A couple of Sundays ago, during a pre-Church Bible study for our future small group leaders, I was shown the above photograph. When I saw it, my emotions ping-ponged between shock and compassion, horror and conviction. This Pulitzer-winning image was captured by a photographer in 1993, during a famine in the Sudan. The child in the picture is struggling to make it to a food center, but is being stalked by a vulture that senses he is close to death. It is a horrible, heart-rending photograph, the graphic nature of which is so harsh that it almost seems surreal.
The truth, though, is that this is a synecdochical image that depicts the plight of millions of children whose cries we do not hear and whose suffering we do not see. How do we respond to something like this? It is tempting simply to shake our heads in sadness and go on with our sheltered and (seemingly) safe lives, or to throw our hands up in despair because we do not think there is anything we can do to meet the tremendous need or to stem the swelling tide of such suffering. But Scripture says otherwise!
The prophet Jeremiah witnessed similar horrors, after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Jeremiah saw Israel's children dying of starvation. And in the midst of his deep anguish, as vultures and other scavengers doubtless descended upon the city, Jeremiah encouraged the people of Jerusalem to pray for the dying children--to "pour out [their] heart[s] like water" before the Lord. He called upon them to:
Arise, cry out in the night,
as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
in the presence of the Lord.
Lift up your hands to him
for the lives of your children,
who faint from hunger
at the head of every street.
I have to confess that I have not done much praying for those who are suffering--for those who, like the child in the photograph, are struggling to survive but are dying alone. Their plight seems so distant compared to my own immediate (and less important) needs. But Jeremiah's plea struck me today, as I thought about the child in that picture: "pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord . . . for the lives of [these] children, who faint from hunger[.]" It is a call to intercede in prayer on behalf of the "least of these," because, if we do not, who will? . . .
Today, as I looked at the picture of that little Sudanese boy, I could not help but wonder: Why was he alone? Where were the aid workers? Where were his parents? . . . And then I felt the gentle voice of the Lord ask me a far more important question: "Niki, where were you?"
Now, obviously, the Lord was not asking me why I was not in the Sudan, with this child, 15 years ago. It was a gentle but firm admonition that when I witness human suffering, my reaction should not be, "Where is so-and-so? And why isn't he or she doing something for this person?" Rather, my response should be, "Where am I? And what could I be doing right now to help this individual?" It also was a sobering reminder of a question that each of us may be asked some day, when we stand before the Father . . . "Where were you?"
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says that if we truly love Him, we will love them. If we really are His disciples, we will strive to meet the needs of those who are forgotten by the rest of the world--the poor, the oppressed, the unlovable, and the 'lepers' of our society. We not only will pray on their behalf, we also will act on their behalf. And then Jesus adds that whatever we do for those in need, we do for Him! Finally, He concludes this passage of Scripture by describing how He will rebuke those who claimed to be Christians but who were not, as evidenced by their failure to care for those in need. He will say to them:
"Depart from me . . . For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." (Matthew 25:41-43).
In other words, Jesus will ask them, "Where were you? . . . Where were you, when I was being stalked by a vulture, as I struggled to the nearest food center? Where were you, when I was homeless and lying naked in the gutter--rejected by the world? Where were you, when I was left to rot in prison--abandoned by society?" . . .
Where were you? . . .
My prayer is that, if the Lord asks me and you that question some day, we both will be able to answer Him, saying: "I was right there with you, Jesus. I was right there!"