Lebanon #5: Starfish

by Julie Burgess, for the team (West Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebr.)

Our day began with a poignant team devotion led by Susan Parker, our team member who has lived ten months of every year for 32 years on Mercy Ships. (Please Google Mercy Ships 60 Minutes to read more about this amazing ministry in Africa healing those with many medical needs. What a gospel story!)

Her story revolved around her own brokenness which brought her to Mercy Ships. “Tumors of the heart,” was the way she described the brokenness of our lives that is not seen by others and not healed with surgery or antibiotics. In our time here with our Syrian sisters, we have heard stories of some of those tumors.

But she also gave us a model of how to enter into ministry where there is so much need, needs that are impossible to meet by one person, or even a whole ship of trained medical personnel. She told us the old story of the little girl who walks along the beach and finds thousands of beached starfish. She starts to pick them up one at a time and fling them back into the sea so they will live. An old man comes across her and says, “There are too many to save. You will never make a difference.” “Well,” she replies as she flings another one, “I can make a difference for this one.”

Susan said we tend to view this story from the perspective of the little girl; that is who we usually see ourselves as. But she said in her years on Mercy Ships she has recognized herself in all three roles: the one who needs saving, the one who sees no hope, and the one who saves.

Sometimes the question we must ask ourselves is this same one: which role do we play as a team and as individual members of it?

That has stuck with me all day as we entered into Thursday of the conference, the traditional day trip excursion, and lunch. 100 women loaded onto three buses to head to Beitedine, a 19th-century Druze palace, now the summer home of the Lebanese president. After two hours on twisty mountain roads with numerous speed bumps, but accompanied by Syrian music and dancing (let’s call it seat dancing), we arrived for a short tour. The destination was not the important part; it was the relationships we shared along the journey. Dancing and ululating, grabbing people to make larger group photos, sharing a fan to keep cool, laughter – always laughter! – this is where ministry happens. Who was the starfish? Who was the little girl? Who was the old man?

We arrived for lunch at Hamlin Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, a refuge in the mountains for the elderly and those needing special care. They had set out lunch for us on the terrace overlooking the valley, and we filled our bellies with traditional and healthy Lebanese food made for healing the body and the soul. We even had ice cream bars! Children were chasing cats and just enjoying the freedom of this spot. There were quiet conversations, more photos, rest in a place that I am sure is what heaven looks like. Who was the starfish? Who was the little girl? Who was the old man?

We have heard so many stories of starfish who need someone to come along and fling them back into the sea of life. A woman wounded in her youth as an uncle celebrating her graduation accidentally fired a bullet into her face. A refugee school closing early due to lack of funding and the children crying at the news, along with the teachers who love them. Ongoing shelling and bombs in Mhardeh, near Idlib. A woman widowed just four months ago. Another woman who has lost the older sister she cared for and brought through the war.

Sometimes the overwhelming needs of this place bring out the old man in me and in us and we ask, “How can we make a difference?”

But then we sit on a bus with the same women who own these stories and they are laughing! They are singing! They invite us to dance. They give us their extra fan. They pull us into picture upon picture to mark the day that will soon be passed.

The vast quantity of starfish on this beach of the women’s conference makes no difference. We have picked each other up – little girls and starfish both – and together thrown ourselves into an ocean of God’s redeeming love. And that has made all the difference.