“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
I spent two weeks in the Horn of Africa. By the numbers, thirteen flights landed in ten different cities at eleven different airports in six different countries. From jumbo jets to prop planes on dirt runways, every flight was on time. No connection missed. No piece of luggage lost.
Our small team got along great. No one got sick. (Or kidnapped or robbed or murdered.) No one even got cranky.
We found favor with visa and customs officials, received unbelievable hospitality, enjoyed a wide variety of local foods (including camel, goat, and a few dishes I couldn’t identify), slept well, and drank deeply of the wells of grace God supplies when His children connect around His faithfulness and eternal purposes.
We were sustained, protected, led, and encouraged, and I have no doubt we were upheld by thousands of answered prayers.
We received mercy upon mercy, and we are grateful beyond words to express it.
I promised stories upon my return, and there are plenty of stories to tell. But one is burning like a branding iron in my soul, and even though it happened near the end of our adventures, I need to begin right here.
Our God is kind. Much too kind to let us walk in pride. And sometimes when we think our obedience is just about as complete as it could get, the kindest gift He can give is to expose the true condition of our hearts. Like Peter at the last supper, we declare our allegiance. “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death,” (Luke 22) and Jesus simply sets us straight. No, He says. You will deny me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I promised you a story, and a story you shall have.
The small village of Doro is located on the northern border of South Sudan. What was once the undisturbed home of the Mabaan people is now a refugee camp housing 130,000 people from a wide variety of tribes — people who’ve fled across the border from Sudan to escape violence, many of them leaving all their possessions behind. There are a number of agencies and NGOs working in the area, and one of them is SIM.
Ruth is a young, single nurse practitioner, an SIM worker stationed at the Grieve Memorial Clinic in Doro, serving the medical needs of the refugees. We traveled there to see her world, bring some requested supplies, and spend time hearing her heart and speaking into her life. Ruth being Ruth, we also ate well, laughed a lot, and played a card game or two. And there may or may not have been a late-night dance party in the hotel room Ruth and I shared in Juba. You’ll have to ask her.
Ruth with a Nubian child
One of the highlights of our time in Doro was a feast held in our honor and hosted by Nubian refugees. Ruth attends the Nubian church and has gotten to know many of these dear souls well.
Ruth walking past the Nubian church building
The women began cooking early in the morning, preparing mountains of their traditional sorghum bread (like very thin injera). Working over open fires under a massive baobab tree, they also prepared various sauces for dipping, including a goat-and-potato dish, noodles in oil with tomato, a green leafy vegetable/herb concoction, and another thick sauce that I believe contained lentils.
When we arrived early in the afternoon, they began serving their traditional beverages. First we drank hot tea poured over sugar. A lot of sugar. Then, after they roasted and ground fresh coffee beans, they mixed the thick, strong coffee with a generous infusion of ginger and another shock of sugar. It was delicious, but intense. A few sips went a long way.
As we sat sipping hot beverages in the 100+ degree heat and visiting with the women, we were surrounded by a couple dozen children, at least as many pigs, and the occasional chicken or dog — a sort of happy chaos as babies were passed around, toddlers squabbled, and older children played games or sang and danced.
Everything was dust and sweat and pots boiling on hot coals and chatter in a language I didn’t understand.
Ruth and her teammates cuddled babies and conversed with mamas. Pigs were shooed away from food. I sat on a bench, taking it all in, when I felt a small presence crowd in beside me and looked down into a dusty little face.
I asked Ruth if she recognized the boy, and she said no. She also said that a feast like this is rare in the refugee community, and it’s not unusual for uninvited guests to wander in and partake.
The child didn’t look well. The whites of his eyes were thick and yellowed, and his clothes exceptionally tattered. He reached out his hand and pointed to my water bottle.
During my entire two weeks in Africa, I was never without my water bottle. And this particular afternoon, I knew it contained the only water I would have to drink until well after dark. I instinctively pulled it away and said, “No.”
Then I looked at him again. His eyes locked on mine, and he simply opened his mouth.
I don’t even know how to describe my internal reaction. It was surprise, revulsion, and perhaps a small twinge of guilt. But I still shook my head no. Undeterred, he reached across my lap, placed his hand on the bottle’s mouthpiece, and opened his mouth again.
Now I was annoyed. I wouldn’t be able to drink any more until I got a chance to wash it. But I still didn’t give him a drink. I suppose I subconsciously equated it to awarding misbehavior — like letting one of my children go ahead and eat a cookie they’d grabbed after I’d already said no cookies.
So I simply turned away and ignored him until he left.
I didn’t think much about it again until a few days later when we were making our way home. Our return journey included five flights spanning 36 hours, and I decided to pass some of those hours reading the remarkable and inspiring book, Kisses from Katie.
If you’re not familiar with Katie Davis’ story, the short of it is that Jesus captured her heart for Uganda at the age of eighteen, and she never looked back. Not yet twenty-five, she has adopted fourteen daughters, founded Amazima Ministries (a nonprofit providing sponsors for other needy children), and lives with an open door and heart, welcoming and serving whomever God brings to her. Her philosophy in a nutshell is this: love the one God has placed in front of you right now.
I was reading along, feeling moved and blessed, when I came to this:
“…for me, the whole situation could be reduced to one question: Did I believe that Jesus was serious? Did I believe what He said was true? The answer was yes. I believe He was serious when He said to love my neighbor as myself. . . . I kept going back to Matthew 25, where Jesus said, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . . Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . .whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
And there it was. Like an arrow to the heart, almost knocking the breath out of me. In an instant and with perfect clarity I saw that boy’s pleading face. I knew Jesus had asked me for a drink, and I in disgust and irritation had pulled my water away.
I said no to Jesus.
I knew this beyond doubting, and my heart was crushed. “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” It was grief like that.
Any sense of self-righteousness I might have been feeling after our two weeks in Africa evaporated. I was a noisy gong. A clanging cymbal. And for a horrifying moment, I wondered if Jesus would forgive me.
In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, Peter was restored and commissioned. He received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and preached a sermon that launched the newborn church. But no matter how many visions he had, souls he reached, or miracles he performed, I wonder if he always kept the memory of Jesus’ face the night he denied Him.
I think he probably did. And, like me, I expect he came to consider it a gift.
My broken-hearted prayer on that airplane was simple. “Please, Lord. Please forgive me. I never want to say ‘no’ to You again.”
I returned from the Horn of Africa with many images seared on my mind, but one stands out, and I’ve asked God to keep it front and center.
By God’s grace, a refugee child in South Sudan will help me keep my promise to say yes.
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