The Gift of an Empty Cup

by Jennifer Pope

When speaking of my nationality, I have always referred to myself as an American. I realize now that such a simple statement carries with it a rather arrogant assumption–that the United States comprises the entirety of South, Central, and North America. After a recent trip to South America, I realized that my Ecuadorian friends are also Americans.

I came to this realization while in Ecuador as part of a North Park Theological Seminary class called Missions in Latin America. My error was in some ways a simple one, unintentional and easily corrected. However, as I continue to reflect on the impact of this trip on my life, I am discovering deeper layers of error stemming from similar unwitting assumptions.

As the only child of a Young Life staff member, I grew up immersed in Young Life clubs, camps, and conferences. I quickly assimilated a key Young Life tenet, that my job as a Christian was “to be Jesus with skin on” to those around me. When preparing for a ministry event such as the mission trip to Ecuador, it is natural for me to buff up what I call my “Jesus skills,” and prepare myself to serve. This posture has served me well in past ministry experiences and I had no reason to doubt that it would work in Ecuador as well. It didn’t.

My first roadblock was lack of communication skills. On previous international trips, I had always been part of a choir where my means of sharing Christ was through song. Although our group did sing on our first night in Cayambe, we weren’t very good. In fact, we massacred the song. So much for singing. At home, I could also rely on speaking like Christ, but since I knew almost no Spanish, I could not do this either.

Seeking out another avenue to make a contribution, I considered the construction work we were there to do. But this, too, was discouraging as I realized that everything I did could just as readily have been accomplished by my Ecuadorian hosts.

I grew frustrated and knew that I needed an attitude adjustment. I got the help I needed by reading a wonderful book called Gracias by the late Henri Nouwen. Gracias is not a book so much as a reflective journal of Nouwen’s experiences serving in Bolivia and Peru. Throughout, Nouwen struggles with whether God has called him to remain permanently in Latin America. In one entry Nouwen makes the following observations:

“The mystery of ministry is that the Lord is to be found where we  minister. That is what Jesus tells us when he says: ‘Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these [sisters or] brothers of mine, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). Our care for people thus becomes the way to meet the Lord…. To go to the poor is to go to the Lord. Living this truth in our daily life makes it possible to care for people without conditions, without hesitation, without suspicion, or without the need for immediate rewards…. The goal of education and formation for the ministry is continually to recognize the Lord’s voice, his face, and his touch in every person we meet.”

My learning experience began in earnest when, with Nouwen’s help, I received a large dose of humility. In letting go of my need to be Jesus with skin on, as well as my misguided attempts to solve the world’s ills, I was able to begin to see Christ in a purer sense.

Loving Jesus in song was not limited to my own formal vocal training but gloriously evident in the heartfelt worship songs of the Cayambe church. The greatest expression of a servant heart was not to be found in my contributions, but in the generosity of the La Companian people who served me their rarest and most expensive delicacies for lunch.  Servanthood was little evidenced in my attitude as I found myself frequently frustrated, but was abundantly clear in the humility of the Ecuadorians who praised us for doing more work than they did, though this was clearly not the case.

In naming and releasing the assumption that I was the sole possessor of a gift everyone else needed, I discovered a deeper understanding of Christ’s call to ministry by looking instead for that which my sisters and brothers could teach and share with me. This was a profound shift in my worldview. No longer intent on seeing myself as Jesus, I was able to see Jesus in those I came to serve.

No matter how hard you and I try, we will never be Christ; and more often than not we may fail to even be Christ-like. Though it is also true that those we serve are not Jesus, it is imperative that we alter the way we view our task as Christians to avoid the pitfalls of a “Jesus with skin on” mentality.

Even when carefully considered, approaching the Christian life as if I am to “be Jesus” can be dangerous. It has been said that what we think affects what we say; what we say affects what we do; what we do affects who we are. If there is any truth in this statement, and I believe there is, then trying to understand myself as Jesus with skin on will affect the way I approach and treat the people I serve.

In ideal circumstances, this would be a good thing. People would see Jesus as a person who feeds the hungry, weeps with those who mourn, spends time with social outcasts, and selflessly gives. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Such a posture may also send a very wrong message, especially when we minister as “tourists” in places we do not live, leaving as quickly as we came, and investing little in the lives of those we ostensibly came to serve. I worry about presenting myself as this kind of Jesus.

In Ecuador I was convicted of the arrogance of calling myself an American. Just as pretentious is assuming that I could actually be Jesus with skin on, and its implication that I should teach while others listen and learn. A deeper understanding of what it means to work in missions is summarized by a Catholic priest in Peru who says, “Missioners came down with a full chalice, overflowing. Instead, they should have come with an empty cup. Then, we would have filled it with [them].”

My brief experience in Ecuador has transformed my understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to minister to those around me. It is my prayer that every day I will come to a deeper understanding of what it means to go out into the world willing to learn as well as to teach, eager to receive as well as to give, ready to meet Jesus as well as present him to others.

The Covenant Companion, August 1999