I’m sorry it has taken so long to post this next part… we’re in the states visiting family, and we’ve been quite busy! We head back to China next Saturday, the 17th. And, to be honest, this is the hardest installment to write. I was most definitely stalling.
In a world in which there are twenty-seven million slaves,
In a world in which 840 million people will go to bed hungry tonight because they cannot afford one meal,
In a world in which one million people commit suicide every year,
In a world in which today nearly 4,500 people in Africa will die of AIDS,
Jesus wants to save our church from the exile of irrelevance.
Jesus wants to save US.
You and me.
From the kingdom of comfort.
From the pursuit of power.
From the priority of preservation.
From the empire of indifference.
From an exile of irrelevance.
Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile
Rob Bell and Don Golden
Part 4: Can’t Go Back
If only we could have slowed time… What seemed like an eternity stretching before us that first rainy night in our rooms at the orphanage ended all too abruptly. While at first we eagerly anticipated the departure date, by the mid-point of the trip, we were watching it draw near with deeper and deeper dread.
As we neared the last few days, the feeling bordered on desperation. If there’s ever been a time when I wanted to will time to stop, this would be it. I can’t really explain the depth of our desire to stay and be present in the children’s lives. We knew we couldn’t be there forever, and we knew that playing with rowdy toddlers would have to grow old eventually. But, at the same time, what we were doing mattered so much. In a real and tangible way, we were being God’s hands and feet in that place. We’d never experienced such an intense time of being aware that God was working through us to relieve the suffering of others, and to be honest, suddenly our lives in the States seemed empty and void of any real purpose.
As Rob Bell says in a great book*, it felt like back at home we were living in an “exile of irrelevance,” and for one of the first times, we’d tasted what a life filled with a Kingdom-purpose was like. And we were thirsty for more. Even though we were just a few weeks from our wedding, and we had much to look forward to with great anticipation, we both wanted to fully live in every moment of those dwindling days, and I know that if we could have made the choice, we would have stayed.
To be honest, our memories of the little girl with the birthmark are vague and run together. I remember she was sick. She had the flu, and I think that’s why she wanted to be held so much. I also remember how she would always eat so slowly, taking apart her boiled egg one tiny pinch at a time. Or how she ate the chewy trail mix bar we gave her one cranberry, one oat, one nut at a time. Most of the time, I remember her being in Jacob’s arms. No matter what he was doing or what other children he would play with, she was always there… tucked into the crook of his arm.
Remember I said we had an easy time raising the money for the trip? Well, it was so easy, in fact, that we had enough money remaining to buy some supplies for the orphanage. We bought an oven. Anyway, we both wanted the orphanage staff to just go and purchase the one they wanted, leaving us in the upstairs playroom where we most wanted to be. The day came for them to go to the store, and they really wanted both of us to go with them. I adamantly refused. To go would mean a few hours away from the children. But, Jacob understood how important it would be to the orphanage to have at least one of us present, so he agreed to go. I remember when it came time to leave, he came and handed me his little girl… asking if I would hold her until he got back. I could see in his eyes that he didn’t want to leave her. I think that’s the moment that I really understood how deeply he loved her and how much he wanted to protect her.
During the trip, I had one of the most powerful dreams I’ve ever had. I’m usually not a dreamer, and I certainly never remember them, but this was the most vivid and real dream I’ve ever experienced. And I don’t think it was chance. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I dreamed my Dad died suddenly. I woke up with a deep ache. A sorrow that I can’t put into words. A feeling that something sacred was lost and something precious shattered.
The feeling stayed with me as I went about my daily routine of playing with the children, and I felt as if God were whispering to me all day long, “This is how they feel. Something sacred was taken from them. The ache that you now feel is with them from the time they wake up until the time that they drift to sleep. When they wake up alone at night, the first thing they feel is the emptiness. It breaks my heart that they know such sorrow and loss, and what you feel is just a small taste of the heaviness they carry within their hearts. My heart aches for this loss, too, and right now I’m giving you a glimpse of the pain that I feel when carry their brokenness and sorrow.”
Though it was a painful dream and brought about a deeper awareness that made my work with the children even more difficult in some ways, I know God used that dream to powerfully change my own awareness of what was really happening inside their little hearts.
When the morning dawned for us to leave, I wanted to go back to sleep and wake up on Day 1 again. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be living in a moment and then to suddenly realize you aren’t really present in that moment? You are thinking about the future or remembering the past or planning what you need to do next. Sometimes we fail to live fully because we aren’t fully there. Well, this morning wasn’t like that. We didn’t know if we could ever come back. So, we sat about the day with more intentionality and purpose than we normally muster.
I consciously tried to absorb the way their hands felt in mine. To lock into my memory the colors of their shirts and even the smells in the halls. I wanted to remember everything. I didn’t want any of this to dull with time, allowing me to slip back into the routines and my own “exile of irrelevance.” I wanted to remember the way their laughter sounded. I wanted to cling to the signs of hope that I saw glimmering in their eyes. My heart was breaking as Alison came and gently told us it was time to leave. Even now as I write these memories down, I find myself crying as I remember the desperation I felt.
I wanted to scream, “I can’t go back. I simply can’t.”
There’s no returning to that other life, where I was supposed to pick colors for my bathroom. I didn’t care what colors my bathroom would be, and I didn’t want to go back. I don’t know why — maybe I’ll never know — but in just a few days, God totally reworked my heart. He gave me a mother’s heart for those children. A heart that is full of joy for their accomplishments and full of ferocity towards anything that threatens them. Through that dream about losing my own Dad, He gave my eyes the ability to see through their tough shells and see their deep woundings. He’s gave me eyes to see their beauty through their brokenness; to see their hope through their despair; to see their possibility in spite of their circumstances.
Finally Alison pulled us away, tears streaming down all of our faces. A kind nanny understood that I couldn’t leave the child I was holding if he was crying, so she gently took him from my arms. But, when Jacob sat his little girl down and turned to walk away, she somehow understood that this time wouldn’t be like the other goodbyes when he came back the next day.
My last memory is of her standing silently and stoically in the place where he placed her. She leaned her head back and her mouth opened in a silent cry. A cry so deep and guttural that no sound even came out. This little girl who never cried in our presence had a solitary tear running down her cheek; a sign of a closed heart now opened.
We were ruined. And though we were going home, we could never go back to the way things were.
In the next installment: Her name, an Olive Garden Conversation, the big day, and the lightbulb moment.
* The book is Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden. I won’t lie to you. It is pretty intense at times, and you may find yourself irritated by some of his bold statements. But read it with an open mind, and I think you’ll find yourself as convicted as I was… but more importantly, inspired to live differently.