What Keeps Us Going When Reality Grows Cold?

My friend leads an excellent micro-finance ministry in South Africa. He’s a bright soul, rarely down, but I could hear ache in his voice. “So often it feels like one step forward and two back.”

We’d puffed our way up 3,000 feet to the top of South Africa’s majestic Table Mountain. Rolling hills, vineyards and ridges of orange stone reached northward as far as eyes could see. In the other direction, Africa’s southernmost coastline stretched toward the Cape of Good Hope, splitting the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Glorious. Grand vistas tend to make the world’s hurt seem small and distant. Like the townships that appeared far below in tranquil, multicolor swatches of color.  It was a Cezanne masterpiece from a distance…but more like one by Goya up close.

From Table Mountain

The work my friend leads is some of the most holistic and well-thought out I know. It’s grown rapidly in recent years, elevating both the material and spiritual lives of countless poor entrepreneurs and their families. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a story of ministry success if ever there is one. But perhaps that only underscores for my friend how painfully slow real change can be…and how tenuous.

He spoke of an impoverished immigrant served by the ministry. The man’s furniture repair business grew steadily. He purchased a shipping container to serve as a bona fide workshop. But then one night, as thieves tried to cut into the workshop with a welder, sparks fell onto the sawdust-covered floor. The entrepreneur’s hard-bought tools were consumed in the fire, and also much of the furniture he was repairing for clients. In a moment, he plunged from the cusp of prosperity into un-repayable debt.

There were more stories, too — the kind that rarely reach Western donors. But every person who labors near to poverty knows many such tales intimately. One step forward and two back.

The sun was setting over the Atlantic, turning the sea and mountains to gold. But a sharp, early winter wind whipped over Table Mountain. Our thin jackets were no match for it. And the beauty couldn’t keep us warm. Soon I was shivering.

Something in my friend’s voice reminded me of emotions I’d felt years before, laboring in the California State Capitol.

Like most everyone who enters politics, I’d plunged in to effect change for good. I wanted to climb up behind the mighty gears of government and push forward the noble and true with earth-mover force. But stone by immovable stone, I saw that change was far more difficult than I’d dreamed. At best that big machine could only shift surface soil here or there—always partial and easily undone. The machine could never scrape deep enough to touch what matters most: the human heart.

And yet, even as cynicism knocked at the door, I’d come to believe there was still reason to serve. Not to fix the world. That was out of reach. Whether or not my work achieved all I might hope, I was called to reflect God’s tender, healing love amidst hurt.

Over my years in politics, I saw some victories, and many disappointments. Often one step forward and two back. I worked for reform, improvement, solutions. At times, I saw these, partial though they always were. But ultimately, I knew the quest for such outcomes couldn’t be the fuel in my engine. If it were, no matter how hard I’d try, the problems would inevitably outlast my enthusiasm.

I see this just as much today in the “fields of the fatherless.”   Oh how we yearn to lift and carry every child that sleeps on the streets…to reunite every severed family…to find kindly parents for every orphaned girl and boy.

Such desires are not misplaced. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that all be set right…” We long for an earth with no poverty, sickness, orphans. We pray and labor. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the coming Kingdom in bursts of brilliant shalom.

Yet we know that the hurt of a fallen humanity will always be with us. We will not fix it all. But we can reflect the love we have received, daily and vibrantly, mirroring light not from our dreams of utopia, but from the One who loved us first. Knowing this Truth, we can continue to labor for good even when smaller truths leave us shivering.

In politics as in microfinance as in orphan care: we will never fully repair a broken world, yet we can daily bring healing and grace amidst it.

As my friend and I descended the mountain, the cold had sunk into my bones. Warmth seemed a distant memory. But as I blew on my unfeeling fingers, I caught the reflected blaze of the sun’s last rays in my friend’s eyes. And I knew that sun would rise again, not by my wishing or labor, but because it is upheld by a Hand much stronger than my own.