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A Different Kind of Worrying

November 30, 2010

Marilyn grabbed me by the hand and ushered me quickly down the sidewalk. “Do not touch that child or even speak to her”  she whispered in my ear as she dragged me back to the car. We were inside and away before I could catch my bearings. I looked sadly back at the scene I had left behind.

There, standing on the sidewalk alone, was a little two year old girl. She had on a ripped shirt, ragged pants and no shoes. Her fingers were stained a dull yellow and her face was littered with soot. When Marilyn, our missionary friend scooped me up, I had been about to ask this little girl if she needed something. I could not believe Marilyn would be so heartless as to whisk me away before I could help.

“Mike, you don’t understand what was happening. Remember, I told you not to help anyone without consulting me first.”

“But how could there be anything wrong with helping out a little lost child?

“Normally, nothing. But this was not a lost little child. Her mother planted her there. As soon as you touched her, mom would jump out and start screaming that you were stealing her daughter. A crowd was all ready to come around you and threaten to kill you. You would have had to pay money to get out of there. I saved you the trouble.”

I had never known Marilyn to be this cynical. Perhaps she was right in her assessment of what happened. I don’t know. But it made me sick to think that she wouldn’t take the chance to help that little waif.

“I guess the longer you live here the less you feel like helping people” I offered. Then I looked at Marilyn’s face. Pain was written in every line. She stopped the car and asked me to get out. We walked around to the trunk and she opened it up. It was half full of food…little packages of food all neatly laid out like Christmas presents under a tree.

“I have to feed these little kids, Mike. God help me if I don’t!” Tears were pouring down her cheeks as she said this. In silence, we drove a few more miles. Going down one back alley, Marilyn spotted two young children rifling through a garbage can. She stopped, got food out of the trunk and walked a dozen yards away from the car. The kids came running over to her and she fed them. Her face was a wonderful mixture of joy and relief. She needed to feed them.

In the days following, I asked her so many questions about that day. With the tens of thousands of homeless children in that city, didn’t she get overwhelmed? How did she know who to feed? Did it ever feel hopeless or overwhelming? She answered every question wisely and with gentleness. But what I heard underneath her words was a passionate concern. She was worried about her kids. She had to feed them.

The Greek language had a word for worry – Merimnao. In the Bible, the word is sometimes used to describe that condition where we fret and fume over daily troubles. But just as many times, the word is used in a positive way. It also means focused concern, deep commitment, obsessive calling. It is the same emotion – worry.  But as with many emotions, it can be expressed positively or negatively. Here is what every positive use has in common: The concern is for someone else and not ourselves.

We are told in Matthew 6 not to be overly concerned about what we should wear, eat or drink. It tells us not to worry about tomorrow because today has enough troubles. But worry morphs into a totally different thing when it is focused outward, when it catalyzes into helping someone in need.

Marilyn had an obsessive need to feed children. Lately, I have met people who were concerned for the welfare of women in sexual slavery; those who long to help children with Down’s Syndrome; others who are concerned for college students who are self-absorbed; and a team of people who give up their own time and money to help poverty-stricken townspeople with few homes and even less food. On Thanksgiving Day, I ran with 27,000 people who were raising money for the hungry. I wouldn’t call that an obsession. But, after running, I heard a story about someone who raises money every day of the year for the hungry and homeless.

“Don’t worry, be happy” is only a healthy mantra when we are looking at our own lives. It is a noble thing to be passionately concerned for others. In fact, I’m not sure if you have truly come alive spiritually until you do.

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