“So what is the fourth way?”
That was the question raging around the table at the Keren Hotel as the team of six Pittsburghers enjoyed an amazing meal of Ethiopian food. “We don’t like 1, 2, or 3. There has to be a #4!”
We have spent much of the past two days in meetings with groups of pastors, elders, and leaders of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) in Juba, South Sudan. Time and time again, we have been placed in situations where we hear some horrific problem…how do we deal with hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes in view of the political and military strife that has occurred in the past year? How can our congregations be self-supporting when our worshipers do not have jobs? Where are we to gather for worship when so much of what we think of as “ours” is in the north, in Sudan? What do we do to assist the orphans?
Three possibilities surfaced in our discussion of these topics.
1. Let’s help them fix it. After all, we’re bright people, right? A little American ingenuity, a few bucks from a special offering? Come on, guys, we can do this. Let us help you brainstorm ideas to solve your problems right now. You’re welcome.
As tempting as that might be to try, we realize that’s not why we’re here, and it’s presumptuous to think that we have any of the cultural awareness, technical skill, and long-term commitment to make #1 a viable option.
2. Problems? What problems? Come on, friends, even Paul in Romans says that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Famine? Persecution? War? Oh, don’t worry friends, these are temporary troubles. They won’t last long. Hang in there and things will get better. Just you wait and see!
Yeah, well, this is just plain stupid. How can we listen to the stories of our friends and the trauma that they’ve endured and sit there with a stupid grin our our face pretending that it’ll all be better in the sweet bye and bye?
3. You know what? It is too hard. There isn’t much to be done here – the challenge is just too great. Maybe we shouldn’t have even come here in the first place – we’re in way over our heads. This whole trip was just a silly idea to begin with.
It’s hard to see how this is a viable option, either. After all, we serve a God who raises the dead, who releases prisoners, who invites us to proclaim Good News to those in distress.
Do you see what I mean? The first three options came easily. But they were just as easily dismissed. What is the Fourth Way?
We met on Friday with representatives from the President’s Office of Religious Affairs, with the Religious Advisor to the President of South Sudan, with women’s desk leaders in the SSPEC, and with much of the leadership team at SSPEC. This morning, we were briefed by our friend Pastor Thomas Tut on the difficulties of ministry with prisoners in this context and the challenges of caring for orphans of war while the war is still going on! We were briefed by a delegate at the ongoing Peace Talks in Addis Ababa and heard a report from the pastoral team charged with leading SSPEC worship in the various UN Camps that are housing the hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons who have been rendered homeless and traumatized by the war.
It is heavy, heavy news. Hard conversations in many ways. And #1, #2, and #3 all stink. What is #4?
Well, we did a lot of praying. I mean to say, a LOT of praying. Some of that prayer sounded like mumbling – “God, you know about this mess. Come on over here and do something to clean it up…”
And much of the prayer was just quietness.
Some of it was tears.
And then, option #4 came to us. Maybe the best thing that we can do in a situation like this is to simply sit quietly and wait to see where God shows up. We can’t fix the problems that are here. But we can’t ignore them. And we refuse to give up on our friends who are stuck in them. So tonight, we sing along with one of the crustiest of the prophets, Jeremiah
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope…
For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone. (Lamentations 3, selected verses)
You may have spent time in an ICU waiting room, or a funeral parlor, sitting on the hard news of having been laid off at your job, or waiting for the results of the big test. And if you’ve done that, you know that when your friend comes to one of those places to sit with you, that friend isn’t going to heal your child or raise your spouse or pay your bills or cure your cancer. But you know that somehow the act of their coming to be with you matters to you, and is a way of communicating that in some way, you matter to them. And mattering, well, it just matters. It counts for something.
God’s lovely, beloved children in South Sudan matter. We hope that they remember that. We will never forget this opportunity to be with them. And in some way, we are bold enough to hope that you notice and remember them before the Lord, too.