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Africa 2 – Food-poisoning, AIDS, Sovereignty, and a Cushion for Jesus to Lay His Head On.

March 13, 2007

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This is one of the longer journal entries, but it all seems related, so most of our Lesotho story is told here in this one blog instead of me breaking it down into separate stories. 

Among the other artists on this trip were my friends Scott Phillips (scottphillips.com) and his wife Carol. Scott and I talked a lot over the year about how much we wanted Carol and Taya to be able to come with us to Africa, and we both encouraged each other throughout the year as we worked hard to make it possible to bring our wives, praying for each other and spurring each other on.

We were so grateful when God answered our prayers and Carol and Taya were able to come. God was faithful to make it happen. That’s why it was so perplexing when Carol got violently sick during our first night there. She was eventually hospitalized in Maseru for what appeared to be food poisoning along with another member of our team, our good friend Patti (who eventually recovered and was able to rejoin our team in a couple of days). We prayed continually for Carol and yet she remained sick the entire time we were there. It seemed so wrong that God would bring her all the way to Africa, only for her to spend her entire time there hunkered down in dark hotel and third world hospital rooms in the throws of a violent sickness.

Meanwhile, the rest of us ventured out into the field to visit the poor, the sick, and the dying in a country locked in the throws of another violent sickness: AIDS. We visited a home where the mother and presumably the father were both HIV positive and their 4 year old daughter was left to care for their 1 year old daughter .. children raising children. It’s inconceivable. Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was difficult to believe. I have a 3 year old (who I’m reluctant to leave alone in a room with our cat let alone a young child), so it hits close to home. 

During our visit with the World Vision field staff at the Mapoteng ADP office we asked if they knew how many child-headed households there were in the region they served (where both parents are gone leaving a child to raise the other children) and they were unable to answer because there were too many to number.

We also visited a young family where the father was until recently a well-known promising athlete of some note. Still a young man, he looked old and insubstantial as his sickness had begun to take its toll. At one point he asked to address us, and asked our group leader, Bruce, “Would you have any advice as to what I might be able to do to care for my family and meet their needs?” It was a genuine question posed to strong, healthy visitors from a country renowned for it’s resourceful and industrious citizens. His question stung, and Bruce very diplomatically explained that our work was to bring his story home with us so we could get help for World Vision who is enacting initiatives to help him and his community.

Of course, his answer didn’t and couldn’t answer the man’s more immediate need. What do you say to a man like that who is facing certain death and is soon to leave behind his wife and three kids with no income in an already impoverished village?

At times like this, the tension I feel on these trips threatens to tear me apart. I remember the last time I came to Lesotho the frustration I felt at not being able to meet the needs I saw in front of me. I knew that our work there would ultimately bring help and hope further down the road, and yet here was Jesus in front of me, hiding in a dying man who until recently had hopes and dreams of being a national athlete, and me with very little in terms of a cup of cold water to offer him.

Unfortunately, you learn how to protect your heart from bleeding to death inside your own chest. I was much more removed emotionally on this trip, which was at once troubling to me and also a relief. Whereas the first time I came to Lesotho in 2004 I made sure to learn the names of the dying that we visited, this time I couldn’t bear to learn their names. The names were heavy on my heart, and bitter on my lips if I spoke them. And yet I know this isn’t the right way to honor them, by disengaging and keeping a safe distance.

We were blessed to have Steve Reynolds, a 20 year World Vision veteran, accompany us on this trip. Steve is the man who first introduced Bono to the needs of Africa in the mid-80’s and his time with Steve was the seed that bloomed into Bono’s advocacy for the poor that he’s so well known for now. I was blessed to see how Steve is still moved after all these years and willing to have his heart rubbed raw against the suffering of others, and yet he also modeled a gentle and dignifying restraint in the situations where there was little to be done to ease the suffering of those in front of us .. the ones who most likely would be dead within months.

What I wish people in America could understand, and what I think the church has at times failed to understand is that the AIDS crisis is more than a tidy morality tale where sin receives it’s just due. There are so many layers to the problem.. 

Consider this: In a country where there is no running water in most of it’s villages and where blades are shared for primitive forms of medicine, there are multiple opportunities for infection. And while it’s true that much of it comes from extra-marital sex, what people in the West have a difficult time fathoming is that for some vulnerable women, providing sex for payment is the difference between eating and not eating for her and her children. If a woman isn’t reduced to this horror, you still have husbands working in South African mines (often in appalling and harrowing work environments) far away from home for months where the lower angels of their nature may be preyed upon by opportunistic sex traders. Add to this the work of the witch doctors who will tell young men with AIDS that the only way for them to be cured (and avoid certain death) is to have intercourse with a virgin, advice that accounts for the many instances of the rape of young girls in the country. Desperation and horror upon horror.

