Courage in and Era of Fear
Part 3: AIDS
Remember when Magic Johnson proudly boasted that he had been with thousands of women during his fabulous NBA career. Remember when he stood before America’s cameras to announce that he had the HIV virus? Besides seeing a man who truly could play the game reduced to the disgrace of that era I was troubled by how quickly America made him a hero for “coming out.” Back then there was so much misinformation about AIDS including the conspiracy theory that the government was not telling us everything. I, too, was caught up in the hysteria wondering if the next mosquito bite would lay me at death’s door and cause people to wonder at my morality.
It was during those frightful days that I was called to the Ivory Coast to deliver a series of lectures to local African pastors. I was concerned that going to that part of West Africa, the AIDS capital of the world would somehow subject me to the virus. I feared that I would come home with AIDS. It gave me no consolation that my host missionary was a medical doctor who told me I had nothing to fear. I wanted to believe him but I must admit I also applied mosquito repellant by the gallon. I kept my distance from anyone who looked promiscuous. I didn’t drink the water nor eat the food.
The hosts planned a wonderful trip for us including a couple of nights in one of the Ivory Coast’s plush hotels owned by Lebanese businessmen. In fact, the Lebanese owned half of the country. It was quite a treat to eat food that wasn’t earlier running around and then caught and killed in the back yard and to drink from glasses that hadn’t been washed in filthy pots outside. Some missionary I was, a spoiled middle class American with one desire at that time – I wanted to go home. But God had some lessons to teach me first, lessons about fear.
As we sat in the plush hotel lobby, I noticed there were some very beautiful African women dressed in fine clothes and all of them were on cell phones. I then said to my wife that we should get up to our room since I had a busy day the next day. She said, “Let’s wait a few minutes. I want to watch this.” I said naively, “Watch what?” She responded, “I am watching these girls. They are working.” I said, “Working doing what?” She just looked at me as if to say, “Boy, you are really dense.” These girls were prostitutes waiting for American pilots and crew to land and to offer them their “services.” Just then we saw the sheep heading for the slaughter. These men, American pilots risked their lives for a few moments of pleasure. How foolish could one possibly become? They were sure to get AIDS since the region of West Africa is the AIDS capital of the world, now the Ebola capital of the world. How stupid! How foolish! But God had another lesson for me to learn, a lesson not of self-righteous judgment but of genuine humility and self-confrontation.
One night, our hosts talked about a visit to a hospital he wanted to make and he wanted us to go along. He talked ever so kindly of a young woman with AIDS who had come to faith in Jesus. She was dying and he wanted to visit with her. I agreed to go. After all, she was in a hospital. Surely they took all of the necessary precautions. And I felt comfort that he was a doctor and would not subject me to any possibility that I would contract the disease. So, we hopped into his little car and off to the hospital we went. When we arrived I quickly realized this was not a hospital, at least insofar as we Americans define the word. It was a shack of a place that some Americans would see as unfit for animals let alone people.
The rooms were outside, literally cubicles in the open air each of which housed several very sick patients who awaited care from their families. The nurses were only on duty for a few hours each day. When they left, the patient was literally on his or her own, totally dependent on family to feed them and nurse them. If no one from their families showed up, they went hungry and uncared for. We walked into one of those cubicles. What I saw I would never forget. This beautiful young woman in her early twenties lay there dying in her bed. She was skin and bones and that description is generous. I kept my distance. I didn’t want to “catch” what she had. I remember feeling this horrible shame in the pit of my soul for how self-interested I had become. I looked right past her pain and only saw fear, my fear. I stood between her and my wife so as to somehow insulate my wife from “catching” her disease. But then, something remarkable happened. I looked into her eyes and I saw Jesus. If I could have looked into my own eyes I would have seen nothing but fear, paralyzing cold, indifferent fear.
Then the missionary asked me to come closer and to pray over her. He told me he would translate my prayer. I felt ashamed of my own faithlessness. I felt sorrow because I had failed to trust that God led me to that woman so that I could see Him in her. I held her hands and prayed over her. I begged God to show her mercy and grace. I thanked God that she loved Him and that her faith was strong. Then the missionary kissed her on her forehead and we left. A few days later she went home to be with Jesus. I was likely the last one to pray with her before she opened her eyes in glory.
It was in that “hospital” that I discovered my own AIDS problem. I had spiritual HIV caused by fear, fear of getting too close to another’s pain that might become my own pain. It was then and there I realized that fear had short-circuited my ministry to her. I felt so ashamed and even to this day I regret that I didn’t allow that lovely lady to minister to me more fully. I should have girded the spiritual surgical apron and walked with her into her dying process. But fear hindered me, and I robbed myself of a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual lesson. Hear the Word of the Lord:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:1-2 ESV)
I should have known better because when our son died, several of our friends later told us how they didn’t want to be around us, fearful that somehow our dark sorrow was contagious. They did not want to be reminded that they, too, could experience terrible loss. Who needs you today? Don’t allow spiritual AIDS to rob you of treasures you can only experience by going into the darkness of another person’s broken life.
Next Week: Spiritual Fugitives
In His grip,
Digging Deeper: Hebrews 13:1-2