Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer
I had a friend, a fellow missionary who worked in an unstable part of the world. One week, while he and his family were on vacation, war broke out in their region and they were unable to return to their home. They were stuck in another country, with only the clothes they’d packed for a week away. There was no returning home, no retrieving their possessions, no chance to say goodbye to friends. The fighting eventually came to their old compound and everything they had was looted and torched.
I remember my friend talking about his young son’s toys. This boy, like any boy in his circumstances, was concerned about when he would get his Legos back. The answer, of course, went from “when we’re able to move back” to “when Daddy is able to fly back for a few precious things” to “never.” He took it about as well as any boy would who, having already moved across the world, lost all his Legos and action figures that he had brought with him to that strange place.
The incongruity of it all struck my friend and me. Here was a civil war going on with human tragedies too gruesome to recount, children orphaned if they weren’t burned to death inside their huts along with their parents, and we’re mourning some pieces of plastic? Isn’t it shallow or unspiritual to let that sort of sadness touch us?
There have been a lot of small sorrows in the past few weeks. Vacations canceled, conferences postponed, deposits lost, a thousand anticipations crossed off calendars. Loving embraces and physical presence replaced with stuttering screens and the grating sounds of lagging audio. Much has been made recently of the loss of church, an activity absolutely inessential to economic stability and yet irreplaceable for millions of people. No church is perfect – I would really love it if my own tiny church in rural Africa would stop using the pre-set songs on the electronic keyboard when they don’t match either the time signature or the chord progression of the hymns we are singing – but it is the gathered body of Christ, worshiping him week after week. And now it is not happening, and we do not know when it will resume.
Still deeper are the griefs of actual illness filling lungs with inflammatory cytokines, people hungry because they cannot work, stress from isolation driving men and women to commit violence against one another, their children, or their own selves. Under it all is the undercurrent of death, which for those of us outside of the most-affected countries feels like a slow tide building into a tsunami in the distance. I can do math: if Africa is four to six weeks behind central Europe in terms of disease spread, has far fewer ventilators per capita, and there are few concrete plans to help those who are already living hand-to-mouth, then when the coronavirus hits a lot of people will die. And as a healthcare provider who just deleted an email from my embassy about the last flight home, I will be one of the people deciding how to allocate our scarce resources.
I am not afraid of dying. No, I am afraid of mass pandemonium, of my neighbors starving, of supplies running out, of our hospital not being able to make payroll, of trying to intubate someone and then losing power.
I am not afraid of dying, I don’t think; I know I’ll stand before Jesus and thank him that it was only by his blood that I made it. No, I am afraid of mass pandemonium, of my neighbors starving, of returning home to the food we’ve carefully stockpiled over the last few weeks and filling my belly while it all happens. I am afraid of supplies running out, of our hospital not being able to make payroll because of the unjust structures that do not adequately compensate our institution for the work that we do, of trying to intubate someone and then losing power. I am afraid of watching my colleagues die, of leaving any child without a father, or of simply making a wrong clinical decision that leads to someone’s death. I am afraid of what I will say to my wife in anger and frustration or how I might lash out at one of the nurses when someone we are caring for dies. I am afraid of telling my children that they must isolate themselves from other children, or that we do not know when they’ll see their grandparents again. I might even be afraid of having to tell my children that their Legos are gone forever.
Someone asked me how we were doing and I wrote a short email about the sorts of griefs, big and small, that our family has recently faced. I felt so exhausted after writing one paragraph that I felt the need to play video games for an hour before I could proceed to the next one. This is how life is for many people who have enough money or privilege, living in an epoch-defining crisis: existential terror and intense sorrow that have always been features of human existence for nearly everyone else, mingled with the sort of diversions that King Solomon could have only dreamed about.
When I was a moody teenager, I channeled a fair amount of my privileged angst into fantasies about martyrdom. Perhaps one day I would die gloriously on the mission field, ideally combining some witness for Christ with a heroic stand for social justice. Then I read about Helen Roseveare, who was not only beaten and raped because she chose to stay at her mission hospital when a rebellion broke out, but when she returned after the war she found herself locked in conflict with the students she came to serve. Instead of martyrdom, her sacrifice was to labor onward without seeing the fruit of her work, and to suffer for it.
Roseveare wrote about her experience of assault later, as a conversation between her and God, saying they were his sufferings and that all he asked of her was “the loan of your body.” There, I think, is something we can grasp, echoing Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” What could be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Only that which his hands and feet – us – have not yet experienced.
All of our griefs, big and small, fit into this. I think of Christ, sighing at unbelief and crying out in agony on the cross. He weeps at his friend’s tomb and gets exasperated by misunderstandings about yeast. He is betrayed by Peter but really saves his anger for a fig tree.
With the virus, for which we are woefully unprepared, flooding towards us in Kenya, I worry I have invested my life in this local healthcare project only to see it washed out in the end. I worry for the lives we will not save. And I still find it in my heart to worry about my son’s Legos.
If we do not make ourselves vulnerable to the pains and sorrows of this world like Christ did, nor risk what we have for the sake of people who are hurting, then our griefs will be trivial indeed.
Our ability to manage and live with grief depends on how much we are willing to identify with Christ. If we do not make ourselves vulnerable to the pains and sorrows of this world like he did, nor risk what we have for the sake of people who are hurting, then our griefs will be trivial indeed. The degree to which we are united with Christ – in spirit, in prayer, in suffering – is the degree to which he shares the burden of those sufferings with us.
As for what is to come, I look to this reflection written in memory of Oscar Romero by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.