Some of you heard me share this message at our Ministry Update Night on July 22nd while we were home but I just felt like I also needed to put it down on paper, for myself and maybe for someone else out there who needs to hear this message too. Also, coming back to Liberia has already proved challenging with one of our friends and colleagues (John, who works in the greenhouses) having had a debilitating stroke the day before we flew back and I know that my faith is being tested yet again in this same area….please pray that God’s hope may be known and His presence felt as He continues to carry us through.
Liberia is an extravagantly beautiful place, full of shades of green more vibrant than I have ever seen before and people with smiles larger than I’ve ever been able to produce myself. But, Liberia is also a hard place….hard on the mind, hard on the body, and hard on the soul.
In Liberia, we experience so much death, so much more than I was ever used to in the US. From the time that we arrived in Liberia, it seems that we hear of death every week and disease/illness every single day multiple times a day. Sometimes we’ve never met the people, sometimes we’ve met them causally, sometimes they are loved ones of our close friends and colleagues, and sometimes we know them and we know them well. In the few months since arriving back to Liberia again in August 2017, we had one of our staff members loose her teenage son to a senseless and brutal ritualistic killing, we’d had our carpenter friend loose his two year old baby girl to malaria, we’d had a neighbor loose his wife and one of his twin girls in a motorcycle incident on the highway, we’d lost many leaders from the church for which we were working with in Liberia, and the list went on. But then in one single week of January, the second week of the new year, a time of supposed new beginnings, we experienced three major events- two deaths and one terrifying near-death experience of people whom we loved and cared for deeply and it just about broke me.
The first was the death of a close family friend from back home. Her name was Pam Spencer, I had known her since I was probably 10 years old. She was a neighbor and it was from her and her husband that we had purchased our first goat. Over the years she and her husband became part of our family, and to me she was also a mentor, both personally and professionally. She worked hard at whatever she set her mind to and she did so with such grace and gentleness that I often tried to mimic but rarely came close to. She had cancer and I knew the possibility of her losing this battle existed, but I prayed for the opposite, I held onto hope she would get better and I’d see her again. And when I left for Liberia, she was better, she was in remission. For anyone who has ever lost a family member or friend while they are living abroad, you know how it feels to be told the news from 3,000 miles away via text and know that while everyone else is united together back home, grieving alongside of one another, you are here on the other side of the world, seemingly alone with nothing but your memories and tears.
Just a couple days later, we saw the death of one of my students, Eleazar. Eleazar was a kind, funny, smart, hard-working young man who was just one semester away from graduating with his Associates degree in agriculture. He worked in the library at the school on a work-grant program and he was constantly helping me to keep my assignments/books in order so that my students could easily access them. Just the week before he died, we had heard there were elephants that had come to Nimba County (first time in years any have been spotted in Liberia) and when he saw my crazy excitement at this news he promised me he would find a way to take me to the elephants, no matter how far in the bush they were haha. I thought he was joking, but it turned out he was quite serious and had already started making calls. The next thing I knew, he was gone. I had heard he was sick a couple days before, but again everyone is sick all the time. People get malaria/typhoid literally every other month and so it wasn’t anything I was too worried about. He was not part of a vulnerable population group and I heard he was already getting treatment. We prayed for him in devotions and a couple people even went and visited him. I wish I had visited him too….
Then, it was Mother Eleanor. Actually, I had been heading up to visit her in her office that very morning and had called her phone to let her know I was on my way. Someone else answered the phone and was screaming in a thick Liberian accident about Mother Eleanor having “fallen off.” I had no idea what that meant and I think the person on the other end was getting frustrated with me but eventually I understood that I should find Mark,our driver, and send him up with the car. Mother Eleanor had had a stroke and fainted….that’s what “fallen off” means in Liberia. Mother Eleanor laid in the local hospital bed for 1 week hooked up to nothing other than a little saline drip bag, waking up for just a few minutes each day, barely able to eat or speak and unable to move her left side. Because there was no doctor present at the hospital that entire week (the sad reality of Liberia’s health care system), we had no idea what her condition meant, was she even going to live?? If she did, was this what it would look like? Mother Eleanor had been the life-blood of this campus. Serving as the Dean of Academic Affairs and Students, she made sure to engage with her students, bringing song and story into class, bringing decorations all over campus, and bringing light and the love of Christ with her wherever she went. We all loved her, I myself looked up to her, a powerful strong confident woman of faith who was a definite change-maker, yet also possessed such grace. And now, here she was lying on the hospital bed, fighting for life.
It was too much for me that week, way too much. I still am welling up with tears right now even as I try to write this as I think back on that week. On the outside, I think I tried to put on like everything was normal, but on the inside and in the private of my own room, I cried and I questioned and yelled at God…..WHY WHY WHY?!? Don’t you love these people? Don’t you see how this is going to push Liberia even further back? Have you forgotten about Liberia?? We needed Eleazar! He was the only one from his family who was getting an education, think of what he could have done to help his family and his entire village when he had graduated and returned to the farm?! Hasn’t this family lost enough? (I knew they had lost two brothers in the past, his mother to disease, and his father was now contemplating suicide). And Mother Eleanor, don’t you see that we needed Mother Eleanor!? Don’t you see all that she does for this school? She is one of a kind with a force like no other woman I know, how could you take her away from us when we need her so much right now?! Your children are hurting! Do you even see us?! Do you even care?! What are any of us even doing here at this school if you are going to continue to let us keep falling backwards like this? What is the point?
