One of the things I do, when I go to Bali, is to visit the English-speaking prisoners in the jail there. Among them are two young men, in their twenties, who were sentenced to death for drug offences, but have since had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment – but, at the moment, that still means “life”. They have already spent five years in jail, but what always surprises me, when I meet them, is the sense of peace they radiate and I think this comes from the fact that they have both chosen to reach out to their fellow prisoners in service. One of them has set up a little school for the teaching of English – and he even gives certificates when his students reach a certain competence in the language – and he does this to enable his fellow inmates have a better chance of getting a job, when they leave prison. The other young man has set up a school for boxing, in which I was able to help by finding him a sponsor. His aim is to help his fellow prisoners defend themselves from the bullies always to be found in prisons, but also, if they become good at it, to maybe find a career in boxing, when they leave prison. In these ways, they are helping to enrich the lives of their fellow inmates and I believe that it is this “service” that has brought them into that peace that I am aware of when I meet them. They have become “life-givers”.
These two young men are helping their fellow inmates to live more fully and also preparing them to take full advantage of their freedom when they are released – despite the fact that they themselves may never know that freedom. This does not mean that they do not long to be free – they do – but they have discovered that no matter how restricted a life they live, it can still be a full life, if it is lived in the service of others.
We often think of a “full life” in terms of the opportunities for living – and also the money and intelligence required to use them. However, such a view would mean that only the rich and educated would be able to live satisfying lives, but all around us we see evidence that the opposite is probably closer to the truth. This insight is borne out by those two young men, who show us that it is not the variety of opportunity which gives a full life, but the depth at which we live.
We Christians speak of eternal life, but we tend to do so in terms of “length of days”, whereas we would better understand it in terms of “depth of days”, for it is when we reach out in the service of others that we are also opened to the movement through us of God “the Life-giver”. St Ireneaus says, “God is glorified when men and women are fully alive!” And we become “fully alive” when God draws us into reaching out and caring for others – and it is in that partnership with God that we find and receive eternal life.
We can get blinded to this, by the ideas of punishment and reward with which we are often taught about our faith. We think of eternal life as a reward for being good, but it is not a reward for anything – it is a free gift, because the God, who is madly in love with us, wants us to live, to live richly, fully, wonderfully. But we imagine that a full life can only happen when we indulge ourselves and live for only ourselves and thus we miss the “pearl of great price” which comes from a life of service. The motto of my own Missionary Society is “Amare et servire”, “to love and to serve”. It has often remained just that, a motto, but I thought of it again, when I began to think about my two young friends in prison in Bali. Their lives show the truth that lies behind the words and leads me to want it to be more than just a motto. I truly hope and pray that the day will come when they will be given back their freedom, but until that day, I thank God for the gospel they preach – that to love and to serve is to live – to live with God and to live in peace.
I have just come back from the neighbouring Diocese of Sibu, where one of my fellow Mill Hill Missionaries was celebrating his 80th birthday. He has worked in that part of the country for 53 years and this birthday party was also his farewell party, because he has decided that in the new year he will go home to Holland, so as not be to be burden on anyone as he gets older. He still has a great booming voice, which he developed when preaching in the many longhouses where he has served, but he still uses full volume even when he has a microphone, as he had at his party. It was the largest birthday party I have ever seen and 1500 people sat down to an eight-course meal and all, including me seemed to enjoy the occasion very much.
I have just been elected as the Mill Hill Group Leader in East Malaysia. This is a task of looking after the welfare of the Mill Hill members – not being their boss – for all Mill Hill personnel work directly under the bishop of the Diocese. We have 13 members here in Malaysia, and I also keep an eye out for one Mill Hill man in Ambon in Indonesia.