We are in our second year here in the West Nile Region of Uganda. We love this place, the people God has placed us around, and the various ways He has brought us into the lives of others. Our community is our treasure here. Yet there is a harsh reality wherever we find ourselves…
Death is reality for all human beings in every place on earth.
Though many deny the Creation account, and the space and time Fall of man from God (Adam and Eve), none can escape the impact from it. We will all face death.
In the West, though we experience the loss of loved ones, our culture cushions and shields us from the reality of daily death. Much of that reality is absorbed by our first responders, doctors, nurses, funeral homes, and people who ‘sign up’ to be such a shield. We pretend it cannot happen until it happens. When it does happen, we are generally not the ones digging the grave.
I’ve even heard of parents who totally and negligently hide the reality of death from their children, even as they are growing older. We know most, specifically the irreligious, prefer the phrase ‘passing on,’ though they never say to what or by what means.
In East Africa, and across the continent, things are much different. If a week goes by where you are not interacting with friends who lost loved ones, that is highly unusual. Day in and day out you pass the men who build coffins on the roadside for a living; they always have business. Deep mourning, weeping and recovering, is a part of the fabric here, the ebb and flow of life itself. Along with navigating the future with the ever-realized absence that is a family amputation. Brothers lose sisters. Mothers lose young children. Men lose their fathers, early.
Sickness is so real. Malaria and typhoid replace our common cold in the West. AIDS is prevalent. Malnutrition is more common than nutrition. Mango trees are a gift from the Lord, which hold people over when food is not there. Drought is real. Every type of worms enters the human body here. The water is contaminated. Life is hard. It is more likely that a family has lost a child, or several, than not. Young widows and widowers are commonplace in a way I cannot explain. Orphans too, with few happy endings.
Accidents happen more frequently here, and you see them. On the roads, among general confusion and first generation, unlicensed drivers. At home, where children are raising children in the permanent or regular absence of parents. All over the place. Misconceptions about medicine, or poorly practiced ‘medicine,’ or witchcraft, or ignorant counsel frequently make bad situations exceedingly worse.
Every week you pass by a funeral. As often as weddings are attended, funerals are attended, from a young age. This is a stark contrast to the West, where most attend many weddings, specifically during their younger years. In the West where funerals are expected later in life, or some make the individualized decision not to attend them at all. Or even, not to love in a capacity where you would then desire or be expected to attend a funeral. What a sad existence. Lewis writes of this in The Four Loves.
Death is unavoidable here. And in a social, communal culture, you cannot escape the death of your loved ones, or the death of your loved ones’ loved ones.
I just wanted to carve out the picture a bit, give context, marking the observable differences between the place I grew and the place we now call home. Partially so I myself will know my thoughts from this week, and this season.
My reason for writing is simple. I want to remember my friend, my brother, Victor. To my recollection, he’s the first friend whose bedside I stood by the same day he died. And my nearest friend who died since our arrival in Uganda.
Looking back on life, there was Gene the marine from the little Methodist church where I labored with joy. We sat together in the second service for many months; I couldn’t stand always seeing him alone, so I thought I’d just greet him one week. The Lord gave me an incredible friend. I’ll never forget his love for his sweet bride until the end. We sat together weekly. When he was placed in a hospice house, I visited him a few days before he died.
There was my grandfather who died while I was far away. I had done all in my ability to show him my love and comfort him with Truth in the last times we had together, knowing the pending reality. His last road trip from NC to FL will forever be etched in my mind. What a gift from the Lord.
There was my first mentor, Kevin, who was ushered into heaven by way of a brain aneurism. He was already gone when I reached the hospital, though the machines were all still hooked up. This was the hardest loss of my life, and the first close one.
But Victor was different from the rest. I almost didn’t get to see him. I had the opportunity on a Friday, but dropped the pastor off at the hospital not realizing how short time was. In God’s kindness, he granted one last Saturday.
The Spirit was nagging me to go see Victor. That’s what it was more than anything else. There is a certain compassion in my heart towards my Christian family. Also towards my blood family, and specifically towards the lost.
This Saturday found me up early to visit Arua Referral Hospital.
This is one of those places you don’t want to get sick, and where most don’t seek medical care unless it’s clearly the only option. Arua is not a place you want your abdomen opened and your vitals operated on. That was Victor’s reality though, all within God’s knowing. The Lord knows and sees all. He was not absent. I am thankful for the high view of God’s sovereignty which is pressed on the minds of African brothers and sisters. Circumstance doesn’t leave an alternative.
Victor had infection and complications from an operation earlier in the week.
