I never knew how oppressive flowers could be until I stood under the weight of 10 thick garlands for a few hours in a room without air-conditioning. While on vacation in India, my husband Sam and I attended a small church at the invitation of its pastor, Amit Malik—a partner of In Touch Ministries. In lavish display of the Indian adage “Guest is god,” a handful of church members surrounded us and placed strings of fresh flowers around our necks to welcome and honor our presence. Afterwards, Amit asked me to join him on the small stage and share a brief message before the congregation.
It was not particularly theological, but simply a reminder of the tension we are called to hold in loving God first and foremost, taking care of our fellow siblings in Christ, and serving the broken world around us. I realized later how silly my little sermonette must have sounded to them when I learned that this congregation has played an integral role in Amit’s efforts to plant hundreds of thriving house churches across north India. Not only did they know God’s Word, but they were also using all they knew in the advance of His kingdom.
At the end of the service, Amit invited everyone to come forward with their prayer requests, asking me to pray with the women and my husband to pray with the men. I closed my eyes to pray over the first woman who approached—and by the time I opened them, the number of people before me seemed to have doubled. At first I thought it was an illusion, but I soon realized that a few more families had come in from the streets, and the small upper room church quickly began to reach its full capacity. All this was quite normal for a Sunday morning, I found out later.
The line of women before me now seemed endless, and my voice grew weaker as I shouted my prayers over the background music. The flower garlands were trapping my body heat, brewing a sweaty swamp under my shirt. The women’s prayer requests ranged from back pain to serious illness, for them or for someone they loved. A few young girls asked me to pray for their studies and exams. One middle-aged woman asked me to pray for her marriage and another for her husband’s salvation. I kept praying until the last woman walked away.
By then, my head was pounding and my stomach was taut with hunger. As I made my way towards the back of the room to sit down and rest, I saw a family step up to greet me, along with a volunteer from the church who interpreted their request. “They want you to pray for their son,” he said to me. I looked around at the figures standing before me to determine who that was, but they gestured to the floor before their feet. There, lying partially wrapped in an old blanket, was a boy of about 6 or 7. He was only semi-conscious—eyes open but glazed and fixed in a single direction. His body was motionless except for the intermittent convulsions that shuddered slowly through his frail form.
I think I must have been standing there in shock for a moment too long, because the interpreter went on. Crouching down, he tugged the boy’s shorts away from the side of his hip to reveal a gangrene-like patch of skin the size of a tennis ball. I stood there, still speechless, a lump rising in my throat. He continued, “When we first started praying for him, it used to be this big,” his hands cupped towards each other in the shape of a melon. “They have come here for several weeks—we pray for him every Sunday.” I shook my body out of its temporary paralysis and managed to elicit some semblance of a response, still monitoring my facial expression. Finally, I knelt down next to the boy, feeling a constricting sense of helplessness rush through my spine and extremities like hot ice.
Whatever confidence I had while praying with the women—whose requests were far more familiar to me—had completely melted away in the face of such undeniable need. This boy, much like the man whose friends lowered him from the roof to receive healing from Jesus, could not have done so for himself. And while I began to pray out loud for him with all my heart and soul, my mind was on another mission—begging God not only for the words to pray but also for the faith. Yet instead of receiving some divine boost of belief from on high to request that this boy be healed before my eyes, I simply asked God to continue the work He had already begun. Even in that, my words felt weak and my faith hollow. How much more needed to happen for this boy to be restored to fullness of life? Would that ever take place this side of eternity? I dearly hoped the child would someday live free from pain and difficulty, but my faith wasn’t so sure of what I hoped for in that moment. At the time, I was certain of what I could see—which was a young boy in need of far more than a single healing miracle.
The burden I felt while lifting him up in prayer before God reminded me again of all that is not right in our world—all the disorder and sickness, the inequality and injustice, the abuse and violence; and the many millions of men, women, and children like him who are left hurting and broken. All this suffering caused by the wide spectrum of wrongs that mankind, through our sin, has invented—a multitude of wrongs which, without God, we could never make right.
Whenever we go on a mission trip abroad or engage in local ministry, we tend to think of ourselves as coming to give, to serve, or to share from our abundance—whether it be our skills, our money, or simply our time and energy. But what I will never forget is that as I laid my hands on the boy’s thin arms to pray, I was sensing his smallness as well as my own. In the presence of his weakness, I was made acutely aware of how weak I was in light of his suffering. And finding myself in this state, stripped of all pretense and self-assurance, I was reminded again of the meekness Jesus reduced Himself to on our account. This Jesus who, though “in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6-7). What we find in Christ is a Savior who saved us not through His divine wealth, but through human poverty—not out of His strength, but out of deliberate weakness. Likewise, Paul reminds members of the early church that many of them were not considered wise, powerful, or noble according to worldly standards, but that God has intentionally chosen what is foolish and weak in the world to shame the wise and the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Those who follow Christ are called to serve and minister from that same humble posture—and in doing so, we recognize the new order of His upside-down kingdom. As Henri Nouwen says, “The mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness, [so that we may] enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God.”
And yet poverty of spirit does not come naturally to our flesh, especially for those of us who feel the most confident and self-assured. Deliberate weakness is a sacrifice that costs us something—our image, our comfort, and even our understanding of the world. But if we let ourselves become small and helpless before God and man, emptied entirely of our own natural strength and dignity, then in their place, His supernatural power and glory are made all the more perfect.