An icon often seen in the churches of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, North and South, is that of the four in the fiery furnace: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and “the One”, whom the Babylonians described as “like a son of the gods”. (Daniel 3:25) In the suffering of the long war between North and South Sudan, it was this God, ‘He who suffers with us’, who was the comfort and the hope of many Christians. “Our God is able to save us from this fiery furnace”, the three young men declared, “but if not” (in this way), we will cleave to Him (“not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar”). Throughout northeastern Africa the message of this God is one that resonates with the African heart.
During our time living in the Horn of Africa we have been witness to the reality of ‘the fiery furnace’. Here there is much suffering. Cruelty, greed and fear conceive poverty, war, forced migration, inter-ethnic violence and hunger. These in turn, give birth to anguish, grief and trauma. But in one sense this suffering is not ours. We share it with the people with whom we live; we “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12: 15), but it is their suffering.
During these years, we have not written much about our personal griefs – the loss of our parents, and of very dear friends to disease – to cancer and to AIDS. We have seen it as our task to bear witness to the realities of Africa, the place and the church here, and to let the African story be known rather than our own. But now we must share a bit of our own story.
About three weeks ago, although we did not know it, our world started to turn upside down. Wendy began to experience an unusual and worrisome pattern of mid back pain. This prompted a series of tests. And three days ago, one of the tests came back showing very high levels of a tumour marker for cancer – most often ovarian but it can be associated with other cancers as we begin to suspect may be true in our case. We are leaving today for Pittsburgh for further testing and treatment.
We are grieving. Like the waves of the sea, grief comes and washes over us. When it goes, there is the joy of being with friends, and soon with family. And when it comes – there is Jesus. We know Him present – sometimes by faith alone, and sometimes in manifest love.
One of the lessons we have learned in mission, is that every difficulty can be an invitation to know Him more deeply; to know the overcoming love of Jesus. And in knowing Him, something else wonderful happens. We begin to see others differently. More and more we see their beauty, and their indescribably precious value. Surely, to “love God with all our heart, our minds and our strength” is God’s greatest promise to us. And with it comes a marvellous gift – to love our neighbours as ourselves. (Mark 12:30-31)
It may be that God will save us from the fiery furnace of cancer. But right now, He is with us in the flames. You know, in our culture, we tend to substitute pleasure for joy. And suffering can destroy pleasure. But joy flows from love. And suffering cannot destroy love. Love ultimately overcomes. So “we do not grieve as those without hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
If it is my time, it is my time. If it is not my time, Jesus will heal me. in tears, in love and in hope xxxx Wendy