Civil War, Linen Closets, and Sheltering in Place
“There were moments that day, two decades ago, that I thought I was probably going to die. Yet, in that terrifying setting, I felt closer to God than almost any other time in my life. “
– LAURA LIVINGSTON, PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR, OASIS INTERNATIONAL
After hours crammed into the hot, airless space, we felt the hard concrete floor of the conference center’s linen closet all the way up through our spines. Each explosion near the building seemed to snatch the air out of our lungs. Nineteen international workers from five different countries, we’d gone to bed excited, anticipating the start of the next day’s seminar, but awakened in the wee hours of the morning to incessant gunfire. Côte d’Ivoire was going through a period of political upheaval and sporadic gunfire wasn’t unusual, so it took us a few hours to realize that we were trapped behind rebel lines in the middle of a civil war. We had no way out, no way to safety, no way to get to our families. Six hours of non-stop fighting brought an entirely new meaning to the concept of shelter-in-place. There were moments that day, two decades ago, that I thought I was probably going to die. Yet, in that terrifying setting, I felt closer to God than almost any other time in my life. How was that possible?
Our world seems to be shrinking every day, folding in on itself, as we live under shelter-in-place orders. A simple cough, that we wouldn’t have noticed two months ago, now triggers immediate concern or even fear. Masks and gloves complete our outfits and some of us obsessively wash our hands until they are raw. Those who have the means are stockpiling food in their cupboards and disinfectant supplies are sold out. Passing our neighbor on the sidewalk, we give them wide berth instead of the usual handshake or hug.
The wisdom and caution we try to apply to our daily interactions easily slip into steadily growing, cancerous fear.
Sitting on that floor two decades ago, we wondered if the noise would ever cease, never imagining that this was only the beginning of ten years of turbulence. As my thoughts darted a thousand different places, another shelter-in-place image came to my mind. In Psalm 131 the psalmist describes himself as a weaned child, calm and quiet on his mother’s lap. What a shocking, incomprehensible image! The valiant warrior-King, David, sees himself as a toddler? This powerful man likens himself to a weaned child? Barely past infancy, but mature enough to no longer constantly cry seeking mother’s milk, a weaned child is old enough to sense that its needs will be provided. This is a child calmed, quiet, satisfied, secure, a child sheltered on its mother’s lap. The disturbance that drove the child to run for its mother is never described in the Psalm. We are only told that the situation was too great to understand, too awesome to grasp.
Who of us has not seen an overwhelmed preschooler run to its mother’s lap and hide inside tender, encircling arms? A tiny face, too afraid to gaze out on what has shaken their world, is buried in the mother’s lap. Then, as their heart settles into security, they uncover little eyes and peek out to reassess the situation. A calmed and quietened child, no longer crying, that is the psalmist’s picture of his soul within him despite what is troubling his world.
That day, two decades ago, I was overwhelmed with thoughts that I might not see my husband or children again, that the building might come down on our heads burying us alive, that I might be captured and suffer physically, that my two daughters trapped in their nearby school could be lost to us forever. The whole big picture was too great for me, too terrifying to grasp.
I can’t see or hear the threat we are facing today. It isn’t blasting in my ears, shaking the ground around me. Nonetheless, it also assaults my heart and mind, terrifying me “with matters too great or awesome for me to grasp.” If only I could run away, escape the ever-increasing danger, spreading invisibly. There was no physical escape then, there is no certain escape today. Now, like then, I need a way to climb up on my Father’s lap and shelter in those eternally powerful arms, confident and secure in His love.
As we sat in that sweltering closet, a beautiful Nigerian sister began singing hymns of praise. Though we could barely hear each other over the thundering sounds of war, we became an impromptu worship choir. Sometimes we were just reading each other’s lips in the deafening noise, but we sang out our faith at the top of our lungs and that closet became a sacred space, a holy sanctuary to our God. Worshipping with all our hearts, we climbed up on our Father’s lap and knew His secure arms around us. We felt so close to heaven that we were ready to be there. Because we were a multi-ethnic group, we sang the great hymns of the Church in multiple languages. Proclaiming those truths in song strengthened our hearts. Praise calmed and quietened our souls like weaned children on the mother’s lap.
While I never want to live through a time like that again, I sometimes hunger for the holy and awe-inspiring sense of God’s presence that permeated that sweltering closet. The Africa Study Bible in a reflection of Psalm 131, quotes Athanasius, “If you sing the psaIms wisely when you experience testing and persecution, you will be protected by God who watched over the psalmist. The devil will flee, and demons will be driven away.” When our current situation is too great for you to grasp, lift up your heart and voice in praise. Your Father the almighty, sovereign, creator, God of the Universe is always ready to provide you with shelter-in-place. Climb up on your Father’s lap in worship and sing with the Psalmist, “Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel put your hope in the Lord—now and always!”
By Laura Livingston, Oasis International’s Partnerships Coordinator, from her time as an International Worker in Cote d’Ivoire. You can share Laura’s story and encourage fellow believers.
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