Seeing Suffering

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by Joshua Vis

About six months ago, after an extended search and interview process, I was offered the job of Church Engagement Facilitator for Israel/Palestine for the Reformed Church in America. It was a relief and an honor to be selected for the position. The relief aspect is important, but it is the honor aspect that I want to unpack a little.

This position was created by my father, Marlin Vis, in 2006. My father and mother were the first RCA missionaries to Israel/Palestine. My mother, incidentally, is continuing in her current role as an organizer and leader of study tours. While my father will continue as a mentor and consultant in this ministry, his role will decrease as my role increases.

So many people in the RCA and beyond have been blessed by my father’s abilities as a writer, preacher, and teacher. He is also a gifted motivator, leader, and visionary. Together, my parents have organized and led some 55 trips to Israel/Palestine over the past ten years. These trips have done much good, but the principle good they have done is to give voice to the suffering of the Palestinian people.

The RCA now sees and desires justice for Palestinians, and my parents’ work has played a major role in creating such a desire. To honor my father I want to republish an abridged version of a blog post he wrote while living in East Jerusalem. This was first published on August 7, 2007. I love this post and I love my father.

Lost Faith

I preached Sunday, but my heart wasn’t in it. In fact, smack-dab in the middle of the message, I lost my faith. It happened without warning. One minute I am bringing the Word, and the next, I had nothing to say–from the Word to no word. I went from looking out over the congregation seeking eye contact, to staring down at my notes, fighting the urge to step down from the pulpit and walk out of the building. Actually, run out was more what I felt like doing.

A picture flashed on to some part of my brain–left or right I couldn’t say. But there it was, a snapshot that my mind’s eye had taken the day before. I didn’t see it coming, but I should have I guess. After all she kept me awake a good part of the night. She was on my mind when I woke, and I was thinking of her as I sat on the terrace going over the sermon for the last time. Seeing me sitting there, staring into nothing, Sally asked, “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” I said. I lied. I was thinking about a different her than her, and didn’t want to talk about how this other she made me feel.

Then she just showed up in the middle of my preaching and drove away my faith.

She is four or five-years-old; I’m guessing four. She is wearing a black dress; I’m guessing she wears it everyday. She is barefoot; I’m guessing that she has shoes, but that they don’t fit. She has a runny nose, the green kind of runny nose; I’m guessing she has the green kind of runny nose most every day. She has empty eyes; I’m guessing she didn’t always have empty eyes. I’m guessing the light went out of her eyes the day she found out that not all children live in a place with no place to run and play.

She is a Palestinian refugee, living in a refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem, the place where Joseph and Mary came to be counted. She doesn’t count. She is only a number–7,000 children in this camp of 12,000 people. She doesn’t count; I’m guessing she knows it.

Her eyes are empty, but mine are not. Mine are filled with tears. Someone coughs and I remember where I am, who I am–preacher. I look up and see Sally with this panicked look on her face. I’ve been preaching with her in the audience for almost 30 years now, and I’ve never seen her with that look on her face. Well, actually that’s not true. I saw it one other time–the Sunday I lost my faith in the church.

How is it that God allows this to go on? How can God watch the light drain from the eyes of little girls in black dresses and not come rushing to the rescue? Is God too busy to help this little girl in the black dress and empty eyes? Does God count this little girl as one of his sheep? Does God know this tiny sheep is lost? Is God looking for her? Does God know she is looking for him?

I don’t want God to take anything away from any other child in order that this little girl has a place to run and play. Why does it have to be either/or? Is God only able to love the one child–only Sarah, not Hagar? Is God’s heart so small that there is no room in it for little Hagar?

I’ve lost my faith. It’s a scandal, isn’t it? I’ve seen too many children with empty eyes to believe that there is a God who cares, a God who has the power to do anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I know that my missing faith is simply that–missing, not gone. I’ll soon find it. I know that there is a God who cares. I know there is a God who has the power to do something about all this. I know that God is angry. I know that God loves this little girl in the black dress and the empty eyes. I know all this because I know Jesus and I know that Jesus cares. I know that Jesus has the power to transform the world–redeem it. I even know that the Spirit of Jesus will do just that. I know all of this, and even more than this. I just don’t believe it–not today anyway.

You get angry here. You do. You watch one people prosper as another people decline, and you get angry. On one side of the divide you see parks and playgrounds and nice schools and fountains and swimming pools, and on the other you see none of these. And you know that there is enough land for all the children to have a playground. You know that the little girl in the black dress with the empty eyes could have the same opportunities to run and play and learn as the little girls on the other side of the divide. You know this is true, and you also know that there is no heart to make it so, and no will to work for it. You get angry. You try not to, but you do.

You listen to politicians declare that the number one priority of the United States of America is to defend herself against Islamic extremists. And you just want to weep. You’ve see Islamic extremists, and Jewish and Christian extremists too, and you know that none of these is big enough or bad enough or important enough to be our number one priority. You’ve seen the little girl in the black dress and empty eyes, and you know that there are millions like her around the world, and you know in your heart that she is little enough and good enough to deserve to be every nation’s number one priority. She’s not, and she knows she’s not, and you know she’s not too. And here’s the kicker–God knows she is not number one with us as well. I wonder how many times a day God loses his faith in us.

I smiled at Sally, shook my head, muttered something about “preaching to the choir,” and went on. I preached. I prayed. I presided over the Lord’s Supper. I shook hands and thanked people for coming. I went home, took a nap, and moved through the rest of the day and night. I got up Monday morning, put my feet on the ground and went to work.

Guest-blogger Joshua Vis serves as the Church Engagement Facilitator for Israel/Palestine with the Reformed Church in America.

Comments 13

  1. ” I also can imagine God’s head shaking ,wondering when we are going to do something about the injustices in the world that we are fully capable of fixing. We wonder why God allows it, but we should wonder why we allow it.

    1. God allows it only in as much as God allows for us to exist. God keeps hoping we do better, and crying when we refuse.

  2. The gift of legacy through love from the Vis family. So many touched by the Vis work and called to take action. Thank you.

  3. Josh, Thanks for re-sharing this blog post from your Dad. Powerful stuff…… So glad that Ginger and I got to share this part of the world with you and your Dad. To see it through your eyes and heart. We are not the same. I would imagine that all those people in those 55 tour groups have been changed as well. Shalom…..

  4. A tour of Israel a few years ago with a Palestinian Christian driver and a guide along w/ Bill and Lyn Vanden Bosch really opened my eyes to the unfair/wrong situation there. I will never hear the news the same again.

  5. So movingly sad and beautiful. I’ve never met your dad, but I respect him for his honesty, admire him for his devotion, envy him for his faith.

  6. Josh,
    Yes, thank you for reposting this. I remember reading it when your Dad posted it the first time and it hasn’t lost any of its relevance, unfortunately. Like the little boy’s lifeless body laying on the beach in Turkey and now the little boy and also little girl’s bloody face in Syria, the innocent children haunt us. And hopefully they haunt us enough to pray, write letters, give money, get involved, support causes and like your Dad, share our experiences. May God continue to bless you and the work being done via the RCA and the Vis’. We love you all.

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