River, City, Village, Beach, Out There…

 

We live in a house overlooking the beautiful Cubango river valley, about a mile from the hypnotic and always-cold white water.  There are many villages on the other side of the river and no bridges for crossing.  As more people are treated successfully at our clinic and return to their villages, more people desire to cross the river to receive care.  When someone arrives at the river they begin yelling, persistently and loudly, and Isaac (our guard) hears them (I never hear them from our house), he walks from our house to the river and brings them, and usually their motorbike, across in his rowboat for a small fee.  Every morning on my walk to the river at sunrise, there is already a group on the bank screaming and yelling.  A year ago, Isaac would bring a few people across per week.  Now he makes several trips per day.  We need to begin thinking about building a bridge!

 

“They don’t know any differently.”  When recently interviewed by visitors asking about their “normal” life, our local women responded by saying that they “suffer greatly”.  They described the fact that they walk for up to an hour several times per day to get water, they grind dried corn into powder with great effort twice daily (in essentially a large mortar/pestle), they gather wood for their cooking fires twice daily (as the dry season wears on and more wood is consumed, the distance to dried wood increases) and they prepare meals for their family (usually twice daily), wash clothes at the river, and all the while care for their (many) children.  Even with no electricity, television, etc. these women know that their lives are comparatively difficult…

 

We recently completed our monthly trek into Lubango, transporting 12 people in the car purchased by our home church in Ohio, VCDC.  So many people have been transported in that car for life/limb-saving surgery.  As we arrived in Lubango and drove up the mountain to the hospital, one of the women, a beautiful and cheerful 63-year-old coming for surgery for bladder cancer, said that she had never been to a city before.  She marveled at the sight of the city as we climbed the mountain and saw the city lights spreading out in the darkness.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to enter such a city when one’s life experience has been limited to the simple, dusty life of a rural village of 500-1000 people with dirt floors, grass roofs, no electricity, no lights, no cars (no noise), no cement…  It’s always enjoyable to hear the exclamations and laughter as these rural people experience the city, many for the first time.  We recently transported to Lubango via MAF a woman and her mother-in-law.  It was the mother-in-law’s first time in a car, first time in a plane and first time to a city…

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, through his character of Gandolf, in The Hobbit, states, “The world is not in your books and maps.  It’s out there.”  Maps and books have been replaced by social media and internet, but the admonition applies, especially to the church.  Instead of over time becoming more mature and responsible in our care for this world (ourselves and others), social media, the internet and the entertainment industry are pushing us further into the superficial, temporal and immediately gratifying, while continuing to destroy any remaining sense of community.  Are we much different in the church?  As Jesus-followers, we don’t want to look back on our lives in a thousand years and see that we disregarded Jesus’ Kingdom emphasis of connecting to Him and to others as we, like those on the wide and well-trod path, were swept away by modern technology’s bells and whistles.  We are called to leave our computers and TVs, weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh and embrace, encourage and connect.  You and I have the great privilege of caring, of asking questions and listening, of touching, and praying for, those hurting, of laboring and serving…  Social media isn’t addressed in the bible and isn’t evil or something to fear, but the challenge always before Jesus-followers is to prioritize that which He prioritized… “out there”.

 

In the practice of medicine, one learns early that different illnesses can present with the same symptoms.  We would err often if we made diagnoses based on what came to mind as we heard the initial presentation of someone ill or injured.  Only an arrogant, ignorant or uncaring physician would practice using such a method.  Outside of medicine, we have similar challenges.  We are daily tempted to draw conclusions quickly and to hold strongly to our personal opinions, often gained with little interaction and knowledge.  Sound bites have replaced detailed conversations, while statements and opinions have replaced civil discourse.  We must remember that EVERY topic and EVERY person is far more complex than we are able to appreciate from our first impression(s)!

 

Jesus said to seek first His Kingdom and “care not” for the things of this world.  Paul referred to contentment as a worthy pursuit.  I have been challenged by the rural culture in which I live through the contentment that I see in most of the people, young and old, combined with (as a result of?) their utter disregard for most things/activities that occupy our time in the west.  It challenges me to the core in that if I did a survey of the American public as to what occupied our time/efforts vs what occupies the same of those where I live, the responses would be in no way similar. More striking is that the vast majority of mankind historically has lived like these rural Angolans and not like those in the modern world.  Which is healthier for the individual and for the community?  Have we found the secret to contentment in the west or have we lost it?  Have we moved closer to our Father or further away?  How much of our modern activity steals from the substance of life and how much adds to what most people believe are the core ingredients of a life well-lived – peace, contentment, joy…

 

I see profound lack of contentment in so many US church-goers (especially when compared to the rural Angolans that I know) as they seek to serve many masters (wealth creates many masters), confirming Jesus’ admonition that we are much healthier when we serve one master.  We don’t seem to realize that there is one master who fills us, supports us, guides us into health, satisfies us, gives us real wisdom, and leads us beside quiet waters, while many, many other masters (religion, morality, pleasure, comfort, ease, gluttony, wealth, etc) steal from us, exhaust us, wound us, confuse us and leave us alone.  It is daily our choice as to whom we will serve…

 

I am passionate about healing, cures, health and wellness.  There are, however some core principles often forgotten by those (including me) who long to see people get well.  The first and most important is that there is but One giver and sustainer of life, who either heals directly (miraculously and rarely) or heals indirectly (using people, medication, instruction…) by extending life and improving health.  Our Father graciously invites our participation (in health and in other aspects of care/love) in every aspect of His intervention (far more than we realize) in the lives of those around us.   Those who seek the miraculous (no participation from man) often forget to ask our Father, “How would you delight to use me in this situation?”  It is far more our Father’s joy to see man helping/serving man than to employ the miraculous.  In my health care work, I get to be a participant when our Father gives life, saves life and ends life.

