When I was a teenager, I read three books that touched my imagination and inspired me: Homer’s The Iliad; the Mayan creation story, Popol Vuh; and the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Those stories resonated with me. I haven’t thought about them for a long time, but now I can see that they were compelling because their message went beyond an interesting narrative. Separated by centuries and continents, the stories continue to speak about the impulse deep within humans to make things better for themselves, for those in need, and for their world.
… the stories continue to speak about the impulse deep within humans to make things better for themselves, for those in need, and for their world.
In Homer’s story, Helen of Troy’s abduction launches a thousand ships to come to her rescue. Even though the epic poem is mostly about war, you cannot help but marvel at the commitment of the kings Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus to each other. They support, advise, inspire, and stand side by side. For me, it’s a story of mankind trying to fix what was wrong at that time. An injustice had been committed, and they did not hesitate to act.
Popol Vuh is a foundational creation narrative of the Mayan Indians of southern Mexico. The name could be translated as “Book of the People.”1 Among the stories that appear in the narrative, the Hero Twins join forces to bring harmony to the chaos caused by evil. They fight and succeed against Vucub-Caquix and his sons, who are the responsible for the chaos in their world. Uniquely presented with elements that are now foreign to us, their story reminds me of the way the Allies joined forces to fight Nazi Germany.
Gilgamesh, which I re-read recently, like the book of Genesis and to some degree Popol Vuh, is also a creation story. The book contains a flood story as well as the story of Gilgamesh—whose name translates as “the hero”—destroys the snake that had taken up residence in the tree that had been grown by Inanna for the benefit of mankind.
Three completely different stories with—for me—a similar motif: man fighting to correct an injustice or an evil act, to fix that which is wrong. The recent images on television have made me recall these totally different stories—particularly the photo depicting the baby strollers left by the Polish people at the railroad station so the Ukrainian refugee mothers would no longer have to carry their toddlers (photo above). Both heartbreaking and inspiring, the photo demonstrated humanity joining forces to correct an injustice, determined to help fix that which is wrong.
In our society we tend to associate the terms service and volunteering with acts of assistance we provide for those who are “less fortunate.” As Adventists, we often consider that this is what Adventist Community Services and ADRA are for. As Christians, we find it throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, from the institution of gleaning in Leviticus 19:10 to the organization of the deacons in Acts 6:1-6. The strongest admonitions and the harshest condemnations are reserved for the mistreatment of the poor, widows, and orphans.
As an adult, Jesus spent His life in service. And yet He also continued to need service. Matthew 27:55 tells us of the “many women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him” (NKJV).
The current situation in Ukraine illustrates that being in need may not be the result of being poor. In this case, the need is the result of man’s inhumanity to man. And the ones who suffer the most are usually the women and the children. We have to keep in mind that the poor are not the only ones who need loving service. All humans need it. The book of Ruth shows how a well-to-do family may, through misfortune, fall on hard times and need assistance in even the basics of survival. I cannot help but wonder how many of the people fleeing for refuge in Poland or elsewhere have perhaps lost a fortune—everything gone in flames.
Even though they were kings, the writings of David and Solomon are full of references to feeling helpless and needy, longing for friendship and support. (See Psalm 34:6; Proverbs 17:17; Ecclesiastes 4:12.) In the story of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus makes it very clear who needs help: It’s your neighbor. Your neighbor needs help.
As if to remove all doubt forever, Jesus chose to become someone who needed help. First He was a fragile newborn. His family served Him in a thousand ways, as loving families always serve their children. As He grew, He learned to serve, too, from running errands for His mother to helping Joseph in the carpenter’s shop. All of this is valid service. As an adult, Jesus spent His life in service. And yet He also continued to need service. Matthew 27:55 tells us of the “many women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him” (NKJV). Jesus wouldn’t have had food or a place to sleep if it weren’t for His friends.
Best-selling author Marianne Williamson has written: “At times it just feels like things are falling apart. Such is the situation in the world today.… Personal and public crises, however, are opportunities for new possibilities. They are lessons, though often difficult, in becoming who we need to be in order to make the changes that will heal our lives. Crises are portals—should we choose to step into them—to a life beyond the one we experience now.”2
A life beyond the one we experience now is what the gospel promises—now, not just in the sweet by and by. The need for action is present. The call to action is present. The person called to serve those in need is you and me.
The ancient lessons from The Iliad, Popol Vuh, and Gilgamesh, the current lessons from the Polish people helping their Ukrainian neighbors, the timeless lessons from the Bible—all show us that we are surrounded by opportunities, that new possibilities open every day. My prayer is that these lessons will teach us to be willing to do what we can to restore justice, to provide comfort, to minister to others.
1 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya [Oklahoma ed.] (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), p. 64.
Alberto Valenzuela is the associate director of Communication and Community Engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.