never went to college. He never travelled, except in his infancy, more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
“While he was still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. One of his friends betrayed him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through a mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. When he was dead, he was taken down from the cross and laid in a borrowed grave through the courtesy of a friend.
“Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is a centerpiece of our society. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has this one life.”
One life can make all the difference. That life could be ours. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of the needs of others and of our own potential.
On the night before we left for Guatemala we gathered in the church. During our time of worship we read the passage from Matthew, the words attributed to Jesus telling us: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine.” Or as it says in the translation from the Message: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop—shine!” With that in mind we lit candles, turning to one another, sharing the light with each other and telling one another “You are the light of the world.” It was a powerful experience.
What do salt and light have to teach us about God? Theologian Don Schwager points out that “Jesus used ordinary images to convey extraordinary truths.” Salt was very valuable in the ancient world. People traded with it, like we trade with gold and stocks. Salt also served an extremely useful purpose in hot climates before the invention of electricity and refrigeration. Salt gave food flavor and preserved meat from spoiling. Disciples are called to preserve Jesus’ message of love and service. Lamps in the ancient world served a vital function as well. They allowed people to work in the dark. Lamps also helped to guide people. In the Holy Land, many villages were built on the tops of hills. When night came, the lights in the houses could be seen from a great distance and were used to guide people on their journeys. Light was also understood as an expression of the inner truth and goodness of God.
Jesus used descriptions of salt and lamps to inspire his disciples. As it says in The Message, we are to bring out the God-flavors and the God-colors in the world. We should shine. What does it mean to shine? When we shine we are living in a way that brings peace, justice and healing to the world. We appreciate and illuminate the many blessings that life holds and we illuminate God’s spirit within all of us. God does not intend for life to be tasteless and dull. God wants us to live fully. We find the fullness of life by opening ourselves up to expanding our awareness of God’s presence all around us and within us, by striving for justice and freedom from oppression for all and by creating community and connecting with others.
In Guatemala, we learned about a Mayan belief called “wach’lal” which means “I am you and you are me.” This belief recognizes that we are all important, sacred. We are all descended from the same set of original cells. We all breathe the same air. We all awaken each day beneath the same sun. I am no better than you and you are no better than me. Our separation from one another is only an illusion. If we believe in this idea of “wach’lal” then we come to see that we cannot live fully and let others suffer.
Sometimes I wonder if people go on mission trips believing that they are better than and have more to offer than the people they are going to serve but we shouldn’t go on mission trips to be other people’s saviors. We may in fact be saving ourselves. We go to remind ourselves that the world is smaller than we think. We learn that our well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of everyone else on this earth. You are the light of the world, but so is the person sitting next to you and so is the Mayan woman cooking over her new stove in Las Majadas. We cannot shine by ourselves. We need God’s love to illuminate us and we need others to share our light and to share their light with us. You are the light of the world. What will you do with your light? Will you hide it or will you choose to bring out the God-colors in the world? I say, let us all shine!