Telling the Truth in Provence

There are only two ways to live your life,” Einstein said. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

Impfondo, Congo

Moonlight swim. Congo. Photo Credit: Martha Rodriguez

Last weekend, I was drinking wine in a beautiful French farmhouse chatting with two secular humanists about Jesus. Both of them believe that a historical Jesus was probably a fabrication, definitely an institutionalized myth, an opiate for the masses and certainly not the Christ.

It was jarring, especially after spending so much time recently on a big, white ship in West Africa, surrounded by some of the world’s most radical Christians.

And yet this is where I live now – sacred and secular all tangled up together, confusing the territory, demanding that I answer the question: Why bother with Jesus? Can’t one do good work without all that? I’m learning to respond in a way that loves people regardless of my opinion on their faith. Because really, who cares what I think about their faith?

But in Provence, I was on the ropes, taking a few punches, without any big, smart Christians around to defend me and why I live like I do now.  It’s one thing to hang out with people who think just like you do, it’s another to talk openly about Jesus to a couple very shrewd, uber-rational atheists.

Hello rubber. Meet road.

So, do I trust Jesus to help me speak with clarity and kindness, no matter the audience? Can I articulate what I’m doing with Mercy Ships and why? Can I talk about Jesus honestly, like he’s in the room? How do I explain, without hysteria, what he did for me to people who think he is a myth?

I don’t know. So I just told them the truth – mine.

It didn’t take long for the “Jesus is a crutch for you” comment to drop like a bomb. Considering it afresh I thought:

Jesus isn’t crutch for me. He’s a stretcher upon which I collapsed and wearily admitted that I don’t know how to quit being selfish and to do work that matters in Africa or anywhere else.  That, as it turns out, was a great place to start.

But the woman knowing what had happened to her came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her “Daughter your faith as made you well, go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:33-34

IMG_8504So it doesn’t matter where I am now, Congo, France, Texas, if you ask, I’m just going to tell you the truth, and frankly, it’s kind of messy. Sorry. Other Christians are doing the same. Meet Glennon. Meet Shauna. Meet Sarah.

Yes, it’s terrifying to lay yourself bare for others to inspect and challenge, because they do. Yes, I hear the enemy calling me a self-aggrandizing jerk and I squirm with fear and self-doubt. But every time I simply answer the question, every time I just tell the truth, inevitably a young woman will pull me aside afterward and say:

“Thank you for saying that out loud.”

And that to me is work that matters.


Notes from Congo


At least seven people have died outside my door this week.

At Pioneer Christian Hospital in Impfondo, a town of about 100,000 people in the interior of the Republic of Congo, people die. I know this because the wailing echoes off the concrete buildings and ricochets throughout the campus.

This is in the way of things, I suppose.

But other people live, mostly because of the intervention of Dr. Joe Harvey and his team. That includes one baby who, on Tuesday, was born via c-section, not breathing. Dr. Joe covered her mouth with his own and breathed for her until she could do it herself. I know this because two of our Mercy Ships team members were there, scrubbed in and watching grown men pull a tiny Congolese woman’s abdomen open to free the baby. The girls held stuff for them. This is how Tuesday looks at a missionary hospital in Congo.

Dr Joe and his wife Rebecca have been running this hospital for more than a decade. After saving babies and sewing fingers back on ten year olds who’ve severed them chopping down plantains with machetes, Dr. Joe also runs a radio station, preaches on Sundays in three different languages, is writing a book, and employs about 60 local people. Along with their team, they live on the equator and do this work day in and day out, with only occasional ice cubes and butter and no steak or air conditioning.

It’s kind of hard to imagine.

Their friend Sara Speer, known to everybody in town as Mama Sara, left Canada in 1984 and except for her periodic furloughs, has lived in Congo since. When she’s not driving November, one of the Mission’s Land Cruisers, whose gearbox contains only second and fourth, she rides her bike around town, down a muddy dirt track and into an abandoned hospital where she tends to “her guys.”

Sara’s guys are lepers. One of them, Pele Pele, is missing an entire foot and walks with a cane with a tennis shoe over what’s left of his heel. When Sara shows up, she kneels down before him and washes his mangled feet.

While doing this, she told Alice and me that leprosy is transmitted through the air, and without thinking I held my breath. But 95% of the human population is immune, she says. It’s even treatable if you aren’t poor and forgotten, she adds.

So she gets their meds, rebandages them and then whips out a few coins from her pocket, money she pieces together from her band of supporters in the US and Canada. She handed the money to Pele Pele, along with a can of sardines.

What are we doing here?

Ostensibly we are building a playground in support of people whose lives are so demanding, that while they might wish for such a thing, it struggles for priority. So we are doing it as an encouragement to people for whom the love of God is all hands and feet and heart and guts.

But more than that we are growing, sweating and facing down our own demons, learning what Jesus meant when he talked about the last and the first in the kingdom of God. It is easy to forget people in West Africa especially when they are so remote and the need is so immense and overwhelming, but God wants us to remember Pele Pele.

Jesus promises reward beyond description for those willing to do this work not just in heaven, but right here in the present tense. And this is something you can see in Dr. Joe’s face sometimes – an exhausted, overwhelmed, satisfied serenity in the midst of his endless duty.

And this too seems to be the way of things.