I can still remember exactly where I was standing when we received the phone call, on the kitchen side of the arch that separated the kitchen and lounge. It was the sort of news I had read about in the newspapers while living in a South Asian country: woman burned when stove explodes.
This time it was not a name I didn’t know. This time it was my friend, who I will call Peace. The call came from another friend saying Peace had been suffered burns to more than 80% of her body in a stove accident.
Like so many of those newspaper reports, this was no stove accident. We were to learn later that Peace had been deliberately set alight by her in-laws. She died a few days later.
This one personal experience has shaped me profoundly. There was no justice, at least not until now. This was evil in a terrible form. Another woman who became just another statistic.
I had worked with Peace for about 5 years. We had shared a lot of life together, a lot of everyday life as we navigated those moments of joy, hope, love, sorrow, doubts and fears. The pain of knowing how she suffered has at times felt unbearable. I can’t say, even all these years later, that I have any understanding of God at work in or through what Peace suffered.
It reminds me of the many women we encounter whose lives are wracked with the pain of unbearable circumstances. As a result, I find myself asking: what does living so as to represent Christ and the Kingdom of God, when there are no human answers, look like?
After a massive earthquake in this South Asian country, I sat many times in the tent of a mother who, with her family, had lost everything. Where they lived had slipped down the side of the mountain and simply no longer was. One of her daughters, who was around 13 years of age sat there rocking back and forth. She had spent hours buried under rubble, lying next to her grandmother who had been killed. The impact of the trauma deepened and this girl was no longer speaking.
What does the Kingdom of God look like for a mother and daughter like this. I often think of them. I don’t know the end of their story.
There are many times in our work, in sharing our daily lives with the women in our communities, when we are confronted with suffering, tragedy, sorrow and pain for which there seem to be no answers. The question I find myself asking is ‘what do I mean by answers’.
Often I want to alleviate pain, bring justice to bear, relieve suffering. At times I find myself offering Jesus as some sort of ‘happy pill’ who will make things better. We know he does bring healing, hope, peace, transformation, and yet, when he does not seem to act as we would imagine, or promise to the women we work among, how do we live faithfully and represent the truth of who he is?
I have more questions than answers, so maybe we can help each other as we look to bring the light and warmth of Christ into the suffering of our friends and community.
Presence. When I think about the way Jesus came and lived among us, making himself vulnerable to the suffering of humankind, I think he asks me/us to be present with those who suffer. Presence, being with, means our friends and members of the community are not alone. I have just this morning been messaging with a friend in a Middle Eastern country that I cannot visit at present because of Covid. She needs to know I am there with her, even if not physically. I don’t have any answers for her suffering, but I seek to be present with her, to represent the presence of Christ.
Silence. When I /we don’t know the answer I/we need to stay silent. I have recently been reading the book of Job, and how much better if his friends had stayed silent, had admitted they didn’t know, and with Job simply sat in the presence of God. My inability to find words in another language has helped me practice silence. Often when I sat in the tent of that mother and daughter, we simply sat together in silence. We should not be afraid of silence, remembering that God often reveals himself in the still small voice.
Prayer. I am learning it is okay with my Muslim friends to say I don’t know but shall we ask God together. We can use those times to remind ourselves and speak out the character and nature of God in prayer, in praise, and to tell him we don’t know and we need his help to trust him. Speaking the promises of his word, reminding God and ourselves of them, is a deeply comforting way of praying with my Muslim friends who are suffering I have found.
Psalms. When I acknowledge that I don’t know, I often turn to the Psalms which give such rich expression to the complexity and perplexing nature of pain and suffering. We can read them with our friends, and even send them a copy to continue to read and pray.
Stories. The Bible is full of stories of women’s suffering and God breaking into their lives and situations in that place. Rather than present the story as having an answer, I seek to present God’s coming and being present.
I have learned that it is okay not to know, but to remember I do know God who knows. Living faithfully could be as simple as creating the space for our friends to experience him present with them in their suffering.
Image: Photo by Muhammad Muzamil on Unsplash
© When Women Speak … July 2021
CH spent more than three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. She recently returned to a leadership role. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University