“So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
From the Book of Ruth
I was challenged recently to tell a story, a story that I watched unfold in
Africa, a few months ago. It’s a bit complicated. It’s a bit touchy. These stories always are, when it’s a story of the heart.
I’m not sure I know how to tell any other kind of story. After all, if the story doesn’t penetrate a place in our heart; is it really worth telling? The problem I face is; do I have the ability to tell this story the way it deserves to be told?
You can be the judge of that, I suppose.
Before I get too far, there is something you must know. This story is about someone in particular and it’s about no one in particular. It’s a story that I have seen play out many times. It’s a story of so many hearts, so many lives that are just asking to be noticed, begging to be noticed. I’ve seen it in countless faces, in many places around the world.
I saw it once in the deformed eyes of a little girl in Bali, Indonesia. It took me a while to see it. I had to be taken back for a second look because I was too insensitive the first time to notice.
She was sitting alone, distant from the other children. I saw her from the corner of my eye, quiet and reserved, painfully shy. A group of beautiful girls had gathered around me, smiling coyly at me, attracted to my kindness; I think. Perhaps they were drawn to my teasing nature, the funny faces that I made; the perfectly timed winks.
She may have been drawn to those smiles too; she was just too used to being alone. She was not one of the popular girls, not one of the girls invited to join in the laughter and the secret language of young girls. So she sat at a distance and pretended that this tall stranger from a distant land didn’t matter to her. She pretended that it didn’t bother her to be left out, to be ignored.
I wanted so desperately to draw her in. She would have nothing to do with any coaxing on my part. She would ignore the group of girls that were having so much fun with this amusing foreigner; this man that made silly faces and made the girls shriek in delight when he bent over to kiss them on the cheeks.
That is when I noticed her, really saw her for the first time. I hadn’t seen it before, a deformity; a growth around one of her eyes that made her appearance a little scary. The disfigurement had caused her to be shunned, to be set aside and this caused her not to smile. Laughter was a very foreign language to her and her face looked angry, bitter. Maybe this was why the other girls never invited her in, she looked upset and mean. Why would these happy girls invite someone to play with them that seemed so…so unhappy?
Time was running out on our visit and people were gathering their backpacks and heading to the bus. I gave a last round of winks, and hugs, and kisses to the little gathering of cuteness that had decided to call me their own for the day. I glanced towards the girl with the deformity but she didn’t look up. I left and didn’t give it another thought.
That is until later in the day. We had reached the end of another busy, hectic, activity-filled day; time to head back to the hotel for some rest and dinner. That’s when I heard the conversation with our trip leader and the in-country host.
“We don’t have time to make another stop. I’m sorry. Everyone is tired.”
“Please, it won’t take long, just a few minutes. I promise.”
“We really need to get back. It’s already been such a long day.”
“I know this is not on our schedule today, but the kids will be so excited if you show up.” “They have been practicing for weeks and I think the sponsors will love to see their presentation.”
Reluctantly, we agreed to stop at the auditorium where we were told that several projects had come together for an annual time of worship. I will admit that part of me had secretly hoped the leader wouldn’t have caved; I was exhausted. If it had not been for the persistence of our host I would have missed out at a glimpse of my own soul.
I had been asking God earlier in the day if there was something wrong with my heart. It was day five or day six of a ten day trip. I had witnessed some of the most horrendous living conditions that I had ever seen. And I was not moved. I was not shaken. I had not shed a tear the entire week. I was slightly alarmed at the callousness of my heart. Had I grown insensitive to the conditions? Was this becoming a job to me, something I did for a living and nothing else? These were the questions that I was taking to Jesus that day.
So we entered the auditorium packed with enthusiastic children, and banners, and music. We listened to the children make a joyful noise to the Lord and we watched them as they danced with delight before Him. We made our appearance, said a few quick words of encouragement and were headed out the door. I saw the group of girls I had met earlier in the day. They actually saw me first and got my attention. I walked over and gave them something else to shriek about, a few winks and silly smiles. I leaned over and kissed them again.
