This is about self-denial and sacrifice. This is about death and life. This is about not playing it safe or, quite simply, risk.
As I write this, Ebola has stuck two Americans, one who works with SIM, and countless other health workers and citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and left them fighting for their lives. Some have already lost the fight.
After months under the international radar, the Ebola outbreak is gaining momentum — so much so that the scientist who first identified it warns of a global outbreak. About 700 have died, with thousands falling ill.
Sifting through the SIM email updates over the past week, I prayed for Nancy and Kent. I thought about their choices. I wondered if I would have had the strength of purpose and faith to remain and continue the work even as the disease gained traction. You see, they had a chance to leave. It would have been easy.
Among the SIM emails was a note from Dr. Joshua Bogunjoko, the international director:
“Perhaps we will never be able to make sense of suffering. But serving God with joy even in the most difficult places? Yes, we have already made sense of that. We know why we do it.
“Denying ourselves to truly follow Jesus is a deeply biblical discipline and an act of worship. Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol and many others in Liberia with them made that choice. As we continue to pray for them and their families and coworkers, and for our Liberian brothers and sisters, let us reflect on the words of this hymn:
My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;
I trust the ever living One,
His wounds for me shall plead.
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
Living life, as it comes.
As any number of people have reminded me, a lot of my choices are not “safe,” in the traditional sense. I’m a single, 30-something professional woman who wants to move back to an increasingly unstable part of the world — oh, and who’s scraping by with a part-time job in the mean time.
Less than a year ago, scores died in Westgate Mall in Nairobi, when a handful of Somali terrorists stormed the building and began a days-long siege. It was a familiar destination; many I knew frequented it. I played volleyball and ate pizza on a weekly basis with a family who barely escaped before the siege began. A Bozeman native I know even ended up running the medical triage response.
In the months following Westgate, tensions have remained high. The Somali militants say they aren’t done with Kenya. The Kenyan government has responded with tighter restrictions for Somali refugees living in Kenya. Some non-governmental organizations have removed their personnel from the country.
I’ve parried this question often: Why would I want to return to that?
I mean, never mind the political situation — I like the independence of life in the U.S. I like wearing shorts. I like drinking tap water.
In the midst of these thoughts swirling in my brain this week, Rachel Pieh Jones, an expat living in Djibouti, published “I Don’t Promise To Keep My Kids Safe” in Brain, Child Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:
The world is scary and anything horrible could happen at any moment but we will not live in fear. If I promised nothing bad would ever happen to my children, and if I wanted to not be a liar, I and my children would be forced into a world cut off from relationships, travel, nature, sports, aging, service, work, all the things that make life beautiful and true and connected.
… I care about safety. I pray every day, sometimes through tears, for the protection of my family and I battle fear, nightmares of what-if tragedies, and anxiety. But safety is not my highest aim for my children. If it were, I would lock them behind a white picket fence and throw away the key.
I want my children to be brave, engaged, compassionate, aware of the world, open to diversity and challenge. I want them to know that a life working for justice, serving the oppressed or downtrodden, fighting to create beauty requires faith and courage and that these practical goals and these character traits trump the need for personal safety.
Again, I think of Bogunjoko’s words.
… Serving God with joy even in the most difficult places? Yes, we have already made sense of that. We know why we do it. Denying ourselves to truly follow Jesus is a deeply biblical discipline and an act of worship.
Making sense of the senseless, sort of.
I still think about him, 10 months later.
I think about his annual road trip from Alaska to Texas, about 4,000 miles. He was 81, but still, every year, he made the pilgrimage to visit his family.
But he didn’t make it last year. He died in a hit-and-run accident here in Montana part of the way through his road trip.
The story broke just a week after I started back into daily newspaper reporting, just days after the Westgate Mall siege ended. It was, unfortunately, not the first time I’d had to cover senseless death. As journalists, we’re often face-to-face with the blackest side of human events, even at small, rural Montana dailies. While I had to do my due diligence in reporting the story as it unfolded, it shook me.
An aside here: In my opinion, the day death doesn’t rattle you, even just a little, as a journalist is the day you should put in your notice.
I didn’t know him. I wish I had. He sounded like a wonderful person. I don’t know how much he thought about the tens of thousands of fatal car accidents that occur every year. He got behind the wheel because he wanted to visit his children and grandchildren.
He lived his life, despite the risks.
Why has it become a four-letter word?
This week, I re-read Isaiah 43 for the 4,327th time.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
Did you catch that? When you pass through the waters … When you walk through the fire …
I don’t see anything about being protected from the water or from the fire. I see a lot about God being with us, through every water-logged breath and scorched step. I also see a lot about him moving the heavens and the earth he created to gather his adopted sons and daughters to himself.
Again, savor that: There is no greater love. In the great salvation narrative, he didn’t even spare his actual Son to gather together his adopted children.
This is why Nancy, Kent and the countless missionaries, aid workers and Liberian medical staff have continued to care for Ebola patients. This is why I want to go back to an increasingly difficult place and leave the mountain home I’ve grown to love.
It’s not easy. But if he sacrificed so much for us, how can we not exercise self-sacrifice as well?
“… Serving God with joy even in the most difficult places? Yes, we have already made sense of that. We know why we do it. Denying ourselves to truly follow Jesus is a deeply biblical discipline and an act of worship.”