The most vulnerable victims of all this are the children who are left behind to fend for themselves in an already impoverished country. What hope do they have of avoiding the same terrible fate of their parents?

At some point we have to reckon with the fact that the modern world has in many ways been built upon the back of the third world, that much of what we enjoy in our wealthy countries is made possible by the ways we have conducted business with the less fortunate countries of the world. Diamonds, chocolate, coffee .. all of these luxuries are found in abundance in the third world, yet the citizens of these countries rarely benefit from their rich national resources. Is it not only our responsibility as Christians to help make amends, but also as citizens of the wealthiest nation in the world?

As I processed all these realities during our trip, I was also trying to wrap my head around Scott and Carol’s dilemma. I was angry at God that he would bring them all the way to Africa only to abandon them to a third world hospital room. I was frustrated and wondered where the justice was in all this .. why the God of the universe wouldn’t just reach down and fix it and give Carol the grace she needed. 

I think there is a temptation among Christians to assume that these kinds of things must be God’s will, that He must have a purpose for Carol’s sickness that’s beyond our understanding. I get that, and it may even be true, but I’m always troubled by how easily those words come to us and wonder if it isn’t our way of dismissing situations that we don’t want to engage, to avoid the mental and spiritual wrestling matches that are less than comforting and are notorious for leaving us re-named and with a permanent limp. I wonder, too, if we are letting God off the hook too easily. It’s in His word that we read that if we know the good to do and it’s within our power to do something about it, but we don’t, then we are guilty of sin. What about God? What about when He withholds the good that it seems only He can do? 

I found it too hard to believe that it was God’s will for Carol to be sick on this trip. Could He use it? Of course, He is the great Redeemer. Could He incorporate this situation into His winning plan? I believe so. (I tend to be of the thought that though God is sovereign, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything that happens is His will. Like the great chess player, I believe He has the wisdom to incorporate all the variables of free will and the fall into His winning strategy. I’m not convinced that just because Nazi Germany happened that we can assume that it was God’s will.)

As I wrestled with my frustration with God, I had a moment where I believe the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and gave me some perspective. I know I’m wading into some deeper theological waters here that I may not be fit enough to navigate, but I’m going to jump in and risk going in over my head. The sovereignty of God and the level of his action or inaction is a big can of worms, and I’m willing to be wrong about my conclusions (which I hold lightly), but I feel like the spirit came to me like the voice of God as we were driving in our transport through northwestern Lesotho and reminded me that I’m not the only one who is frustrated.

We live in a fallen world where things go wrong, where sin has disrupted the God intended order of things, where His perfect plan, though not cancelled, has been complicated. If I felt like I was frustrated, could I even imagine the frustration of God? God would have a world ruled by love and peace for the humanity He loves so much .. a humanity bent, twisted, and run afoul by the fall. And yet the world is by all accounts broken and imperfect.

It’s difficult for me to believe that it was God’s will for Carol to be sick, just as it’s difficult for me to believe that it’s God’s will that a 4 year old be left to care for her one year old sister, or that young girls are raped in desperate and misguided attempts by young men to survive.

World Vision was founded on the prayer of Bob Pierce who prayed: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” I guess I came to sense that these things frustrate God much more than they do me, and the fissures in the canyons of His broken heart are deep and dark beyond measure. I repented of my anger and frustration, and my heart was broken not only for Carol, the poor, the dying and all who suffer, but also for God who perhaps suffers more than any of us; who suffers on account of us.

I’m left with the conviction that the work we do on behalf of the poor who are dying of AIDS, the orphans who are left behind, the friends holed up in hospital rooms riding out a terrible sickness, and all those who suffer .. that this work is not only a ministry to them, but it is also a ministry to God Himself. To ease their suffering is to ease the suffering of God, to care for them is to care for God, a cup of cool watered offered to the thirsty is received by God. I’m convinced that it is the closest we will ever come to giving something of worth to God, to give back to Him for all that was given to us on the cross. He says, “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

My favorite author Frederick Buechner points out a precious detail in the gospel of Mark that we don’t read anywhere else. It’s where He and the disciples are on the boat as a storm is gathering, and the narrative describes Jesus as sleeping in the stern on a cushion. It is such an intimate and human detail – that Jesus, exhausted and spent, lays his head on a “cushion.” You can see him there, the boat rocking, the waves rising, the smell of salt in the air, the growing restlessness of the disciples, and Jesus with his hands folded underneath a pillow, his knees curled up, sleeping in the stern of a boat. Buechner goes on to talk of who Jesus is .. His power, humility, and great love – and makes us fall in love with this man, the son of God, asleep on a pillow in the stern of a boat on a turbulent sea. He concludes by wondering who of us wouldn’t give our very life to be the one who gently lifted His tired and troubled head to place a cushion beneath it. 
 


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