My first day at the emergency field hospital just east of Mosul, Iraq was very much like my last day. Mortar strikes on civilians, children bloody and broken, black bags to hold the dead. The slow, solemn walk, cradling a ten year old in my arms, counting the steps to the morgue. Laying someone's son down on cold gravel, reading his name one last time on the death certificate taped to the body bag.
Time of death 18:17.
I'll never forget the sounds of his dying. The rattling and the gurgling. I'll never forget the songs we sung over him, the prayers strangled by grief and sorrow. The tear stained cheeks and our righteous anger. I'll never forget the faraway look on his precious face. I'll never forget his face. What was left of it.
Many of us were strangers a week before, two days before. Strangers taking care of other strangers. One set from the west, a land of peace and prosperity, one set from northern Iraq, a region ravaged by terrorism and war. And now here we all were, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, translators, construction workers, administrators, and HR reps. One and all hearts turned inside out and taking care of the dying while other new friends fight for the living in mobile operating theaters a few hundred feet away.
That last night may have been the worst. The toddler with ribs exposed from mortar wounds. 9 children in one day. But there were other days, other nights when I thought my heart might die. The toddlers with their feet shot off. The whole families targeted by drone strikes. The burnt and blackened restaurant patrons, victims of a suicide bomber. One night in particular I carried five children to the morgue. It leaves you breathless, concussed. The mortar of sorrow, a direct shot to the soul.
I'm processing, I'm free bleeding my heart and thoughts here so I don't explode and because I don't have the luxury of denial. I cannot separate my belief in a good and sovereign God and the suffering of innocence. If there is no reconciling the two than I am lost. We all are. Especially Christians, fools to be pitied of all men.
But what we found there, behind those blast walls, with the ceaseless drums of artillery fire, the strangled song of the whine and wail of one ambulance after another, was that hope is not a thing you wish for, it is the only thing afloat in a raging sea of chaos. It is what you hold on to, what holds on to you so you do not go under the relentless waves of grief. And we found that you hold on to each other. And you pray like gasping for your last breath. And you plead with heaven, even when heaven is silent. And you raise your broken hearts together in a pitiful little petition, more whimpers than words, and you beg, unified in grief, "Jesus please....."
The Bible says that suffering produces hope. A comical, sadist thought when the belly is full and the sun of our futures never sets, always shines on our glorious destinies. But when the night never ends, when the morgue is full, when evil seems to be laughing in every shadow, on those nights you somehow see it. Suffering produces hope in this way: when terrorism and hate and the cancer of evil spreads over all that is good with a blight of darkness, the light still does not go out. There is a flame in the hearts of those who have known the love of God. There is a song of praise that is not stalled on their lips, is not silenced. There is a light in the inner places of those who have heard the Word of Life and believed. This is the flower of hope that grows in the garden of souls by heaven's Holy seed. This is the hope that springs eternal, because it has always existed, always will exist apart from the human stain, in the Holy heart of God.
Suffering produces hope in the same way bomb blasts produce the broken bodies of children. It is the inevitability, the cause and the effect of universal laws. But only one will remain. Hope will swallow grief one day because Love will conquer all. But Hope is inevitable in us only when we trust, against our own instincts, in the goodness of God and allow ourselves to be taken deep into our own human frailty, far past vulnerability to the point of despair. And in that wasteland of our utter uselessness, in that wilderness of our unraveling, God is there, He is faithful, He alone, as He has always been, is holding the universe together and simultaneously holds us in the palm of His hand.
That is the only hope: that God holds His own in the palm of His hands while they yet suffer. And that the insatiable hunger of the mouth of Hell cannot devour the ragtag, broken band of believers called the church.
In the picture above I hold in my hand a 50 caliber bullet taken from the body of a pre-teen boy. An ISIS sniper shot him because their's is an ideology of fear. They target the weak, not just because the weak are a low-hanging fruit, but because most of us are weak. Most of us are trying to live our simple lives in peace. ISIS needs capitulation. They need submission. A sniper bullet in the side of a child reminds us the world is not at peace and things are not simple. It reminds us that suffering isn't a concept, that no abstraction paralyzed this young man. It reminds us that we are fragile and vulnerable. It reminds us that to walk the way of love our hearts will be obliterated by suffering.
And so against all hope we hope, that Love will one day conquer all. But not human love. Only God's selfless love, for with it carries His perfect all-powerful justice and the promise and ability to make all things new. Godspeed that day. Especially for the precious children of Mosul.