River of Suffering

For most of my adult life, I saw the majority of the mass of humanity as a river of suffering —a persistent flow of poverty, famine, disease, and heartache—while I stood on the shore, gamely throwing in an occasional life preserver.  Then I would turn away, unable to bear the suffering. As a pastor, I knew I had a responsibility to the poor and needy of the world.  So of course, our church consistently participates in and supports relief efforts.  But I, personally, couldn’t stand to watch the pictures of famine, and of suffering; of children with distended bellies and mothers with dried up breasts futilely trying to feed their babies. I saw these images and clicked the channel or turned the page.  I told the Lord I couldn’t handle the heartbreak.  That surely I would die. I am like most of us.  Baffled, bewildered, not sure of what to do with problems so overwhelming and heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, God put people in my life who were doing what I could only fear.  They were in the middle of that massive river, engaged, involved, and making a difference, one person at a time. They were challenging me, inviting me to jump in.  I resisted for the longest time, until I couldn’t.  My time had come.

So, I went to Africa.  I went the first time, armed with knowledge and encouragement and a boyish sense of excitement.  I was going on safari!  But I was not prepared for how the Lord would change my life. The next trip pulled me in.

It’s not like I haven’t seen and ministered to human suffering.  Or that I haven’t heard countless, wonderful stories of God moving in the midst of hard and heart wrenching circumstances.  It’s just that now, for me, God was pulling me into the river, urging me to “go deeper.”

Jesus often challenged His disciples to “go deeper.”  Once when Simon Peter and his fellow fisherman had experienced a frustrating night of fishing with little in their nets to show for it, Jesus came along and gave them some unusual instructions.  Now, these fishermen usually worked at night, when it wasn’t so hot, and they fished close to shore in the shallows where the fish gathered.  But Jesus told them to “launch out into the deep,” in the day time, and then cast their nets.

Peter argued a bit, no doubt tempted to flaunt his many years as an experienced fisherman.  But by now, he had come to respect Jesus, so after a mild protest, he responded, “at Your word I will let down my net.”

So they went deep, and their nets were filled to the point of breaking. Peter ended up throwing himself down at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus prophesied Peter’s future, declaring, “From now on, you will catch men.”  Peter and friends “forsook all and followed Him” (Luke 5:1-11).

So we went to one of the hardest places in Africa.  We went deep, pulled into the river, where I thought I would surely die.  And you know what? My heart was broken, and I was grieved at the pain and suffering I saw, but I did not die.  In fact, our nets were filled to overflowing with the beauty of the people we met, whose lives touched ours as much as we ministered to them.

The children who gathered around—at the orphanages and the safety compound where hundreds of night commuter children walk miles to find a safe place to sleep for the night—blessed us.  These children would grab our hands, five or ten at a time, just to feel some reassuring adult contact.  It was an honor to be there, to be “Jesus with skin” to the children who have so little. In fact, my daughter and son-in-law adopted a little boy from one of the orphanages, so now, at home, I have a two-and-a-half year old grandson named Isaac who is a daily reminder to me of those dear children.

Then there is Faith, a young woman raised in a Muslim family, whose young life was devastated by war and witchcraft.  Her father was killed in the tragic genocide of Rwanda, which you can learn more about in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.  Then her mother got caught up in a very dark and evil cult, which practiced human sacrifice and witchcraft.  To prepare this young girl to take her place in the cult, and to be possessed by these demonic spirits, she was forced to watch her own mother being killed in a horrific sacrificial ritual. Faith still bears the cuts and marks on her body of some of these rituals.

After her mother was killed, Faith ran away – as far as she could get, going from family to family, trying to stay safe. She made it to Uganda, where she met some people who shared the gospel with her; she fell in love with Jesus, and became the vibrant, joy-filled young woman we met on this trip.  I also learned that her original name was a native word meaning “great sadness,” but a pastor she met saw such faith in her that he renamed her and she gladly took this new name and rejoiced in her new life. I’m telling her story quickly here, but only by knowing her can one appreciate the depth of her sorrow and the fear she faced, as well as the depth of her new-found faith.

We met Faith at one of our outreaches.  Afterward, she came up to me and kept trying to ask me something, but between all the noise around us and the language, I couldn’t quite figure out what she was asking me.  Finally, I felt the Lord say, “Just say YES.”  So I did, and she promptly grabbed my Bible and scrambled away down the four flights of stairs in front of us.  I was a little dumbfounded, but thought, well, hey, if she wants my Bible that badly, she can have it.  Then I got to the bottom of the stairs, and there she was, smiling, holding out my Bible for me.  She had asked for the “privilege” of carrying my Bible for me!  I was about to throw myself down at her feet – so strongly did I see and feel the presence of the Lord in that young woman.

There will be more stories, pictures and reports posted on our website as we continue to work alongside Far Reaching Ministries in Africa and in other places around the world.

What I want to encourage you with, is this:  don’t be afraid to go deeper, to launch out where the Lord directs.  Don’t stand on the shore of life and watch the river flow by.  Don’t harden your hearts to the sounds and needs of humanity.  Jesus didn’t.  He heard it all.  He wept, He prayed, and He gave Himself.

Look around you—whether it be overseas or right in your own neighborhood, the river flows constantly, the needs are great.   Is it messy?  Uncomfortable? Tiring?  Even dirty and painful at times?  Oh yes. But you won’t die from the heartache or the giving.  You’ll find joy. In fact, only then will you be truly alive.