And then, one of the most untimely of things (or so I thought) happened. I was asked to speak at Eleazar’s funeral. I scoffed…Are you kidding me, God? I have nothing to say to you right now and certainly nothing to say to all those people! I am literally hopeless and I have nothing left to give, ask someone else. And then…
“Hope does not disappoint.” These four little words had somehow wandered into my mind and taken root. At first when I recognized it floating around somewhere up there, I laughed out loud. Are you kidding me, God? Hope does not disappoint? Look at me right now, you promise that hope does not disappoint…I’m pretty disappointed if you hadn’t noticed! Let’s look and see at how hope has disappointed me…and then I proceeded to lay out my case before God as perhaps a lawyer might lay out their case in court: 1) I had hoped Ms. Pam would get better and I had hoped that modern medicine would win in this case….that didn’t happen. 2) I had hoped Eleazar’s education and sacrifice would save him, I had hoped he would be the answer to his village’s problem of lack of food security….that’s not going to happen. 3) I had hoped Mother Eleanor was going to be just what these students needed and just what this school needed to move forward, I had hoped I would see her talk again… but as of now that still had not yet happened.
And yet, even as I was spouting off my defense towards God about why his little phrase “hope does not disappoint” was just a bunch of empty nonsense, I felt Him telling me that perhaps I needed to actually open up my Bible and read His words again to see what He really meant by those seemingly false and pesky little words, repeating itself in my head over and over again.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
I read the words and then I just sat still, starring at the verses before me. I realized where I’d gone wrong. I realized that perhaps I’d misunderstood the meaning of hope and where it came from and the type of hope, the depth of hope, that God was calling me to, a hope that He had already given me.
His hope is nothing like the hope of this world. He calls us to hope in Him and His glory and His glory alone. I had placed my hope in something much smaller- in the results, in the tangible things before me, the things of this world that I thought could solve the problems of this world….medicine, healing, education, status, money, development, people….and so of course, of course these things would disappoint, these things are not God Himself. They may reflect Him in some ways and may be given by Him, but they are not Him. They are temporary, things of this world, and they will break or drift away and so they will all disappoint eventually. Anybody can hope in these things and so anybody can easily be disappointed and sadly, for many, this is all they know to hope in. But for those that have placed their faith in Jesus, there is a hope given unlike any other hope imaginable because the one who gives it is everlasting and not of this world.
And all of a sudden I realized something, I realized that all three of these people whom I had been mourning knew Jesus- so why am I crying?! This is not the end of their story! How could I forget? Ms. Pam, just weeks before her passing had committed her life to Christ and asked to be baptized as an outward sign of her faith. Eleazar knew Christ too and was active in sharing his faith with his peers at the school and no doubt served as an example for many as to what it meant to be a humble servant of Christ. They both knew the King and they were dancing with Him now and I would see them again one day and dance too! As for Eleanor, I was assured that as a beloved daughter of God she knew her Father intimately and should she ever speak again she would wake up praising the name of Jesus. And a week later so she did and her life continues to be a testimony to the goodness of God!
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:54-58
This hope, this hope in the splendid glory of God, is the kind of hope that changes everything- hearts, people, nations, and even history. It is a brilliant and glorious hope that rises out of the depths of that empty tomb and that declares the wonder of God and His good and perfect will to redeem the world from the pits of despair, to bring beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3). It is an expectant hope that sees life and breath among a valley of dry and cracked bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14) simply because God said it would be so. It is an assured hope that reaches out for and desperately clings to things unseen, things that have not yet come (Hebrews 11:1). It is a confident and loud hope that shouts I know who He is and that He is coming again! He has already won the victory! (John 16:33). It is a hope that remembers His promise to us that in all things we have a God who is working things together for our good (Romans 8:28). It is a hope that says “even if I do not see you in this mess, I know that you are here and who you are and so I trust you, and therefore I will rejoice in your name.”
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights
While on Earth, I may never know why then was the exact time for Ms. Pam to be called home, or why Eleazar was taken from this world so soon, or why Mother Eleanor had to suffer from the stroke which still affects her to this day, but I do know that God hears our cries, that He is here, and that He is moving and using this for His glory, ALL of it. That is what He promises and that is what He does. When all I see is brokenness and despair and death, God sees a chance for healing, for tender intimacy, for new life. God beckons me to trust Him, to be patient, to be expectant, and He says to me “look among the nations and watch- be utterly astounded! For I will work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told to you” just as said to Habakkuk (1:5) the prophet as He was doubting the Lord’s goodness and plans amongst the misery of his people all around him.
And so, I too will choose to trust Him, cling to, and even boast in His hope, a hope that could never disappoint, because He is a God that could never disappoint, a God who will never leave nor forsake me, even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In Him, I will find comfort and peace.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.