And I walked away, ready to get back on the bus and be on our way. I was ready for a shower and dinner. As I strolled through a walkway that led to the parking lot, I was stopped in my tracks. Literally and figuratively, stopped in my tracks! I stood in the walkway for a few seconds and asked God what it was? What was He trying to say to me? What did He need me to do? I heard a still small voice simply say “You are not done.”
I turned around and looked at the girls I had left behind a moment ago. They were still smiling and giggling. What was not done?
And then I saw her; the girl with the deformity, the girl without a smile. She was sitting directly in front of the girls that I had just said goodbye to. And she was sitting alone.
I walked back to the very spot I had been only a few moments before. The girls saw me coming and they waved happily to me as I approached. But I wasn’t coming for them. I walked up to the little girl without a smile and I leaned down, took her face in my hands and looked her right in the eyes. I hugged her tight and I kissed her gently on the cheek.
I walked away as quickly as I had walked to her. I’m not completely certain, but I think I glimpsed the tiniest of smiles shine through that face. I’m sure I saw a glimmer of her beauty. And her look told me everything…her look said “thank you for seeing me.”
And I heard something else just then…I heard the voice of God say, “Thank you for seeing her.”
I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now, who needed that moment more; me or the little girl. All I know is at that point, the only thing I could manage is to quietly walk to the back of the bus and weep.
We need to flash forward a few years to the present, to the back of another bus, on a dusty road on another continent. This time the girl was American, the country was Uganda. She will remain unnamed because I’m not sure she would want the world to see her just now.
There was nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this girl, at least not at this point. If I had to describe her to you the way I first saw her, I would ask you to imagine a librarian in her early thirties. Picture a girl with her hair tied in a knot at the top of her head, wearing a colorful scarf to cover most of her hair. She’s wearing glasses and very little makeup, if any. She has a good complexion and a nice smile. She’s obviously seen an orthodontist at some point in her life. She is tall, but not overly so. She is not a petite girl, but not a large girl either.
We sat next to each other on the back of the bus, along with several others and shared stories. Most of the stories were mine. Everyone at the back of the bus wanted to hear more about my experiences, my travels, my adventures. I tried not to dominate the conversation and asked the others to share about their lives.
The stories went on for hours. I’m not even sure what day of the trip or what hour it was when I noticed her, really saw her. I can only describe it as a veil being lifted. It could have been the stories that drew me in. I knew right away that there were things we held in common, mutual interests. Of course there was our relationship with Jesus. So many stories about Jesus and what He meant to our lives. It could be that a veil was lifted from around her heart, for it was here that I began to see her…
We were several days in to our trip and we were spending the day at a Compassion project in a remote area somewhere in western Uganda. We had left Kampala and we were traveling to Fort Portal, and this was one of the stops on our itinerary. I had several child packets in my backpack and realized that some of them were for children from this very student center. I found one of our hosts and asked if they could locate either of the girls from my packets.
They managed to contact them and within a few hours, both girls had arrived. I immediately introduced myself to them and explained what I needed. I was hopeful that we could find a sponsor for both of them. My intention was to simply take a photo with the girls as they held their packets. I would take the photos home and see if I could generate interest for these girls to get a sponsor.
Both of the girls seemed a bit nervous and unsure of what was happening. They certainly had to be confused by all the commotion being created by this large group of mzungu’s (white people).
I saw the bewilderment in both girls but my attention was drawn to the taller of the two. I’m not sure what I saw at that moment, only that she had captured my attention. Maybe it was the sadness I saw in her eyes. A sense of hopelessness, a quiet despair. I only remember feeling a sorrow for her, deep down. I remember thinking, “I should sponsor this teenage girl, I could make a difference this very minute”. But God had other plans.
As all of this was taking place, there were others in the group that had no idea what was happening just a few steps away. It wasn’t insensitivity or a disregard on their part, they were just preoccupied with whatever conversations were happening around them.
