By James E. Crounse ’07
She was dying. I hadn’t been in Malawi long, but I had come to recognize the signs of the scourge. On rounds, I stammered a few worthless words in Chichewa, knowing that I didn’t have the vocabulary nor the spirit to soothe her soul.
Fortunately, I was not as alone as I had felt. Since joining Malamulo Hospital a few months ago, I had been besieged by a tsunami of pathology that caught me off balance. Swept off my feet and feeling generally helpless, I feared I wasn’t in much better shape than the poor patients I had come to help. Despite my initial feelings of worthlessness, the Malawian staff were busy doing God’s work. While I had despaired due to the gravity of her situation, they had been playing the long game.
As I heard the backstory, a tinge of joy pierced my dry soul. She had once been an active part of God’s people — worshiping and giving. Then, as sometimes happens, the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of the enemy had led her astray and ransacked her life. Now, as it was ebbing away, she wanted to come home.
Ahh, that long journey home… how I wanted to go. Every day it was pressing upon me. I was so awkward, unsupported, and out of place. Home, where I knew how to be a doctor, where I could cover up and look good. Home, where I didn’t feel the need to pray. But there were no planes flying home that day, and so I stayed.
Meanwhile, they had already contacted the pastor, and arrangements were being made for her to be rebaptized, the outward sign of her changed heart. I wasn’t sure of the plan as she could barely lift her arms, much less stand to her feet. I don’t remember what happened next. I suppose I probably got pulled away by another crisis.
A few days later, I noticed that she was no longer in my ward. I made a brief enquiry of what I already knew. They told me that she had died. It wasn’t surprising.
“What about the baptism?”
“Dokotela, it was done. She was baptized in the bathtub three hours before she died.”
I could visualize the whole thing. Her sick stiff body being gently lowered down into the bathtub. The ardent pastor faithfully fulfilling his God-given duty to share the water of life to this dying soul. The brief but faithful testimony of scripture, “and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” The final gentle dunk and the emergence of a new life out of the watery grave. I pondered what her face must have looked like — sick and well, pain and peace, exiled and home.
It is a theme and lesson that I have met over and over again. This world has pain and tragedy everywhere we look. They rule the news, cloud our faith, and steal our dreams. Left to our own devices, most of us would degenerate into useless oblivion. But we are not left alone. It is in the middle of this thorny chaos that a voice calls from home, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
As I reflect on this story, I realize that in a lot of ways, it represents much of the significance that I took away from my missionary time.
1. Pain and Suffering: Challenging situations are not constrained to any culture or continent. Whether we are the patient or the provider, we all suffer, and we all long in our souls to be healed.
2. Healing: Healing comes in many discreet forms. We often hope for the miraculous that we will recognize when in actuality God is busy doing the miraculous that we overlook.
3. Home: We all long for home, but as Christians our home is with Jesus. Truly it is said that we are “strangers and pilgrims” in this foreign country and that we are waiting for a “better land — a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13,16). This home of righteousness is a guaranteed promise sealed by the precious blood of Jesus, not like this fickle earthly life vapor that can be snuffed out in an instant. Our home is secured on an oath from the Almighty. It is more sure than the sunrise in the morning. If faithful, we will see Him face to face.
Three and a half years ago, our missionary experience was cut short by an untimely diagnosis of stage IV cancer one week after my wife had our third baby. The doctor’s wife became the patient, and the missionaries became the mission. My wife is still deep in this struggle, but through it all there has been an ever growing desire to go home.
This world doesn’t look so shiny when your time here is forecast in months to a few years — when you don’t know if you will see your children grow up, graduate, get married, or even spend Christmas together next year. This is the reality for all of us, but most don’t realize it. Some of us do. I used to resent that, but now I thank God for the reminder that I am a pilgrim.
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). Hope in God and His promise is not a gamble nor a chancy long shot. It is firm and secure. Heaven and Earth could crumble and pass away before His promise would change. Like my patient in Malawi, I hope to find daily joy in His presence and His unshakeable promise of healing and home.