Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, I will come with vengeance…I will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)
The ooze coming out of the blisters on her arms make me cringe and look away. It’s a natural response for any person, even if I’ve seen the same wounds hundreds of times now on hundreds of people. Her children race in and out, chattering quickly in a language I don’t truly understand. Normalized by the scene that plays out for them every day, the kids go straight to their aunt, who is caring for their mom – just half asleep there, hurting with a pain I can’t take away, nor look at without wincing.
In some ways, her children have moved on to the reality that their aunt is their new mother, but in other ways they are just children who need their noses wiped or help pulling up their pants. They skip away and out, just as fast as they came.
This is their normal.
The stench from the woman’s dying body in the poorly insulated hut is masked by the smoke coming out of the fire burning in the center. Life goes on and people caring for her need to eat.
This is their normal.
Whiffs of ground corn in one pot, ground nuts and spinach in another mix with the rubbing alcohol being applied to her wounds, as I sit and watch – wanting to leave, but wanting to stay to let her know that she is loved. I resist the urge to make this ordinary and seek ways to see the uniqueness. It’s painful and that reminds me I’m human.
Almost every time, I want to lean away and sometimes do, but I’m called by God to lean in, despite the discomfort that it brings. I do so yearning to feel just for a moment what it means to be part of the body of Christ here. Where people consistently and faithfully visit their dying relatives or neighbors, clean their wounds, care for their children, and dare to believe that God is present there despite their overwhelmingly painful reality.
I fight the urge to get up and walk out to play with the kids because my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ here cannot leave.
This is their normal.
I want to co-labor with them, praying that God will take away their pain for just a moment and heap it onto my back so they may see and experience relief and know that God is sovereign over even this.
My eyes return to the wounds on her arms, now bubbling from medicine put on them. Even as ooze fades and the sores renew their long process to heal, my eyes scan down the woman’s hard-worn torso and down her too-thin to use legs. All of her is covered, a sure sign that stage 4 AIDS is about to claim its next victim. It will be hours, I think, not days.
With one hand offering faithful and gentle strokes to the tired woman’s neck, the sister takes her other hand and reaches for mine. She asks if I will pray.
I have come to see the forgotten, so I may testify to their story back home. Deep in the sister’s eyes, I am awed by her faithfulness. Her peaceful presence and gentleness even to me remind me that you and I may look away often, but God has not ever forgotten.
Yearning for the promises of God, my mind wanders for awhile before I speak because my nature needs time to relinquish control to the Holy Spirit living inside of me. My desire to flee or use pithy prayers without feeling the desperation that is apparent in her gaze eventually succumbs to a smile that can only come from God.
I can’t explain it well, but I’m thankful that my heart hurts so much with love that I ask God to stop – it is just too much love. Only God can do that and leaning in allows me to see God at work everywhere. When I’m not here, I want to be back. When I’m here, I want the love to stop and the pain to go away. Through it all, God is with me.
For a good few minutes, I just smile at her beauty – a creation of the King.
Images of her childhood into adulthood appear before my eyes, as God reminds me that this shell of a person is a treasured gift from the Almighty. She is uniquely and wonderfully made, with each hair known by the One who made her.
The sister brushes away hair from her mouth to ease her breathing. It’s as if the world stands still, while at the same time death is racing toward us. Peace and chaos colliding.
I don’t remember what I spoke because the words weren’t mine and I don’t remember if my voice emerged at all. But I know I felt a love for her that can only come from the same God who made my 3 precious children and wife, who I left behind to be at this place.
Exodus 14:14 says, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only be silent.” Some translations say “you need only be still.” Here in Africa, my words often fail me and for that I am thankful. The magnitude of God’s love in this place doesn’t need Words. It requires and demands our awe.
For here, in hut after hut, home after home, city after city, the local church is growing faster. Equally called by God to care for widows and orphans in their distress, the Church is growing faster than the orphan crisis. Daring to believe God can do the impossible and wants to do it through His Church drives people here to lean in, when they want to run away.
Oh, how I long to be faithful to my God and not reject Him.
Following His commands to look after widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27) is hard. Oh how I long to be faithful to my God and not run from His instruction because keeping myself pure and Holy before the LORD is hard.
My coming here allows me to listen expectantly for where God is in the world’s most forgotten places. Then, I hope to keep returning to invite you to be part of this, too.
This trip, I’m unlikely to encounter the above story, but I’m grateful my days will be filled with encouraging the faithful who live this story every day. The people Forgotten Voices serves are daily living out the calling you and I have also received.
Their faithfulness to lean in allows us the privilege to come and see what God has done. You and I desperately want to help care for vulnerable children, but we don’t know how. But the simple truth is this: local churches here know how to care for children and are faithfully loving the vulnerable. May we see past the wounds that catch our eyes at first and instead, see God doing a mighty work through the faithful. Faithful people we have much to learn from. Allow your heart to wander and consider: what is holding us back from leaning in, too?
God doesn’t ask us to be God. He asks us to be faithful.
Come and see what God has done.
Please follow along at http://twitter.com/ryanmkeith. Enjoy the journey.