It was my fifth trip to Belize before I ever really understood why I was there. Traveling with my church mission team, I knew the purpose of our trips: to work alongside our sister church in the capital city to reinforce the work they are already doing. That meant we provided for basic needs like food and shelter and beds and clothing, but it also meant that we led Bible studies and held camps for children. I had been a counselor for vacation Bible school and a translator for our medical teams and had led worship by speaking and singing. I had built relationships with children that had grown and changed as the children themselves grew over the four years I had been going there.
But as I did all of those things, I never really knew why I was there. Having floated from one ministry to another over the course of so many trips, I gained a lot of experience….but I never knew my distinct purpose in being there.
I never got it until they began to cry.
A small team of us were back in Belize to lead a youth discipleship retreat. Each of us acted as mentors for three or four students – sharing a room with them, eating with them, leading them in discussions (that often veered from the designated topic), and sometimes, just being a friend. During our time together, I learned that two of the precious girls in my room carried burdens and heartaches that I, more than two decades their senior, have never experienced. Experiences that I can’t imagine. (It would be easy to berate myself for my comfortable American life – and there may be a time and place for that – but that’s not the point today.)
One night, as we finished our bedtime devotion, one of them began to cry and opened up to me as she never had. Another of the girls scooted from her place on the top bunk to sit with her on the floor, and through tears they told me about their best friend: a little girl (because at 12 or 13 years old, that’s what they are) who had died a few months earlier of a snake bite. The snake had bitten her as she walked home from school and she almost immediately fell into a coma, leaving the girls with both the heart-wrenching pain of losing a friend and the remorse of things they should have said but never had a chance.
Grief? It pretty much looks the same wherever you go.
But their stories didn’t end there. One had a sister who had been poisoned when she tried to leave a man who had evil intentions for her, and each had aunts who had died during what here in America would have been routine medical procedures.
They buried their faces in their pillows and wept, their shoulders heaving and breath faltering as they clung to one another. I could see how it hurt to talk about their pain, but they fought to get the words out. It was as though the words would kill them if they stayed inside. They had held it all in for too long already.
Sitting there, I felt utterly helpless. I had grown to love the girls, but could do nothing to heal their heartache. I couldn’t bring their friend or sister or aunts back. I couldn’t even promise that it would never happen again. All I could do was stroke their hair…..hold them close…..and reassure them that God saw their tears and wept along with them. I felt a little like a mama to them as I whispered, “shh, shh, shh, you’re okay….everything will be okay,” and prayed over them. At their insistence, I stayed nearby until they fell asleep in a bunk together.
Hours later I lay awake in my own bunk soaking my own pillow with my own hot tears as I processed it all.
And it was then – laying in the darkness with the heartbroken girls sleeping nearby – that I knew why I was there: to love those girls. To embrace them and allow them to hurt and promise that I’d be a safe place. To be a friend who can’t necessarily understand, but who can lovingly point them to the One who can understand and who’ll be there when I can’t be.
That was my reason for being there, on that trip and every other one I’d been on. I might have been leading games for preschoolers or translating for mamas concerned for their sick children, but really, all I was being asked to do was “to follow God’s example, as [a dearly loved daughter] and walk in the way of love.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) My real job was to love them the best that I could, and in so doing, show them and lead them to the compassionate love of God.
I wanted to fix it – to make everything better – but when I realized I couldn’t, I found a better way. I couldn’t make things better, but I could lead them to the One who could. I prayed I had done it well.
It seemed relatively simple once I realized it, but here at home it seems a lot more complicated. I have life to do, and a marriage to build, and a book to write, and a house to clean….and a daughter to raise. And it is there, in the mothering, that I again feel the same tension I felt on the floor of that bunk room in Belize. I want to make things better for my daughter. I want to fix what hurts her. I want to enter into every heartache and every anxiety-inducing situation and smooth it over until it’s no longer a problem, but I can’t. I can’t make it better.
I can’t fix it for her, and it tears me apart.
Literally. My anxiety has reached all new levels as I’ve felt her pain as my own and tried to make things easier for her. I’ve felt my chest tighten up, making it hard to breathe, as my mind spins endlessly on the things she’s worried about. I can’t put things back together for her, and that reality has broken me apart.
But one day it dawned on me the same way it did on that sleepless Belizean night: it’s not my job to fix everything. My job is to love her and point her to Jesus. To lead her to the One who’ll not necessarily fix every heartache, but will love her in ways I never can and walk with her in ways I never will.
This loving…this living a life worthy of our calling…this imitating God…it’s no small proposition. It’s no simple process, but it doesn’t have to be what we have made it. Our friends, families, coworkers, neighbors…they don’t necessarily need us to “fix it.” There is a time for stepping in and meeting real needs and doing what we can to “fix it” for them, but that’s not the bottom line. Sometimes I will need to step in and be the mama bear who protects my cub and fights for justice. But ultimately, the bottom line isn’t “fix it.” The bottom line is love.
We love by pointing them to Love. And while it might not feel like we’re doing much, we’re doing the very best thing we can.
Learning with you,