Old lessons seem to come back round again and again.
In the 1970's there was a photo from the World Press which became really famous. A young photo-journalist travelling in Africa, following the progress of yet another African drought had captured what seemed to be a standard World Vision advertisement. In the centre of the frame a young black boy stared out from big brown eyes; glazed and hopeless. He crouched in the sand, sun shining fiercely on skin pulled tight over bony ribs. His knobbly knees poked out above matchstick legs.
It was a sad picture, undeniably, but what was truly haunting was a shadow one could easily miss. In the top right corner of the photo sat a vulture. Sitting, staring hungrily, eyeing up this little boy. A bird of prey - he could smell death approaching, and he was waiting for his meal.
Both the photo and the photo-journalist burst onto the international scene; fame, fortune and photography contracts rained from the wealthy western sky. Critics appreciated his ability to capture the 'raw' and 'grim' realities of life far, far, away.
Time and time again, however, in interviews and at cocktail parties, people would ask "So, what did you do?"
" There was nothing I could do" he would say. "I could have chased the vulture away, but I knew that as soon as I left, he would come back."
And only months later, the photographer was found dead in his apartment. Suicide, some would speculate - caused by his overwhelming guilt and helplessness in the face of what he had seen.
Last week a group of us were travelling home on a Sunday night when we came across an accident. Minutes before, a bus travelling in the opposite direction had come off the road and rolled. We were on the scene before the emergency services. Passengers were still being helped out of the escape hatch on the roof. In my mind, I raced through the possibilities of whether we would be more help than hindrance by stopping - there were already about 15 cars pulled off to the side of the road to assist. But in the end I pulled over and slid into park.
My younger brother pulled out his iphone excitedly - " I could take a picture and send it to the Herald", and he leaned over to snap away, before I brusquely put a stop to it claiming it was "insensitive" and "disrespectful". Something inside me rebelled at the idea of getting any sort of benefit or enjoyment from an event that would have been scary if not terrifying for those involved, and which may have (we did not yet know) caused injury or even death!
20 minutes later, we left the scene in the hands of emergency crews. We had talked to some passengers, hugged them, given away a couple of blankets, and palmed off the few muesli bars left over from our lunch. As we rolled away, I leaned over and told my bro "go for it and take some shots now."
It's got me thinking.
People may criticise the photographer for walking away, but isnt' that what we do every single time we see a need and we ignore it? I may have told my brother to stop with the camera, but really - it wasn't wrong to take a photo, as we found out later - there were no Serious Injuries, and, in all honesty, stopping to help may have been more about putting my mind at ease that we didnt' just drive past rather than actually having made a tangible legitimate difference.
When I see these things I want to make it right. I don't want to just take a photo, I feel like I need to do more, and at the same time I feel like I can never give enough. There will always be one more child. The vulture will always be lurking. I'll have to fly home. What is the point? What is my role?
Sometimes our job IS to take a photo and tell a story, sometimes it is to listen and understand, sometimes it is to give money, to give time, to simply pray. At other times, our involvement might involve a combination of these, or a longer term commitment. It might involve a one-off action or a continuous, intentional investment.
The thing I need to remember is to keep my focus from centreing 1) on the needs and 2) on my ability to meet them. 1) is overwhelmingly big and 2) is overwhelmingly inadequate.
Every now and again I fall into the trap of thinking that maybe I am some kind of second Messiah, who can make everyone happy, make the world right again, fix people's problems. I mean, I don't really think this, but I act like I do. I rush around trying to fit everything in, trying to give time here and emotion there. Spending energy without taking a breath, and I end up disillusioned and disappointed to see that the biggest change is a few grey hairs and extra bags under my eyes.
I need be ME. ME. ME, wonderful amazing, glorious, made-like-this-for-a-reason, creation-of-the-Most-High-God ME! I need to be OK with God giving me a role that seems small, insignificant, useless in the long-run, unglamourous, unnoticed, unappreciated. I need to be OK with God not giving me a job in meeting some particular person's need. I need to be OK with God being God, with God being the answer and ultimate solution to people's needs. OK with God holding the master plan and doing things over time in HIS time, not my time, and doing it HIS way, not my way. It's so easy to forget, but it sure takes a lot of weight off my shoulders when I remember.
Because it's when I am ME in my weakness, and frailty, not-obsessed-with-fixing-the-world -and-making-people-happy,my genuine Jesus-loving, life-loving self, that I'm actually free to be used to the most amazing potential. When I am weak, THEN He is strong. God doesn't show us people and needs so that we can sort them out ourselves. He shows them to us so that we can see Him; right there in the middle of it.
I feel ashamed of myself when I read this. For being SO thick! and slow to learn! Grrrrrrr. Grrrrr Grrrrace. Yeah. Grace.