If you ask someone from East Africa how many children they have, the answer will always astound you.
After ten years of doing work with orphans in Rwanda and meeting with clergy in the arid beauty of Africa, I know the answer won’t just be a number, but a story to go with it.
When I met the Bishop of Malawi last week, sitting around a small café table full of empty wine glasses, he tells me he has six children. Only one is biological. The Africans know what it means to be sacrificial parents. Because it is not an exception but a way of life.
Two of his children are from his wife’s family, two from his own, and the one without family genetics – that story is like opening the Bible and watching it illustrated through a porthole on a boat. And you already know I’m smitten by the power of story. For a few minutes, I forgot I was in Houston on the top floor of a hotel, in a room full of dignitaries; that my stomach was growling, or what time it was.
When the Bishop talks his teeth are like ivories on a piano; a wide gap in the middle, on top and bottom, like a crack in the wall to freedom. His words, a joyful melody in an African dance.
At fourteen, the Bishop loses both of his parents separately to illness. He is forced to become an adult before age catches up with him. Along with a tribe of siblings, he finds daily nourishment by gleaning from scraps left by soldiers living in the military camp they walk through daily on their way to school and back.
On one occasion, he is alone, meandering through the camp mid-day, when a soldier notices and asks why he isn’t in school. The Bishop explains he is released early because he can’t afford a proper uniform and they won’t allow him to stay in school without it.
A few days later, a new uniform is delivered on his doorstep, making a return to classwork possible.
That solider, a stranger standing in a field and watching over his men doing their work, continues looking after the welfare of the Bishop from a distance, providing for him throughout his young life.
Years later, after the soldier passes away, the Bishop returns to his hometown like David inquiring about Saul’s family, asking if there is anyone to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake. (2 Samuel 9:1)
The Bishop learns of the soldier’s daughter, now fatherless and in need of parenting. She is the sixth child he refers to when I ask him, the one he calls his own and for whom he provides an education.
“I want to repay the kindness of that man,” he says in a thick accent, smiling humble.
When you feel worthless, passed over, and forgotten like Mephibosheth — God remembers.
He scours your Lo-debar — that desolate pasture with hope rolling like tumbleweed over the surface of your life – and fulfills his promises. He sees the way you walk with a limp, hanging your shoulders in circumstance and asks, “What can I do for you.”
How will you answer?
I have some blogging friends on the ground in Uganda with Compassion International who are there to raise awareness about orphans who need “soldiers” and “bishops.” They haven’t asked me to write this but I happen to be following their journey because I love Africa and the people who live there. The timing of their trip collides with what I was planning to write today so I wanted to make you aware of it. And this story, well it’s like opening the Bible and witnessing God in the flesh.
Shelly–this post,…well, my words fail me. It’s startling in it’s beauty. Your word pictures and descriptions–just stunning. I see the Bishop so clearly in my mind…Thank you for this grace.
Kris, I so agree with you. What a powerful story and wonderful ending question to ponder on…
Thank you Steph, appreciate you entering the conversation here.
Thank you Kris, you always encourage me and I’m grateful. I never take it for granted.
Thank you for the gift of your words. This spoke deeply to my soul tonight.
My heart is happy knowing that Lori, thank you for telling me.
One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of David and Mephibosheth. What a beautiful modern day retelling, reliving of it.
Elizabeth, as soon as he started talking I was pulling up stories from the Bible from my memory. It was as if Jesus was sitting right there with us illustrating the Kingdom. It’s one of my favorites too.
Shelly, your writing speaks to me in ways that I cannot begin to describe. You weave word pictures that are full of contrasting colors and textures. Thank you for sharing your gift and this post…both touch my heart.
Mary, I’m so touched by what you’ve said, thank you, I’m honored.
Your story caught my heart. So beautiful! I want to love like that. An inspiring example of sacrifice and kindness begetting kindness.
Christy @ A Heartening Life
Me too Christy. I’ve learned so much from the beautiful spirit of the African people. I’m forever grateful for that gift.
I tried to leave a comment on your blog post but finally gave up after two attempts. I think its me, I had trouble on another one today too. Just wanted you to know I did stop by and enjoyed your thoughts on the contradiction in alone.