 

I believe that absolutely every aspect of creation reveals something about our Father.  One of life’s joys is to seek and explore all of the ways that He reveals Himself to me moment by moment.  I’m often asking, “What does that tree/flower/person/circumstance/conversation reveal to me about You?”  His design of the family, for example, is a beautiful revelation that He delights in the participation of a man and a woman in the creation and molding of another human being.

 

Another foundational principle in the healing ministry is that we are eternal beings and will soon see this temporal life end.  For me to forget that all lives will end today or in a few years is to lose perspective in reality.  I am reminded of this daily when comforting the parents of another child dying from Malaria or conversing with a cancer or HIV patient seeing his/her life ebb away at the age of 35.  Our lives are truly a vapor…

 

We must also remember that we are earthly and temporal and have great difficulty seeing beyond our pain, whether emotional, spiritual or physical.  Healing and pain relief have great value to the one hurting, and free him/her to see beyond.  Humility and insecurity caused by pain invite a caring embrace that otherwise would have little value.  Suffering is a window of opportunity for independent, stubborn and blind human beings to receive care from their Father and to recognize that their insignificance in this world in no way diminishes their value.  As Jesus people, we so commonly adopt the world’s superficial world view of suffering (all suffering is bad/evil/to be avoided) apart from our Father and His care-full awareness and eternal purpose of every circumstance, whether to us pleasant or unpleasant.

 

Another aspect of our participation in our Father’s work is that we are able to do only a little.  It is simply too much to consider all of the pain in our world, or in our country, or our city, or even our whole neighborhood.  One of my favorite parables, which is Kingdom-profound in so many ways, is called the Star Thrower:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and, as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far   as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Some aspects of the parable that I must remember (and that apply to my personal “walk on the beach”) follow:  The boy didn’t go to the beach to save starfish, but was presented with an opportunity that day (after a storm) to respond to a crisis, of sorts, and he cheerfully did what he was capable of doing.  He didn’t cause the problem, can’t fix it, and can’t prevent it from happening again.  He is less interested in why it happened than he is in how he might help.  His focus was on the hurting, and not on himself.  The old man sees the overall problem, or “need”, and appears to see the boy’s effort as futile.  The boy gives no starfish life, but participates in the restoration of life for a few of those many that are “hurting”.  He doesn’t examine the merits of saving one starfish over another, as it is clear to him that every starfish is in need of assistance in order to survive.  To him, any small difference he can make is significant.  He cannot know which of those he returns to the water will recuperate.  His effort will be seen by some as foolish.  His efforts do not change the problem and help but a few.  Please write me with more lessons (personal to you) which can be learned from this rich parable.  For the believer, the trees must always be emphasized, while the larger forest is appreciated (old man’s perspective), but left to our Father’s care.

 

We just completed our annual missionary retreat on a remote farm about 4hr from Lubango (14hr from Cavango).  It is an SIM retreat which is open to all missionaries working in Angola.  There were 50+ adults (and many youth and children) from more than ten different organizations (about 20 missionaries with SIM) attending the 6-day event, which included activities, discussions, meetings, worship, one-on-one connections and various other riches.  Most of us camped in tents, bundled up and braved the 35-degree nights, enjoying late-night (not me) and early morning (me) fires and all the beauty that goes with the same.  I’m reminded that the culture in which we live does the same daily around their cooking fires, year-around.  The beauty of this simplicity has been mostly lost in our modern lights and rush…

 

We left the retreat on Wednesday for a week at the beach town of Swakopmund, Namibia, one our family’s favorite places.  Bets, Ben and Mer will then depart for the US and I will wander around the game reserve of Etosha for five days of solitude before heading back to Cavango.  We were robbed on our first night in Namibia (a common occurrence here), and the lodge management and police responded with energy and care, finding the perpetrator and all of our stuff within 5-6 hours.  It was such a beautiful example of the beauty that can result when we respond well in difficult circumstances.  Their concern and effort gave us such joy, well before they found our things.  We’ve been robbed many times in our years of living abroad, and this response ranked among the most positive.  Trials, especially unexpected, are full of instruction, and this circumstance allowed me to remember (again) that anything purchased has nominal value, and that the care and value that we receive from others when we face challenges has far more significance than any temporal loss.  I was able to spend a few moments alone with the young man and communicate our forgiveness and love.  Whether he survives our attempt to toss him back into the water, we will likely never know…

 

Our Father often transforms pain to beauty.  As His servants/children, we have the daily opportunity to communicate our care to those who are hurting and facing confusing trials, and our care communicates their value to us and to our Father.  So many today feel insignificant in this busy and crowded world, and we can change that by our concern and love for them, as Jesus miraculously did for a few 2000 years ago … and does for many today… through us…

 

One comment

  1. Wonderful testimony and I’m glad I’m not alone in my gazing at the beautiful creations of my Father and listening to Him through them. I sometimes wish I lived in a simpler place ,but God’s plan is perfect and He’s place me here for a reason. I enjoy your writings so much ,God bless and keep you.

    Because He Lives ~ Mary Beth Bowers /MCH lab~

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