The Meaning of Life in Three Parts

On the other side of the world, fighting jetlag and a little bit of culture shock, I’m surprised not by the differences I see, but the similarities.

Shaun Groves and kid

On this trip, I’m struck with a truth that sticks to my soul: No matter where we go, people are just people, and despite our differences, we have more in common than meets the eye.

We all want essentially the same things in life, and today I saw them more clearly than ever before.

Part 1: A friend to walk with

With expectant eyes, we watch as the pump fills the yellow tanks, neighbors and villagers huddled around to join in the watching. A child has led us here, down the mile-long path she hikes each morning to fetch water for her family.

Walking for water

I try to imagine having to walk farther than across my kitchen for a glass of water, but I can’t. The best I can do today is take the journey with her, trying to lighten the load at least for today by carrying a container.

At the well, there is more than dry mouths to be quenched. There is life, the kind that watches your chickens and protects your kids when they wander into someone else’s cassava field.

The kind called community.

African child standing by the well

We head back the way we came and the irony hits me hard.

Carrying these jugs of water, we were hoping to quench a family’s thirst, but as we stop along the way to visit with those who welcome us into their fields and homes, we are the ones who are refreshed.

Part 2: A dream to share

Back at the house, I ask Sam (whom we met yesterday) to show us his shop, and he leads us to a small storefront along the road.

Wess walking into hut

I pepper him with questions: What’s your profit margin on this item? How many of these do you have to sell before you can restock? How are you tracking your expenses?

He answers them all.

So I ask another, one I’m sure he doesn’t know the answer to. After reading hundreds of business books, it’s the question that many say holds the key to success. And how would a man in the middle of the African bush know that?

What’s your ultimate goal? How will you know when you succeed?

His answer is immediate. He wants to earn enough money to build a house and send his son to a school with a special needs program. Not only does he know the goal; he understands exactly what it will take to achieve.

Sam in shop

Seeing his conviction, I know it’s not enough for Sam to survive. The human spirit must do more than endure; it must thrive. And the only way to do that, to live fully, is to commit to a cause that is bigger than you, something you can devote yourself to fully.

With admiration, I look at this man, a man who works hard and cares for his family, the best kind of man there is, and I tell him his dream will come true.

Why? Because he believes. Because he understands. Because he wants it — not for himself, but for those he loves.

Is there a nobler cause than to see your dreams not as trophies to be boasted but as blessings to be shared?

Part 3: A place to belong

A little while later, I see how one seemingly small choice can have a ripple effect halfway around the world.

Adongo Miriam

At first, she is shy. But with the help of a translator and some ridiculous gestures on my part, Miriam finally cracks a smile. We have only been sponsoring her a month, so we are just getting to know each other.

She loves coming to the center, because she learns many things, like Bible stories and songs, even a few games she tries to explain but I don’t quite understand.

Here, she belongs.

Hula Hooping

We talk and the children swarm around us, laughing at my attempts to speak the language. Hula hoops swing in circles around necks, and half-deflated soccer balls roll across the distant field.

The air is bubbling with hope.

We all need a place like this, somewhere to belong and dream, where we can be who we are and someday might become.

And in this way, places are more than locations; they’re where we find the love we need.

Places quote

She wants to be a nurse when she grows up. I tell her she must keep going to school, that she cannot drop out as some do at a certain age. And then I decide to make a deal.

“Miriam, will you promise me something? Will you keep going to school so that someday you can be come a nurse?”

She thinks, then nods, “Mmh.”

“Okay. And I will promise to keep sponsoring you — until you become a nurse.”

I try to not make it sound like an ultimatum — it’s not. Our support is unconditional, but I want her to know someone is watching her, paying attention to what she does, and dreaming her dreams along with her.

Jeff and Miriam

As we shake hands, there is a sense of commitment, a bond we’ve made to each other that neither wants to break. I feel the weight of the words as we smile, hug, and say goodbye.

And now, I see the whole picture.

“What we do,” Wess tells me, “goes beyond sponsorships. That’s just the beginning. What really makes a difference in a child’s life is your involvement. The letters you write and gifts you send will change lives.”

My wife and I make monthly contributions to Miriam, but the gift is not the money. It’s the relationship. The blessing wasn’t the check we mailed; it was the chance to be a part of her life.

The hope you can’t escape

The word hope gets used so often it can come off as cliche. I wish there were a better word to describe today, but I haven’t found it.

Christine washing

Hope is intoxicating in what it makes possible. And in Africa, it seems more tangible than just about anywhere else in the world. This place is a picture of what could be, a fantasy that comes true a little more every day.

Here, hope lures you into its grip and won’t let you go until you are changed.

