Sylvia’s Affliction

I’ve returned from another stirring week of serving and caring for the children at the City of Children orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico.

The VBS sessions were fantastic, and I had a blast hosting them. And the skits – with as much worrisome and anxious pretense I wrapped them in – worked out really well. That’s putting that theatre degree to work, right?

And our work project this year was just as encouraging as ever. We put on a roof on an unfinished church building that had been “forgotten” by another congregation seven years ago (yes, seven years ago). Yes, it’s discouraging to hear that some assemblies don’t fulfill their own mission work, but it’s just as refreshing to know that other arms of the same God can pick up the slack.

The most heart-wrenching moment of the trip revolved around a spunky old gal named Sylvia.

Last year, we built a house for Sylvia and her three grandchildren. The four of them were living in a 9 ft. x 10 ft. wooden shack when we stepped in. Over the course of the week we were there, we built her a home that is three times that size – complete with running water, electricity, and a working kitchen. It was the new house on the block and the apple of Sylvia’s eye.

This year, we wanted to revisit Sylvia and her family. We wanted to catch up with her, see how she was, see how the kids were, and ultimately just love her some more while we were in the area.

Unfortunately, we were heartbroken to learn that Sylvia had suffered a massive stroke in January. She’s barely alive and is depending on a ventilator to breathe and a feeding tube for nourishment. The doctors and her family are convinced that she is now living in her last days.

Sylvia standing outside the house we had just finished for and dedicated to her last year.

Sylvia standing outside the house we had just finished for and dedicated to her last year.

Of course, the collective response to this was varied, to say the least.

For some in our group, it was disheartening, confusing, and borderline frustrating. It just didn’t seem fair. All the work we had done last year to build Sylvia a house felt like a waste of our time, our efforts, and our group on the whole.

But for others (and me personally), it was weird and ethereally strange. My hearing of the news made time slow to a mournful yet hopeful lull. Part of me was sad to hear of Sylvia’s condition, but another part was glad to know that her suffering would end soon. Furthermore, I was relieved to know that her family was getting to keep the home and use it to continue their lives.

The word affliction doesn’t come out too much in today’s modern English vernacular.

Most people just think it’s a three syllable that means “pain,” but it’s more than that.

Whenever we see the word affliction in the Bible, it is often translated from the Greek word thlipsis (that’s θλῖψις for all you Grecophiles out there). Thlipsis also translates into pressure, compression, distress of mind, and suffering. We often call it the “grind” or being “between a rock and a hard a place.”

Sylvia’s grind was trying to support herself in order to keep her grandbabies alive. She had to sacrifice herself little by little for them to live, but she couldn’t sacrifice all the way because then no one (at the time) could care for the babies.

That kind of affliction we helped out with by building a house for her. And through that, I think her family has come back around and has become closer.

But the kind of affliction she’s in now is out of our hands – and that’s what’s so discouraging about the whole thing.

We want to be able to help Sylvia again like we did the first time, but we can’t. We want to be able reach out to her and love her and encourage her like we did last year, but our embraces wouldn’t be met with the same enthusiasm and hope.

But God is still at work here.

The phrase “God works in mysterious ways” is just too cliché of a conclusion to end on.

Of course it is good that Sylvia gets to spend her last days of this life in a comfortable house. I don’t want to think about her having the stroke while still living in that wooden shack.

But God is also working on us through Sylvia because it’s through Sylvia that we are seeing God’s strange power. Through Sylvia, we are witnessing and can now testify to the fact that God doesn’t just wind up the metaphysical clock of the world and then step back to watch it unwind. Instead, He is actively working to make His will on Earth as it is in Heaven.

And that’s the blessing.

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