I was surrounded by rock stars last week. Bono was there. And Tony Blair. Bill Hybels MC’d. In my opinion, only Archbishop Desmond Tutu was missing from the all-star line up of speakers, leaders and visionaries who visited with me and 7,000 of my closest friends at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit in Chicago, IL. It was two days that felt like a power download, ala the Matrix, of over a million gigabytes of the most challenging, moving, and encouraging speaking I have heard in years. My brain is still trying to absorb it all.
There was an organization that let’s you give a micro-loan via the internet to someone as far away as Tanzania; tales of what it takes to ride a 600 pound elephant past a field of fruit laden trees; and a ten-year-old boy that had waited 3 decades to share his testimony with us. He grew up to be Wess Stafford, President and CEO of Compassion International. But on Friday afternoon, he was 10 years old again standing on a chair facing his abusers in a small mission school in the heart of the Ivory Coast. We listened in on what they had done to him. We heard his voice shake. Pin drop silence filled the auditorium. Eyes wide, we listened, straining our ears and hearts to absorb it all. The stomach turning testimony of two years of horror that no child should ever experience, least of all at the hands of his adult caretakers. The civilized school stood apart from the rest of the “native” country as an ironic testimony to the stereotypes we unwittingly assume. Tribal life in the villages will be hard, poor, and bitter. Education in a Western setting will be safe, uplifting and proper.
False assumptions, both of them.
Africa is anything but predictable. And those who still carry the scars of misguided authority figures know that education can be far from civilized.
The place where little Wess Stafford found healing* from his 9 month long school terms was in the bosom of the impoverished Ivorian village where his parents** were missionaries. For 3 months a year the village fed him with mangos, maize, compassion and understanding. They were his friends, his aunts and uncles, his grandparents and tutors. They were his home and his calling. The missionary boy was ministered to by his potential converts.
And what he learned, he shared with us. And what he suffered, he shares in common with many of the children his ministry now serves.
Compassion. It poured from him as he spoke. We listened in silence, tears streaming down our cheeks. The stifled sobs of his audience mingled with his own as he spoke of his pain, of his calling, and of his conviction that children are more than our future. They are our present.
“Too many of us tend to treat childhood as a preamble to actual life, a vulnerable period of time merely to be survived in order to get on with the real business of being a valid, contributing member of the human family. This is the mind-set that causes us to speak of children as ‘tomorrow’s world’ or ‘the church’s future.’ As noble as those phrases sound, they are all about pushing off the value of children to the Realm of Someday. Someday they will add value. Someday they will make a difference. Not today.”
Miriam protected her brother Moses at the risk of both their lives (Exodus 2), Samuel heard God calling so loudly it woke him up at night (1 Samuel 3), David showed more courage than the adults around him and willingly took on Goliath (1 Samuel 17), the girl serving Naaman’s wife was certain that God could heal Naaman through Elisha (2 Kings 5), a young boy offered Jesus his lunch (John 6), a servant girl called Peter out when he was trying to hide (Mark 14), and Paul’s young nephew exposed an assassination attempt on his life (Acts 23).
“Stafford reminds us that God can use children, not just in cutesy, sing-songs-in-front-of-the-church, ways. God uses children to do real things, important things, life-changing things. And sometimes God actively chooses children over adults to do the most important things for the Kingdom” Henry Zonio.
“So far as we see in reading the Gospels, Jesus never admonished children to become more grown-up. He did, however, exhort grownups to become more like children (Mark 10:15). How often have you heard an exasperated parent (maybe yourself!) growl at a child through clenched teeth, ‘Would you just grow up?!’ Jesus said the opposite to his adult followers: ‘Would you please grow down? That’s what it will take for you to enter my kingdom.’”
We all grew down a little on Friday last week. We shrunk in our estimation of ourselves and what we have accomplished. We saw ourselves afresh. We saw the needs of others from a different perspective. We realized that we wanted to give and not just that we needed to give. We grasped that our giving might be more for us than for the poor. We discovered that the poor might have something that we should be learning from them.
And we discovered all this because a ten-year-old took a stand over something when it hurt him to do so.
I wanted to hug that little boy. I wanted to cradle him in my arms and rock him and whisper sweet lullabies to him as he drifted off to sleep. I wanted to stand watch over him at night and guard him from evil. I wanted to be there when he woke up. I wanted to see him smile. I wanted to feed him as much as he could eat and then some. I wanted to fill his heart with the knowledge that he is good. I wanted to hug that little boy till he squirmed out of my arms and laughed that I was crushing him with my love.
Instead, I hold his book tightly in my hands. I underline and memorize his passages. I bookmark his pages. And then I get up and go into the room where my sons are sleeping and kneel down on my hands and knees, forehead to the floor, and thank God that he has given them to me and that they are safe. I listen to them snore and toss and turn. I watch their peace and want to devour it so I can carry it buried deep in my own heart. I drink in their sweet smell of baby shampoo and warm breath. I lay my hands on them and pray.
But I no longer pray for their future. I have started to pray for their now. I pray a sense of expectancy for myself and for them – that we will expect God to use them, teach them, guide them, and shape them. Now. Daily. Not once they can speak properly. Not when they are finally in school. Not at some spectacular moment in the far off distance. But rather, through every ordinary moment of their living. Because if he believes in them and who they are right now, I don’t want to be the one who is left behind. I don’t want to miss a second of what he might do in their lives. I want to both lead and follow them.
*It is important to note that healing was a complex journey that went beyond the village and that Wess traveled for decades into his adult life. His remarkable commentary on that process is detailed in his even more remarkable book, “Too Small To Ignore.” All quotes are taken from the book, which I can’t recommend highly enough. All proceeds from the book go directly to Compassion and the children it serves.
**It is also important to note that Wess Stafford’s parents were deeply grieved when they learned of his experiences. However, as in the case of many victims, he was frightened into remaining silent for many long years before his parents learned what had happened and could take action.