It grabbed hold of me today, and I hope it gets you too, pointing you to the possibility of another world, reminding you of the important things:

  1. That we all need someone with whom to share the journey, and sometimes burdens, of life.
  2. cause will carry us further than any competitive spirit could.
  3. Without a place to belong, we will always be searching for our identity.

And may you, too, be transformed in the process.

African path

More from our group in Uganda

To change a life, and I mean yours, go sponsor a child with Compassion and see what a difference it makes.

What’s the meaning of life to you? And what questions do you have about our trip? Share in the comments.

Photos by Mike Varel.


81 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life in Three Parts

  1. Thanks so much for taking us deeper than meets the eye, Mr. Jeff. All the best on your trip! Blessings on you and your wife and your encouragements to Miriam.

  2. Jeff, I think it is great that you’re sponsoring a child, and way cool that you actually got to go meet her. I’m now thinking of sponsoring a child myself…

    1. Thanks, Erica. I hope you do. It makes such a difference. People say it’s a “small act,” but that’s not true. It may feel small on the sponsor’s part, but I’ve seen how big such gestures can be to those receiving them. For the families we’ve met $38 is a lifeline, one that doesn’t create dependency but empowers them to build their own future.

  3. Ahh…. this is wonderful! My favorite part is her calling you “Wess”- this is so precious. I can hear her little voice speaking through you. Jeff, thank you so much for sharing. Your heart and love for Jesus, and compassion is such a joy to see, and my heart is deeply moved and touched by what you share. You are a blessing! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Christy, but just a slight correction: she didn’t call me Wess. That’s the name of Compassion’s president emeritus. He’s joining us on the trip. Great guy.

  4. Amazing insights and lovely pictures, Jeff! I was very moved by this post. The world is so very small, eh?

  5. Jeff, Miriam is beautiful and her beauty is heightened by the hope I see in her eyes. And in your eyes for her. You asked questions at the end of your post which I am too humbled to even to attempt to answer just now. This post has touched my core, my faith of which I have always been so sure. My husband and I need to think about a child, an unknown child somewhere in Uganda perhaps. 🙂 And if I ever get to Nashville area (a grandson graduates in 2016), perhaps we can meet face-to-face and talk more about all these wondrous things.

  6. Excellent post Jeff! That has to be Shaun Groves in the first pic, right? Annie and I are hoping to get the chance to meet our little Baruk someday soon.

  7. Jeff,
    I subscribed to your blog because I knew I needed to get serious about blogging my journey… and I almost unsubscribed because I was pretty sure all I was really gonna get for my time was a continual sales pitch (most blogs do that)…
    Most of my blogging is spent relating my personal journey, the things I feel speak to my heart, and words I believe will inspire others to be the best they can be and encourage them to walk in faith.
    Your posts on Uganda have really hit me hard…. You see, after my second trip to Uganda we got to deal with some of the not so pleasant situations of people using people for their money and I was disappointed and unsure what God had in store for us there… but all the while I’ve known in my heart that helping someone else is about all that really matters in this life….
    Thank you for bringing this back to the forefront of my mind. And you are right… The things we do to help another are not small things, it is all that really matters.

    1. Thanks for hanging in there, Cherie, and for sharing your honesty. The hardest part about compassion is making ourselves vulnerable to someone else who can and might take advantage of us. I’m sorry you’ve been hurt. That’s never a good feeling.

  8. Isn’t it funny how we often think of Africa as a place that is Hope-Less?! Your words of hope resonate so much with me, as that very gift of hope is what I walked away from Tanzania with 18 months ago. Thanks to the work of Compassion, the hope is palpable in those areas. Thank you for reminding us of that.

  9. A ripple felt all the way around the world. Right here in my heart. And I love the line about no trophies, just mega blessings in the lives of others. Such beautiful work there. Thank you for loving and counting your own life not dear to yourself – Acts 20:24.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing the message of hope with us. Hope is contagious and I can feel the fire burning deep within my soul. After two trips to Haiti, and now seeing your pictures and reading your message from the heart, I want nothing more than to help even more. Your life is an example to many!

  11. “Hope is intoxicating, in what it makes possible.”

    Seeing you with Miriam warmed my heart on this frigid day. So thankful for how Compassion has changed our life through our sponsor child. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  12. Ahh, this is nice, Jeff. Thanks for sharing. Love the father story…so true about having a dream to ride on.

  13. What is the meaning of life? More than animated existence. For even the brute beast is animated in their living. I put forth, that only a life full of meaning will ever be able to understand the true meaning of life. It is when selfless takes the place of selfish, sacrifice the place of self-service, and submission supersedes soaring egos that you are able to see a Miriam who dreams of being a nurse.

    Few ever experience the humbling joy of knowing a life will be changed because of your little part in it.

  14. Wow Jeff, I love that you are willing to commit to that little girl. I’ll look forward to the blog post in 15 years when she realizes her goal because of a conversation with you.

