All In

What’s the difference between a football fan and a player, one of our pastors recently asked. Both want the team to win.

Fans might invest in some team gear, maybe paint their faces, make signs, buy tickets, give up a Saturday to go to the game, and cheer passionately.

Meanwhile, the player has his livelihood on the line. He conditions, studies, practices, and gives every ounce of physical and mental effort to succeed, week after week. His commitment isn’t a few dollars and a day or two here or there. He’s invested in the team’s success long before preseason rolls around. Essentially, he’s all in.

That’s precisely what Christ says the Christian should be. We’re to pick up our cross, even hate our family. In other words, be all in.

Jesus followed this admonition by making a couple comparisons. First, He asked, what builder starts work without being sure he has enough to complete the task? What king goes to battle without first assessing whether or not his army is strong enough for him to succeed? So too, God made the assessment that what He needs from His followers is total commitment. (See Luke 14:26-33).

None of this is new to those who have been Christians for any length of time. But I began to think about this commitment in comparison to the kind of “all in” requirement of human bondage.

Recently I read and reviewed Kay Marshall Strom’s book The Hope of Shridula. That next week, the first book in the Blessings of India series, The Faith of Ashish, was offered as a free Kindle e-book, and I snapped it up. Just last week I finished reading it.

The story is about slavery — not the kidnapping and selling of one human by another kind, but that which results from the exploitation of the needy.

It reminded me of the history I’d read about railroad towns in nineteenth century America which enslaved workers. The corporate employer created worker towns and charged inflated prices at the corporate stores, so that when it came time to pay a worker his wages, he often owed more for his rent and food than what he had earned.

This is the story played out in The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula, though the setting is India in the middle of the twentieth century. Different players, same exploitation.

In the case of the poor Indian family, they borrowed a small amount of money from a rich landlord to save their son who needed medical attention. The condition of the loan was that they move to the workers’ quarters and tend the landlord’s fields. But as time passed, their debt increased rather than dwindling because they were charged for their living quarters and food and for anything else the landlord wished to add to their account.

Essentially they became his slaves. They were unwillingly “all in.”

Their debt required it of them.

So here’s the comparison and the contrast I’m seeing. Each of us owes an insurmountable debt to God, one we cannot pay, but we are not His slaves. We are slaves to sin and guilt and the law, not to God.

However, Christ paid our debt, and asked us to go all in. Nothing else will do if He’s to write “paid” in His ledger beside our name. Essentially, he then transfers us from the dominion of darkness to Christ’s kingdom, and we then do become His slaves. We belong to our Master.

Oddly enough, we’re not all in as payment for what he gave us. He wipes our debt free of charge instead of coercing our servitude in return.

But we still belong to Him.

Yet, what a difference between the rich, greedy, exploitive landlord and our loving God. The former takes to benefit himself. God gives to us what we need. The landlord demeans and keeps his slaves in their place. God calls us friends, even His children. The landlord uses and mistreats his workers. God loves and cares for His bondslaves.

Here’s how Jesus described it in Matthew:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

A couple things seem clear to me. First, if we are all in for Jesus, we are free from the bondage of sin, but if we reject His payment for what we owe, we are, whether we realize it or not, ensnared — hook, line, and sinker — by sin.

Which brings up the second point — there is no part way in. There are no fans of Jesus, only followers. The people who are on the sidelines, though they might dress up and cheer, are not part of the team. To be a Christian means to be all in.

CFBA Blog Tour – The Hope Of Shridula

From time to time I participate in the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance blog tour, and this second half of the week the group is focusing on The Hope Of Shridula (Abingdon Press) by Kay Marshall Strom. This is actually book 2 of the Blessings in India Series, but it easily reads like a stand-alone.

The Story. Shridula and her parents are members of the Dalites, or India’s chaste of Untouchables, enslaved to a rich landowner because of a small debt her father’s father owed. Trapped in what appears to be a hopeless situation, the world as they know it begins to unravel because this is 1946 — the British colony is fighting for independence and then to accommodate the strong and varied religions influencing different people groups. Trapped by their economic circumstances, helpless against the powerful, and now squeezed by political forces that are ripping apart the fabric of society, Shridula and her family have few options until a surprising way of escape opens.

Strengths. Some Christian publishing professionals claim that American readers don’t want stories about other peoples and other places. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know I used to shy away from what I considered the “typical missionary story.” Not that I’d read many. But in my mind they were predictable and unrealistic. They put missions in the very best possible light and told only success stories.

Forget all that with Kay Marshall Strom’s work. Her novels are about real people facing real struggles. And she happens to be perfectly suited to write books about people living in underdeveloped countries, suffering hardship and abuse because of injustices they face. For years she’s written non-fiction based on personal interviews with people throughout the world. She’s been to India alone seven times. In other words, she’s done her research in the best way possible, and it shows.

In some ways, though, you have to be ready to have your heart broken because of what people suffering at the bottom of the caste system go through. Humble people, subservient people, hard-working, fearful, superstitious, loving people tied to a religion that debases them and offers little hope. Then to realize that the cultural Christianity of the minority clouds the truth, as well, the story seems destined to a hopeless end.

But in a deft way, Kay’s skill as a novelist shows God’s sovereignty, so that light and truth merge in a wonderfully surprising ending.

This is a quiet book in the sense that there are no car chases or clashing armies. But there is plenty of tension and suspense based on personal conflict and pressures, so it kept me turning the pages.

In addition, I immediately cared for the title character, a twelve year old put in a dangerous situation. Here’s the opening, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Chapter 1

South India
May 1946

The last of the straggling laborers hefted massive bundles of grain onto their weary heads and started down the path toward the storage shed. Only twelve-year-old Shridula remained in the field. Frantically she raced up and down the rows, searching through the maze of harvested wheat stalks.

Each time a group of women left, the girl tried to go with them, her nervous fear rising. Each time Dinkar stopped her. The first time she had tried to slip in with the old women at the end of the line the overseer ordered, “Shridula! Search for any water jars left in the fields.” Of course she found none. She knew she wouldn’t. What water boy would be fool enough to leave a jar behind?

By the time the girl finished her search, twilight shrouded the empty field in dark shadows. Shridula hurried to grab up the last bundle of grain. Its stalk tie had been knocked undone, and wheat spilled out across the ground. Quickly tucking the tie back together, Shridula struggled to balance the bundle up on her head. It shifted . . . and sagged . . . and sank down to her shoulders.

If you’d like, you can read the entire first chapter, but I think these opening paragraphs give you a sense of Shridula’s vulnerability, the quality that I believe won me to her right away.

Miraculously and without any preachiness, Kay navigates common pitfalls and delivers an ending that is not contrived, predictable, cliched, or overly simplified. This is a memorable story, exposing the light of God’s love in the midst of a dark world steeped in false religion.

Weaknesses. If you’re looking for literary prose, you won’t find it in this book. The writing is straightforward and crisp. Some might think of that as a strength rather than a weakness.

If you’re looking for sweet romance, you won’t find that in this book either. The story is far too realistic, exposing harsh realities, though in a matter-of-fact manner that reduces the horrific to the mundane. Perhaps that’s a strength, too, though I might wish the horrific dug a little deeper into my heart. It’s a hard thing to accomplish for a novelist, though, when the characters themselves, consistent with real life, accept their lot and suffer much of their abuse willingly or at least silently.

Recommendation. This is a must read for anyone willing to step out of the comfort of his or her own culture and to look at how limitless our sovereign God is. It’s a story that will hold your interest to the last page.

According to the FAA I must add, I received a courtesy copy of this book from the publisher as part of the CFBA blog tour.

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