If I am being honest, I’m not sure I know what that word even means. Truly, it seems to defy our ability to obtain definition. Like a deep, scarlet-toned sunset exploding across the western horizon, ablaze in all its fury. Like a gorgeously harmonious piano melody played gently, softly, quietly. To try to define it seems to be an attempt to limit its expanse. Beauty has the ability to connect with longings for eternity that we rarely realize we have.
Our culture has so much to say about it. So does our Maker.
That we as humans are drawn to the beautiful is a gentle reminder to our tired eyes that our Father has not forgotten us.
My eyes could not pull away.
I had never seen an actual case of leprosy before. They say that the disease distorts the face so much so that it begins to take on a characteristic “lion-like” appearance. Without a doubt, she fit that description. This skin condition had afflicted her for three years.
But beneath the disfigurement, beneath the lesions that were slowly eating away at her flesh, a beautiful woman shone forth. A tender, loving mother.
She sat quietly, her child whimpering on her lap, demanding to be consoled.
The precious little one had a head that was swollen to twice its normal size. Hydrocephalus. The pressure inside her enlarged skull was pushing on the nerves that controlled her eyes which resulted in an unmistakable nystagmus. She was three. With a soft voice, her mother informed us that her child could neither walk nor hear.
But she loved to sing.
I looked down at my hand, the creases danced across my my skin. Rivungo is a village in the extreme southeast corner of the country. It is about as rural as you can get in Africa. My outstretched palm looked back up at me solemnly. The number of times a doctor visits this community each year can be expressed by this one hand of mine.
This one hand of mine. I have been given hands. And they were pleading with my brain to allow them to be transformed into extensions of God’s love.
Dr. Kubacki, Kyle, and I examined the child and within minutes concluded that this was a problem fixed only by surgery. If we could get this baby to the surgical hospital in Lubango, the doctors there may be able to correct the problem. Which could potentially mean a new life for this little girl. They would also have the medicines to treat the mother’s leprosy.
The only problem was that we were sitting in a hot, dusty town hundreds of empty miles from nowhere. To reach Lubango would take close to three days by car. And this family had no access to that kind of transportation.
But we had a plane. We talked with Gary, our pilot.
There were several empty seats on the aircraft that was heading back to Lubango. After a quick calculation to ensure we were not exceeding the weight limit, we arranged for them to join.
Her baby might survive. Within a matter of days, they would have access to life-altering treatment.
The mother was overjoyed, evidenced by the wide smile she offered us. She was missing several teeth.
I know that deep need exists everywhere. I know it does. Western nations need doctors. No doubt, that is true. Dr. Kubacki shared with us the struggles he faced when he embraced his desire to pursue medical missionary work. When he and his family made the decision to uproot, to plunge into a poor foreign country in order to serve, he was met with well-intentioned people who thought he was making a mistake.
Lovingly, with hearts of concern, they expressed to him that he should consider staying put, serving the needs of his own home country. Rash, radical decisions like this are not necessary, he was told. Interpreting Jesus’ beckon to “Follow me” need not be read so literally.
There is some truth to what they had to say. The western world needs doctors. Badly. And there are so many wonderful ways to serve. I am looking at me. Nobody else. Asking myself what am I going to do with these two hands, this beating heart I have been given. My dilemma is that I have been offered a 720 hour introduction to need of a different sort than I have ever experienced before. Face-to-face, I’ve now peered into its eyes. I have always known it existed. But I had never felt its existence breathing down my neck, chilling my bones.
That is my struggle. And I absolutely don’t know what to think.
I allowed my gaze to linger on this beautiful leprous mother and her sick daughter as my heart and my hands waged battle with my mind. Never were two foes as equally matched in strength.
A question surfaced, toying with my brain. From whence it came, I cannot say. It was not a safe question. For it challenged me in ways that I find disturbing, uncomfortable:
What if he had listened to them?
What if he had never come?
When we boarded the plane, I sat near the front. With a turn of my head, my eyes connected with this wonderful family, mother and daughter, sitting in the back. No doubt they were flying for the first time. Their starry-eyed expressions said it all. They were headed toward Lubango.
Beauty. I still can’t define it.
But I think I saw it that day. In the loving eyes of a gentle leper. In those eyes, Jesus intersected this world of mine.
And it messed me up.