A Small Version of the Grand Narrative

A response to Ajith Fernando’s ’Embracing Suffering in Service’

Editor’s note: Shortly after Libby Little wrote this response to Ajith Fernando’s article on suffering, she received news that her husband had been brutally murdered while returning from a medical mission in a rural area.

Thank you, Mr. Fernando, for sharing your experience of suffering and personal frustration in service. For the sake of this conversation, I want to share from my own three decades of serving and raising a family in one of the most war-ravaged countries in the world.

For most Westerners, the opportunity to embrace suffering in service has become rare. Stringent security and evacuation protocols, government advisories, threats of litigation, and pressures from relatives and supporters make it difficult for mission people working in conflict zones to stay near to those who suffer. ’To stay, or not to stay?’ is a relevant question for today’s mission personnel working in dangerous places.

In today’s world of instant access to news, mission agencies may feel compelled to ’do something’ when danger arises. Although the Bible gives examples of varying responses to danger, the mission agencies’ ’something,’ more often than not, may be to encourage or order an evacuation. What might have been a God-appointed time to embrace suffering and those who suffer may be prematurely aborted.

According to a United Nations study, ’The World at War,’ increasing areas of the world are involved in ’intrastate wars’ where 75 percent of the victims are noncombatants. That figure represents a staggering story of human suffering and enormous needs.

I can remember two occasions when we and others stayed ’in the same boat,’ as it were, with people caught in conflict and suffering. On one occasion we had to stay; it soon became too late to leave. On the other occasion we had a choice, and we chose to stay.

The first occasion happened in the late ’70s in a city where a dozen foreigners were living. My husband and I and our two daughters had been sent to complete the construction and opening of an eye hospital.

One March morning, rumors circulated that a citizens’ uprising was brewing against the foreign political advisers who were sent there to prepare for an invasion. We woke to the deafening blasts of government tanks firing on the crowds forming in the bustling open market, and jets strafing streets lined with mud brick houses.

During a brief lull in fighting, a military convoy was organized to take foreign advisers and government sympathizers to a safe place. We were offered a place in the convoy. Our neighbors, however, assured us the worst was over, so the convoy came and left without us. As the fighting worsened, and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk. Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ’pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ’the people who stayed.’

Months later the hospital opened and we began preparing for Christmas. Not wanting to miss any chance for a party, our daughter invited her friends and their female relatives to a birthday event for Jesus. They packed themselves into our home to hear the Christmas story of Immanuel, God with us. God blessed the painful times we had experienced in that city.

The second occasion happened in the country’s capital during the mid-’90s. For months, opposing rebel forces fired rockets, sometimes a hundred a morning, into the streets. We were less than 20 foreigners, mostly medical personnel, and one child, our 10-year-old daughter. We lived in dark, sandbagged, first-floor rooms. Each morning we saw mounds of dirt piled outside our neighbors’ houses, revealing their attempts to dig makeshift underground shelters. We spread the word that we had a basement, and our neighbors were welcome. Whenever rocketing began, they filed quickly through the gate and down the basement steps. With each incoming round of rockets, they moaned prayers and cried. In my own fearful state, all I could do was whisper the name of Jesus.

One of those women returned recently and told me that during those basement times, whenever she heard the name of Jesus she felt a warm sensation in her body. Later, when she left for a neighboring country, she sought out Christians who could tell her more about the One who warmed her heart. God blessed those days in the basement.

God blessed those occasions and visited us with his power. His amateur followers, stricken with stage fright, forgetting their lines, were acting out in miniature something of his own Grand Narrative—Immanuel, God with us—in the miserable mess. The scenes set the stage for the Holy Spirit to work in a mighty way.

May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Libby Little and her husband Tom have lived for 32 years in a war-torn country, working in medical assistance and training programs.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)

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