  15. That’s a very emotional post you’ve got here. I couldn’t help but force myself trough the middle of it. I do however believe that these people appreciate their lives a lot more than many who live in the modern world.

    I think the fact that the whole world is trying to help these people is humbling, and they don’t mind wearing the same clothe as their friends – if anything, it brings them closer together.


      1. Hi Jeff,

        it’s nothing to worry about, I think I felt the connection there between the people who you’re trying to help.

        It always worries me that people promise something and then forget to do it, and I can only imagine how it feels to be in the shoes of the people that you help.

        It’s of course a good thing, but sometimes I like to feel emotional about it 🙂

        Thank you,

  16. I loved your discovery in this post and bringing us along in huge discovery process. Relationship is so key. Thank you for giving of your time and talents to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name!

  17. Thank U, JG for the sincerity of the good purpose of your trip to Uganda. Hope your sponsorship would help little Miriam realize her goal of becoming a nurse — a role model, for that matter, in due course! May your tribe increase!

  18. Dear JG! I love the way you write to describe the Ugandan way of life. A realistic portrayal, indeed. Wish you every success!

  19. What Wess said…your involvement is what makes a difference. And your involvement on this trip is going to make a big difference in your life and in Miriam’s life. Neither one of you will be the same after this trip.Thank you for taking the time to share your heart with us!

  20. “I want her to know someone is watching her, paying attention to what she does, and dreaming her dreams along with her.” We all need someone to believe in us and to believe with us. Thanks so much Jeff for believing in Miriam. Thank you for taking us with you on this journey. Beautiful pictures!

  21. sounds like you all get something bigger than yourselves out of this relationship. And we all benefit too by reading about it – its a win win win! Thanks for sharing x

  22. Jeff — I have only followed you for a short time but I think this is the best writing and insight I have seen in a long time. You have motivated me to not only Guide Blended Families but to seek out the lonely children who I meet along the way and let them know someone cares about their dreams.

  23. Love this quote, Jeff {and so very true!}: “My wife and I make monthly contributions to Miriam, but the gift is not the money. It’s the relationship. The blessing wasn’t the check we
    mailed; it was the chance to be a part of her life.”

  24. Thank you Jeff for reminding me that we are all just people. I take my daughter to a festival each year that celebrates the one Human Race!! It is wonderful to walk around and interact with so many people from so many places, all the while asking questions and exchanging experiences.

  25. Beautifully written, Jeff! True hope is never cliche; it’s what we’re all seeking. Your post is timely. I’m in the process of setting up a sponsorship program for the orphans in a ministry in Kenya. I’ve been given lots of advice on how to and not to do it. Some of the things you said here confirm the direction I’ve been praying about going. Thank you for your perspective, gives me a new set of eyes! 🙂

  26. Hi! This is such a moving perspective, it brings one back to his/her core. You wrote it beautifully with so much heart and I find your insights very valuable and apt especially in today’s chaotic world. I have been following you on Facebook and being a writer myself, I must say that your stories are really worth reading and pondering upon. This one, in particular, is, by far the best story you’ve written! Thank you for inspiring me to be better. To me, reading your stories is signigicant learning, it virtually enriches me. Thank you for this “food for the soul” story, a vital reminder for me of the more important things in life. Keep on, Jeff!

  27. Full of love, wonder, and appreciation. Thank you for doing what do, sponsoring Miriam, and sharing this journey. We are blessed with your gift and by your intentions. I dearly hope clean water reaches a majority in Africa soon. I love the spirit and decency of its people -unadulterated by materialism. Profound.

  28. It’s as usual a great post by a great writer. You are inspiring us all, thanks a lot. Hope is something that should always be with us.

  29. Ah, the similarities. It’s what stayed with me when visiting different places. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  30. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing those precious faces. The one thing that is the basics of human existence and yet we lack so much of it in America. Community. It’s amazing to see and participate in community somewhere else where all silly distractions are stripped away. Praying for your trip. Blessed by your words.

  31. Great update Jeff – what a world of difference you’re making to this little girl’s life! And the ripple effect is the unknown. What a difference she’ll make in the lives of others because of you.

  32. I guess I need to re-read this article because I didn’t find the meaning of life definition here. I have my vision on this and was interested to see your thoughts about what adds meaning to your life or what makes it meaningful but there is none of it. What am I missing? 🙂

  33. hi jeff; to me its being part of and taking care of your family whether it looks like what most people think of as family or not. mine includes my 70 year old mother 41 year old younger brother his teenage son and a crazy dog named penny. and your post reminds me of back when all my family lived on one piece of land north of houston. where dozens of kids grew up together and played our own made up games and dreamed under the stars of that big texas sky. thanks for the reminder and take car out there, Max

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