Thanks, Shelly! Your comment actually did work! So thankful that you took the time to leave me some encouragement!
What a beautiful post, Shelly. Loved it!
Thanks Anita, honored that you stopped by friend.
You had me at Mephibosheth. Well, you had me at paragraph one, quite frankly. 🙂
I have felt like a modern-day Mephibosheth, lame in my own spiritual feet, and fully unqualified — yet I have this invitation to sit at the table, the King’s table.
Your stories are always so rich, Shelly Miller.
Me too, I can relate to Mephibosheth, I think that is why his story touched me so much. I was riveted. And I’m glad to know what I felt by hearing it translated well into paragraphs. I’m forever grateful for your encouragement Jennifer, I’m not sure you are fully aware of how much it means in my life.
The world is changed one person doing right at a time! Programs can be good but nothing can compete with individuals joining hands with God to do his good work!
So very true Melissa. It is the singular acts of kindness and conversations that have changed my life and grown my faith. He uses it all but someone living out a life of faithful integrity speaks volumes.
Hands down one of my favorite stories in Scripture… and oh how we all have our own Lo-debar… this is beauty and grace and I have come to expect nothing less, my friend!
My Lo-debar seems to becoming a faint memory in my rear view mirror. I’m expectant and grateful.
I have to share this with my friend in Rwanda. She loves Rwanda but her heart fell in love with Malawi first. I was planning a trip to see her in the spring but it can’t happen. Thanks for sharing this powerful story. I think of how the Lord has redeemed me from the pit, now it is the time to search for those He loves that I can help and encourage—not because I must, but because I can and I want to. Lovely story. Right now I am guessing on which of the Uganda stories you linked to but if it is the one I think, I cried. I’ll see if it’s the same one.
Yes, it was! Powerful.
Maybe you and I together in Africa? Would that be some kind of fulfilled dream or what?
I so loved the way you described the Bishop- I’ll remember his face well after today. And that story is one of my favorites! Love the way you tell stories.
You humble me Lori and I value your opinion greatly. Thank you.
An artful telling of a story which needed to be told. This is one I won’t easily forget.
Thanks Natalie, sending a hug your way lovely.
Shelly, thank you for this post. I thank you for wording (is this a word, oh wordsmith?) this beautiful picture of God’s intricate love and care.
It is just one of several stories he told LuAnn, he had me riveted for about an hour. Loved every minute.
What a blessing this is me! To get to see a porthole into the miraculous ways God has weaved his story in the extraordinary life of a man on the other side of the world. I can only wonder how God will use this 6th child’s life to continue both of her earthly fathers’ legacy of love. Thank you for sharing!
I thought the same thing Becky, what a legacy she carries into life with her. Thanks for stopping by.
Your last question — it hits me in the gut on levels I’m not even sure about quite yet. God really seeing me, asking me what He can do for me? Asking because He wants relationship, because He loves me. What a sweet, quiet reminder today.
Jen, I felt like God asked me that question about two years ago. It completely changed my prayer life, in all the best ways. Lovely to connect here with you.
Shelly, this reminds me of that verse in Psalms 68 that says, “God sets the lonely in families…” This bishop understands the heart of God. I pray that God helps me to do the same.
I think empathy is such a strong catalyst for change, isn’t it? Me too, I pray I will always be sensitive to the heart of our Maker, in all things.
I wonder if there are children right within in my circles who could use similiar compasson and action. I’m going to be on the lookout…
David, I feel like I just won the lottery with your comment. It was exactly what I was hoping for with this story. I feel the same way. I’m asking God to show me where he wants me, how I can pour myself into those who are desperately needy for Him in a tangible way.
I wonder if that soldier knew that the young boy he “adopted” became a bishop? How gratifying for him to see the grand outcome of his self-sacrifice. No doubt he WILL know when the bishop joins that soldier in heaven.
With David below, I, too, want to be that person of compassion and action to the children within my circle. Keep me mindful, Lord!
LISTENING to this story did my heart good- it’s so good for those of us with everything we need to hear of such stories to alert us to the fact that so many do not have what we take for granted.
Mary, New Zealand.