The bus swerves on the mountain road and I look straight down from my window seat to see sheer drop. Nothing but mist lies beneath us. We are mere centimeters from death.
Mountain climbers call this exposure, the condition of “being on high vertical rock with full consciousness that nothing exists between you and the distant ground but thin air.”
And there are times in one’s life when you come into full consciousness, when you know nothing exists between you and death but the invisible sustaining of God….
The orphanage juts from the side of the mountain and as we climb the steps to enter, I see faces of children peeking out from behind doors.
We spread food out on tables. Children run up to snake packages of cookies, crackers, and candy into their pockets. Some sit down to eat the fried chicken we brought, others just horde, waiting for their own private feast.
All the children but one has special needs. The healthy children get adopted out to homes around the world. The rest stay behind.
“If you have any language ability,” the director of the trip tells us, “please spend time talking with the children.”
That’s me. I’ve worked hard to learn this difficult language. The thought crosses my mind:
“What if I’ve learned this language for a time such as this? Just for today, to communicate the love of Christ to children abandoned up the side of some mountain in the middle of nowhere?”
So I approach child after child, see mouths of rotten teeth and clothes with holes in them. I offer warm arms and warm words and I pray Christ takes broken pieces and words and nourishes the hungry soul anyway.
I’m standing by the director of the trip when she says to the group, “There is one child that hasn’t come out. The child is tied up in the room next door.”
A child tied up? Mercy. My heart starts to pound.
“They told me the child can come out if someone takes the child and does not leave their side.” The director says this and I see raw panic in the eyes of our group. So does the director. We all want to run from what we can’t predict, what we can’t make sense of, avoid what is risky and unknown.
The director turns to me. “Arabah, will you take this child?”
I stammer out a “Yes, of course,” and follow the house parent to the room where the child is tied.
It’s a girl standing at the window.
Her hair is chopped short and it’s hard to tell if she’s a girl or boy with her clothing, but I look in her face and I see the spirit of a girl, the feminine beauty mirrored in my own heart.
I want to cry.
The window is open, even in this cold, and she is tied to a security bar at the window. Her eyes are bright and I take her hands into mine. They are freezing.
I look in her eyes and speak softly, asking if she wants to go outside for awhile. The rule is that I must keep her on the “leash,” a thick strip of fabric tied around her torso, and that no matter what, I can’t feed her.
I soon find out why.
She rushes the food tables and grabs trash off the floor to eat it. She smacks snacks out of other children’s hands and tries to stuff food and debris down her throat.
I adjust to this child. A child with food issues. I smile inside, thinking of my Little Bit. I can do this.
I steer her away from the food tables, but not before grabbing a wrapped bun. The house parent told me not to give her any food, that this little girl who lives tied up had already eaten.
I don’t listen. I’m sorry, I can’t.
I give her the wrapped bun and she tries to eat it, only to realize it is secured by packaging that she can’t open.
“Wo bang ni,” I tell her. “Let me help you.”
I want her to receive food from a stranger, to know generosity, to realize there is kindness. After a life of abandonment and abuse and pain and isolation, I want to move her one step closer to trust. She needs to know there is hope, there is a good future. There is a Maker who is also a Father.
Is this not why we go in His name?
It seems preposterous for me to try to communicate to her that she doesn’t have to self-protect and look out for her own interests. Me of all people, and she who has lived in a dog-eat-dog world. This is a stretch for sure that seems better left undone.
But I try anyway. I get down on her level, face to face, and repeat the words to her again and again, “I can help you. I will open it for you. You are so special and so beautiful. Slow down, everything is okay.”
She glances up at me quickly. Amidst the rush around us, somehow that inner need for survival is overpowered by trust. She looks at me. Finally, she hands me the bun.
I rejoice at the victory. I open the package and give her the bread.
She devours it.
We repeat this over and over until she’s had chicken, buns, cookies, crackers, juice.
I spend an hour with my little friend, oblivious to everything else going on. At the end, she finds a shiny gold ornament that fell off the Christmas tree. She picks it up and for the first time, she smiles. She speaks. She holds the ornament and rolls it around and around in her cold hands.
“It’s yours,” I tell her. “You can have it.”
I speak words of love over her and when it is time to go, I ask the house parent to take her. ”No,” she tells me, “You must go tie her back up.”
It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life… tying a child up.
And then leaving.
The words are even hard to write.
But as I get ready to leave the room, I notice I’m the only adult there and many of the other children have returned. They are lined up in wheelchairs and every single one of them is staring at me, with hopeless eyes. I touch each one and try to speak words they can understand.
They don’t. Their eyes tell me the words are meaningless. They stare at me dark and hopeless and empty, so I speak just one word. Just one word again and again and again. It’s the only one they need know, really.
“Don’t forget,” I tell them. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
It seems such a pitiful attempt in the face of such pain and hopelessness. When the dark emptiness stretches endlessly before them. It seems so meaningless, so impractical. Why bother? Why pretend that it matters, that it is somehow significant?
When I return home, I cry with Jackson and Jackson tells me the headlines of death and loss and devastation. And we all wonder why?
Hearts wrenched and wounded and this is why we self-protect and just look out for ourselves and quit believing in Good. This is why our hearts grow numb and we die that way and why we don’t bother with the small attempts because what’s the point, really?
But there’s that one word, that Name, that God-man who left heaven and came down for the express purpose of entering into our pain.
He’s called the “Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
And He didn’t have to be. He could have stayed far removed. He didn’t have to climb the mountain and untie the sash and speak the good news to a broken world and make Himself bread and become the Lamb who took stripes for us and now promises to never, ever leave us … He didn’t have to do all that. But He did.
He wept and He didn’t run from the hopeless, evil, dark pain of our lives stretching out endlessly before us but instead entered into it so that He could overcome it and give us our heart back.
We really can believe there is Good. There really is a future and a hope. Life really is worth living.
Where is God? we wonder.
And I have no answers but a word: Jesus. Emmanuel. Bread of Life. Freely Given. Shepherd and Savior and Close to the brokenhearted. Binder of wounds. Healer. Sustainer. Weeper and Empathizer. Comfort. Light in our darkness. The Way, Truth, and Life. Redeemer. Overcomer. Victorious One. The Pearl of Great Price. Lamb of God.
He’s everything and He’s right here with us.
And I realize it, that in our moments of exposure, when all the safety nets and securities are removed, in that place where we understand how close we really are to thin air, we can see Him.