I trudge slowly up the mountain to the church. Most of Antananarivo, Madagascar, hangs precariously off the side of one mountain or another. I’m not quite sure how the buildings stay vertical, but this church is literally built on solid rock. 

They tell me that when they bought this small piece of property, it was only a boulder. They purchased a boulder. The congregation showed up every day to chip and chisel away at the mammoth rock until they had enough level ground to erect their mud-brick building. I try to wrap my mind around this kind of vision, faith, and devotion while juxtaposing it with a Western churches’ belief that just the right thickness of theater seating in the sanctuary is essential for church growth.

When I finally reach the open wood-plank door, my linen shirt and skirt are drenched in sweat, and my dirty feet feel sticky in my leather hiking sandals. It’s dusk. I sit down on a rough wooden bench and swat the swarm of mosquitos that hover over me like a low-hanging cloud. I forgot to take my malaria meds again, but it’s too late to worry about that now.

I look up. A single light bulb dangles from the corrugated tin ceiling by a wire. I’m smiling, but only on the outside. 

I have already spoken nine times in three days, in addition to many other activities, and every place involved a climb, scorching heat, and bugs. I’m hot, tired, hungry, dehydrated, cranky, and being eaten alive. I’m also here to talk about love. I take a breath and ask God to help me. I need a quick attitude adjustment, but I receive much more than that.

The worship leader begins a song I recognize. They are singing in Malagasy but I join them in English:

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his son

A woman across the aisle catches my eye. She wears a faded red floral head-wrap. Her ragged shirt is tucked into a colorful but threadbare cloth called a lambawan. She stands tall on bare feet, arms outstretched, face tilted upward. Tears stream down her cheeks as she sings:

And now let the weak say I am strong
Let the poor say I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us
Give thanks

The scales fall off my eyes. In an instant, God introduces me to myself, revealing the ugly underbelly of first-world privilege hidden in my heart. He exposes that secret, unspoken sense that I shouldn’t be inconvenienced, that I shouldn’t be hungry or thirsty or have to sleep on a dirt floor or wash my clothes in a bucket or worry about malaria or walk everywhere on aching feet. I’m an American, for God’s sake.

I weep through the rest of the worship. I thought I had come to teach, but now I know the truth. I was brought here to learn.

Twenty years later, I sit on the other side of the world in my comfortable home, lighting the advent candles. I thank God for the indelible memory of that humble sister who showed me what beauty, strength, dignity, and real worship look like; I am marked for life. I thank God for opening my eyes to his upside-down kingdom. And today, with arms outstretched and my tear-stained face tilted upward, I give thanks with a grateful heart to the Holy One who has given us Jesus Christ, his son. 

During this advent season, Lord, grant us the eternal perspective of your kingdom. Open our eyes to see the world the way you see the world. Break our hearts with the things that break your heart and empty us of everything but Love. 

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11