But the unmindful and the unobservant, suddenly became aware; understanding coming to them in a flash. Another moment or two and the opportunity would have vanished for them.
That was the moment the girl on the back of the bus, the one with the inconspicuous profile, and the self-effacing exterior; moved to the front. She understood what was happening. She appreciated the gravity of the situation. She could not hesitate for one more second, a life was hanging in the balance. She moved closer to me and quietly said, “I want to sponsor Deborah.”
I knew at that moment that God was up to something in the lives of these two girls. First for the girl from the back of the bus, the one who had learned to keep herself in the background; and secondly for the teenage girl from Uganda, another girl that had learned the same lessons, taught to be reserved and reticent. There were timid smiles from the Ugandan girl and humility expressed from the church worker from Texas. There wasn’t a lot of time to get to know one another. A few hugs and a few words of encouragement, some promises that letters would be written and prayers would be spoken. It was time to leave, we were on a schedule. And they said their farewells, the young girl from Texas wishing she had more time, wondering if she had really heard from God; and the teenager from Africa, wondering what it meant to have a sponsor, wondering if she could believe that someone would be praying for her, writing to her.
The one thing that Deborah began to ponder, from this very moment; was being noticed. “Why have you shown such kindness to me?”, must have been the question on her heart. She may have asked the very question that Ruth asked the redeemer Boaz – “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
Several days passed and we were quickly approaching the end of our trip. The culmination of our journey was almost here, the day the sponsors were waiting for, the reason they had come at all; the day to visit their sponsored children. And on this special day, our country hosts managed a very special surprise for Deborah and the young woman from the back of the bus. Arrangements had been made for Deborah to join us for the entire day. This may have been the first time that Deborah had ever left her village, it may have been her first time to see Kampala, her first time to ride in a bus. I’m not certain of any of that; what I am certain of, it was the first time in her life that she had been seen. It was the first time that she had really been noticed.
I know this because of the transformation that I witnessed from the reserved, shy girl to the one that stood before me now. I know this because of the way that Deborah smiled at me every time our eyes made contact. I know this because of the way she hugged me on that day. It was a look and it was a hug that said thank you for seeing me, thank you for pulling me out of the rubbish and brushing me off. Thank you for seeing something in me that no one had ever seen before.
And my heart was full from the smiles of a teenage girl from a small village in Africa, a girl that was dressed in love that day.
But there is still more to this story. We cannot forget the girl from the back of the bus, for she too, was dressed in love; her heart being stretched in unimaginable ways. Her heart was given to a teenage girl that day, of that there is no doubt, but something else was happening in the center of her being.
I only know this because I was told a story many weeks after this trip had ended. I think it is best told by her…
“It’s a story that took place on a bus somewhere in Uganda. It took place during hours and hours of driving through the countryside…
And on this particular day, so many things were happening on the inside of a then thirty year old girl…many things she was trying to process and reconcile and make sense of.
She was silent on this day because there weren’t words to really say what her heart was feeling.
And then, the bus had to stop for gas and the kind man with the tender eyes said to her, “I know why you’re still single…” and the girl’s heart dropped…
She had heard statements like these before – she was too this or not enough that, she needed to work on this, would never find a man if she didn’t do that…
So she braced herself for what he would say, but she wasn’t prepared for the words that came next…
“You’re too beautiful…”
And she could not tell the kind man with the tender eyes what those words meant to her on that day because she had never heard anything like them before. And at that moment she knew it was God’s way of acknowledging her and loving her as she rode the dusty roads of Uganda. And she traveled many more miles on that bus that day, and even more miles were journeyed in her heart, talking to Him. I know she will go the distance with Him.
The young woman from west Texas was seen, and the teenager from the heart of Uganda was seen, and the little girl without a smile and a damaged eye was seen.
As a matter of fact, so was I.
And all of us will ask – “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me?”