Pakistan is far away. A flight from New York to Islamabad takes over fourteen hours. Pakistan is on the other side of the world, it is one of the many “Whoknowsistans” we can barely locate on a map. Most of us don’t know much about the country and its people, only what we hear on the news and read in the paper.
Pakistan is far away – geographically and culturally – but it is also very close. Men and women there work hard to make a living, they have dreams for the future and for their children. They love stories, music, and movies, they have memories from when they were little, they have school loans and medical bills, they pray and they read and they are busy. In so many ways, they are just like us.
These days they are particularly close to us because the rivers of Pakistan rose after heavy rains and flooded the land, and we know a thing or two about having eight feet of water in the house. We also know how good it is, amid the shock of loss, to have neighbors who open their homes and friends who bring food and strangers who help pull out the wet sheetrock and the muddy carpet.
What is much harder for us to imagine is the scale of this flood: nine million acres of cropland are underwater; more than twenty-one million people have been affected. Numbers like that are crucial for planning disaster response and recovery efforts, but they don’t help us get any closer to the reality of loss they represent.
Smaller numbers might help. Our friends at Church World Service tell us that in the flood-devastated areas, 0.5 million women are pregnant, and every day, 1,700 of them go into labor.
I watched footage of U.S. Marine helicopters delivering food and other supplies to remote areas, and the reporter described the landscape as “a water world dotted with islands of misery, farmsteads, villages, entire towns stranded for weeks now, some entirely abandoned, from horizon to horizon, for mile after mile, a vast inland sea, accessible only by chopper.”
What is it like to give birth on an island of misery in a vast sea stretching from horizon to horizon? I wonder if the parents’ hope is strong enough to welcome the new life with joy and thanksgiving – I hope so. 1,700 babies, every day, born on little islands that used to be barely noticable hills amid the rice paddies. The number is still difficult to imagine, but the call for neighbors is clear and bright as a bell. Food and clean water are needed, a dry blanket, a tarp or a tent, a pot for cooking, a piece of candy for the big sister – gestures that remind the parents that they are not alone, gestures that welcome these little ones into a world where love of neighbor is not just a Sunday morning word but a daily reality.
I watched the helicopters flying over the flooded land and taking supplies to villages that had been marooned for up to three weeks, surrounded by water. In one village, the huge helicopter was hovering 20 feet off the ground, unable to touch down, because there wasn’t enough dry ground. The crew was throwing sacks of flour and boxes of nutrient-rich energy bars off the loading ramp, and people ran and grabbed them as they fell to the soggy ground. They had no idea when the next drop was going to come. This was their chance. “It’s the survival of the fastest. There are winners, and there are losers,” the reporter said as the camera zoomed in on an old woman with a cane, shuffling slowly towards the site of the airdrop.
‘What makes him think of her as a loser?’ I asked myself. What makes him think that those who caught a box of supplies will sit on it, making sure they have something until the waters recede or more supplies arrive? What makes him think that they will ignore the old woman or push her aside when they open their boxes?
And then I asked myself, ‘What makes me think that they won’t?’ What makes me think that life is not about the survival of the fastest, that it is not a race of winners and losers?
I don’t really know, but I suspect that it has to do with hope; it has to do with the anticipations that shape our thinking and doing, and even our perception of the world.
I see a world of winners and losers, every day, and some say, “C’est la vie, that’s life,” but that is not life. I see a world where the winners, dressed in purple and fine linen, feast sumptuously every day, and the losers lay at the gate, sick and hungry, but that is not life.
I see a world in which God is at work and love outlasts everything, and that is life. Life is love embodied in gestures of solidarity, friendship, and kindness. Life is love reaching across all that separates us.
In Jesus’ story, the poor man at the gate has a name, Lazarus. He has a name, he has a story, and at some point he had a family. The poor man at the gate is not just a poverty statistic.
Toward the end of the report from Pakistan, the camera stopped moving and showed a man in his thirties. He looked at the flooded land and said, “The destruction is on such a scale, it will be impossible to return to normality. These are poor people, and their crops are destroyed. All their savings were invested in their crops, and now they can’t harvest them. They are left with nothing.”
The man’s name is Mohammed Sardar. Pakistan is far away, but it is also very close. He says, “They are left with nothing,” but we are close enough to say to him, “You are not alone. How can we help you?”
Then the camera showed a middle-aged woman, sitting on the ground, surrounded by children.
“What will my life be like?” she said. “I am sitting here in sadness with my children. Nobody is giving me food. I have nothing. All my time is spent in shock, with my children around me. I have no medicine, no food, no water, no sanitation.”
Her name is Naseeba Khatoon. Pakistan is on the other side of the world, but close enough for us to see her face and know her name; close enough to say to her, “You are not alone. Your life is part of our life.”
In Jesus’ story, the world is divided between winners and losers: rich man in the house, poor man at the gate. Survival of the fastest, the smartest, the ones with the better ideas or the better connections. But death brings an unexpected reversal: now the rich man is in agony, and Lazarus finds comfort in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man cries out for help, and Abraham says,
“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
This little story is rather blunt in suggesting that we notice and look at others who depend on our mercy and compassion, and begin to see ourselves in their position. What if I were in his or her place? Would I suffer quietly, hoping to be noticed, or would I cry for help? What response would I expect, what response would surprise me? And now that I’ve noticed their suffering and begun to see myself in their place, how do I live? How do I reach across that which divides us and prepare the way for divine love to restore wholeness?
This little story is also rather blunt in pointing out that our time to reach out in such a manner is limited – we have a lifetime to practice mercy and compassion, but we only have a lifetime. We have a lifetime to build bridges across the great chasm, to pass from here to there and to cross from there to here. Lazarus, Naseeba, and Mohammed need to know that they are not alone, that they are not cut off from life. They have crossed from there to here, for the sake of life, and with us they yearn for a world that is no longer divided into winners and losers. With us they yearn for life that is shared.
Jesus’ story isn’t opium for the poor at the gate, teaching them to remain quiet in their suffering and await the comforts of having their souls rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Jesus tells this story to people who are tempted to confuse wealth – and the power and comforts that go with it – with life. I don’t dress in purple and fine linen, I don’t party every day, and I certainly don’t step over poor people on my way to work in the morning or when I go home at night. I can’t identify with the rich man in the story, but I can easily identify with one of his five siblings: I need every reminder I can get from Moses and the prophets and the one who rose from the dead that Lazarus, Naseeba, and Mohammed need me as much as I need them for life to be whole and fulfilled.
And Moses says, Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor (Deuteronomy 15:7).
And Isaiah says, Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house (Isaiah 58:7).
And Jesus says, You cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:13).
I need every reminder I can get.
Poverty, hunger, and homelessness are complex issues – but lying at the gate is not a bunch of issues. It is always a human being with a name; a person with dreams and needs.
Jesus doesn’t call us to solve the world’s problems. Jesus calls us to trust the promises of God rather than the possibilities of wealth. Jesus calls us to walk the path of compassion where we discover just how close Pakistan is.
For more information how you can support flood relief in Pakistan, visit Week of Compassion.