Beyond the Smiles (Part II)

(For Part I, click here.) 

I remember him laying there. The bare white mattress in the Emergency Ward. The blanket stained with sweat and dirt wrapped around his waist. His ribs protruding from his thin, malnourished frame.

I remember him turning onto his side, obviously in pain. I remember his mother standing at the bedside, anxiety and fear written clearly across her face.

A group of American healthcare workers, part of a medical mission team I was working with, flocked around him and hooked up an ancient ECG machine to confirm a diagnosis of pericarditis—a diagnosis for which nothing more could be done in this rural Cambodian hospital. 

As they gathered around the bed adjusting ECG leads and talking among themselves, I stood in the back. Listening, observing, and praying.

I took in a deep breath, and I let it out. This young man was dying. There was nothing we could do about it. With all our knowledge, with all our experience, with all our compassion and good intentions, there was nothing we could do to prevent this man’s suffering and death. 

There was a time when seeing a patient like this young man broke me. It led me on a journey of desperate brokenness and incredible healing. It led me to face truths concerning what I believed about God and myself. Ultimately, it led me to rest in knowing I don’t have to be enough.

This time, as I stood near the patient's bed, everything was different. Outwardly, I was surrounded by Americans, and I was grateful to be with so many whose education and experience exceeded mine. Things had shifted inwardly, too; I found I had courage to reach out to this patient in a way I was too timid to do before but was incredibly important.

When I close my eyes, I am back in the hot, humid, Cambodian Emergency Ward. I breathe in deep, and I choose to rest in this truth: I don’t have to be enough, for Christ is enough. When I stop worrying about how much I can’t do because I am not enough, I hear Jesus’ quiet invitation to sit in His presence, even in the midst of such deep suffering. And I accept. 

I sit in His presence and bring this young man to Him, praying he would know the peace of Jesus’ presence, too. I sit in His presence and bring myself and my broken heart to Him, finding space to grieve and freedom to be sad because when I’m with Jesus, the lie that “I have to be the strong one” crumbles. Jesus is the strong one. I never have to act like I have it all together—because I don’t. Jesus knows this. He's okay with this.

The Americans clear out, and it’s just my dad and me left. With the help of our friend and translator, Dad explains why the American team is there, to teach and work with the local doctors. The patient’s mother looks up tearfully and asks if her son will live.

All our knowledge, all our diagnostic powers, all our education and good intentions—it means nothing in this moment. We have nothing to offer this woman and her son. Nothing except Jesus. So we ask if we can pray, and I reach out my hand to touch this patient’s dirt-smeared blanket and lift him up to Jesus.

And I know in all our heartbreak, in all their heartbreak, Jesus is enough, and He is with us. 

His presence is so strong. It always is, if we'll just acknowledge it. If we'll just accept His invitation and stop our striving to be everything, fix everything, and know everything. Perhaps this is the most important thing I’ve learned about poverty in the past few years. Poverty and suffering highlight our sense of helplessness, and so often our response is to push this uncomfortable feeling down and ignore it or to grit our teeth and take it upon ourselves to eliminate disparities. Yet I’ve found no freedom there. 

No, freedom is found in Jesus' presence, in trust. It's found in trusting God is enough, trusting He cares and is big enough for all the hurts in the world and my grief over poverty and suffering and death, and trusting God is, indeed, good.

He is good. Even when everything around us seems to be wrong and impossible and heart-wrenching and clouded with evil. He is, indeed, good, and He is enough.

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In Over My Head

These lyrics to “In Over My Head,” a song by Bethel Music, recently caught my attention:

Then You crash over me and I’ve lost control but I’m free
I’m going under, I’m in over my head
And You crash over me, I’m where You want me to be
I’m going under, I’m in over my head
Whether I sink, whether I swim
It makes no difference when I’m beautifully in over my head1

I’m not sure there’s any better way to describe the transition in life right now. I’m preparing to leave behind a stable job with wonderful coworkers, move out of the coolest house I’ve ever lived in, and say goodbye to a city I just came to know and love. These are inevitable when it comes to the move to Cambodia.

People don’t talk about this part of missions much. It’s the part that some people point to and say is crazy or even stupid. It’s the part that the “missions-minded” (why is that even a distinction among church members, anyway?) often gloss over in their enthusiasm that the Great Commission is being fulfilled.

It’s the part that is a hundred nitty-gritty, contemplated decisions about leaving people, places, jobs, and what seems like security. It’s the part that means accepting that we aren’t in control but we’re free—we’re free when we let the Lord crash over us and our lives, stepping away from the comfort of the shore until we are way in over our heads. 

Helpless, powerless, struggling. Isn’t that what “in over our heads” means?

These are words we don’t like to talk about. In fact, these are words we as the Church often deny. To say that ministry is beyond our ability sounds like heresy to these Southern-Baptist-raised ears. Isn’t this what we were made for?! Of course it’s within our ability!

Yet the reality of missions—and ministry, and life—is this: if we think it is within our ability, we are dangerously deceived and in for deep disappointment. Interestingly, a confirmation this is the right thing to do is that every morning that I wake up and think about moving, I am driven to my knees. Thoughts of moving and ministry make me so aware of my inadequacy that I cling to Jesus more and more desperately.

For me, one of these inadequacies lies in the reality that moving involves taking a huge risk with mental health and depression. My well-oiled coping mechanisms will shift and change, and I will be challenged to find new ones in Cambodia. 

My roommate Taylor (who is also a nurse) had a patient once who was paralyzed from the neck down. Taylor came home struck by the patient’s utter dependence: if she wanted a sip of water, she had to ask; if she wanted to change the channel on the tv, she had to ask; if she wanted to turn the lights off, she had to askA discussion on the patient’s needs led me to consider: is dependence something that is learned, or is it something that is recognized? We say we want to learn to be dependent on God. But maybe we have it wrong…

Maybe we are always dependent on God. Maybe we just don’t recognize it.

In Colossians we read that Jesus “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” and in Acts that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”2 We cannot take a breath without Jesus, for it is through Jesus that our very cells hold together. We don’t just need Him spiritually. We need Jesus to exist. 

We are all in over our heads.

It isn’t the act of moving that makes me need Jesus more. But the step of moving makes me more aware of my need, reminding me I’m already in over my head here in the States. This, I believe, is a step in the right direction.

Daunting and uncomfortable as this step is, ”whether I sink, whether I swim // It makes no difference when I’m beautifully in over my head.” Sink or swim, fail or succeed, struggle or thrive, it makes no difference when I am more overwhelmed by Jesus than ever before. Really, all is success if I find myself deeper in Christ than before. And so maybe thriving and struggling aren’t polar opposites, after all.

Whether it means moving overseas or intentionally breaking comfortable routines Stateside, may we be a people who step out in faith and recognize how helpless and incapable we are, may we live in a state of being overcome by Christ’s adequacy and love, and may we be a people who recognize that being in over our heads is truly the most beautiful place to be.

1) https://bethelmusic.com/publishing/in-over-my-head-crash-over-me/ 
2) Colossians 1:17; Acts 17:28. NIV.

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