When I arrived Saturday morning, our dear sister from the local church had already beat me there.
I thought Victor was not going to be coherent. His eyelids were fluttering, he had some shakes, and he seemed to be writhing on the bed, wearing nothing but a small blanket. IV hooked up, keeping him hydrated I suppose.
I spoke to him and he responded peacefully, favorably. He wanted me to read to him from Ephesians 3:14-21, so that’s what we did. I then read to him Psalm 103. We recounted God’s faithfulness, His might and His glory and His rich mercy in Christ. We spoke of man’s time being short but the steadfast love of the LORD being from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.
I have nothing to encourage or comfort someone with except the greatness of the living God.
I didn’t know if it was normal or culturally acceptable for me to be holding Victor’s hand, but I did and I’ll never regret it. There’s no shame in holding someone’s hand, someone who is hurting. I just didn’t want to bring any shame on him, as that’s a complex thing here, to be counted weak. The reality is we are all weak, from our first day to our last.
I’ll never forget holding Victor’s hand for those readings and a time of prayer together. We prayed a lot. We prayed for comfort and peace and for Victor’s mind to be on Jesus. And wouldn’t you know, though Victor spent the morning with me, he was with Jesus by evening.
The pain that was there all week long, and that last morning, was totally gone at 6pm. There was not a single ache at 6pm, and there never will be again for Victor who loved Christ because Christ had first loved him. There will never be a day of hunger, there will never be sickness, there will never be another fight for this former army commander. There will never be another sin, or another temptation to sin.
This brother is face to face worshiping our Maker, and fellowshipping with far more saints that Arua City Baptist Church can fathom, Victor knows joy in its fullness, now and forever. That makes my heart so glad.
I met this brother last year, and he was a gentle soul from that day through all the days I knew him. Apparently that had not always been the case for a brother who did a lot of fighting as a career, who lived in many respects for the world. He had many wives, and many children, and many ‘experiences’ as an East African commander. I know his heart was not soft towards God during that time.
But when Victor retired from the Army, a family member would not leave him alone. His cousin (or uncle, or some male relative, as the term is used broadly here) insisted that Victor would know Christ as Lord and Savior. Talk about ambitious. From what I gather, he was persistent, and continuously urged Victor into the house of God, under the teaching of the Word, and eventually into the family of God.
The pastor at our church was faithful to keep meeting with Victor. Victor would walk a few miles to the church on Sundays, and the pastor would walk a few miles mid week to find Victor at home. And the Lord used all of this, and the Spirit worked to soften a hard heart and bring repentance and faith and a love for the Body of believers.
What a change.
I cannot explain my gratitude for this brother. His excitement at a Study Bible Training last December will never be forgotten. Talk about someone happy and thankful for a copy of the Scriptures, with helpful notes and commentary. You would have thought something significant had happened in his life. That was the reality. This was most significant for this Christian brother.
Victor was our ‘Amen’ guy. Maybe your church has a dozen, or one. I hope every church has one. Our church has three, but Victor was the leader of the gang. Many people here don’t make eye contact, and it could really throw a Western preacher off. You start to wonder if anyone is even hearing you. All I had to do was look over at Victor. Eyes locked right on me, ears attentive, head nodding, and a regular ‘amen’ or ‘praise the Lord!’ This was Victor.
I remember him so fondly from our Easter outreach opportunities, times of open-air, and from the Easter Sunday morning. His excitement about the truth of God’s Word and the Gospel was so real, so strong but also gentle, spoken of yet also visible in his whole person.
There is a noticeable gap in our local Body at the loss of this brother. Kilby and I both wept when we heard the news of Victor being gone from this earth but present with the Lord.
I have to tell you, the mourning and the sorrow feels like a gaping wound. Yet there is hope. Yet there is joy. Yet there is gladness. Victor knew Christ. Victor trusted Jesus. Victor loved the One True God.
Death is not the end of the story for the disciple of Jesus. Though a very real door closes on the temporary, it is the very same door which opens to the eternal. Victor is eternally my brother, and we will soon join him where he is. He does not miss this place, though we miss him.
It is a total understatement to say Victor is far better off now, but those are the words I have. My communication is limited, my words are not satisfactory for explaining the reality.
I ask your prayers for Victor’s family. I urge you to recount your mortality. I encourage you to look to Christ if you never have. I urge you believers to reach out to every single person around you, day after day after day until your last. Leave no person unevangelized. Be like Victor’s cousin in the life of your family members and friends. Be like our pastor, going after the lost and finding them where they are, and praying for the Spirit to work.
Visit hospitals and nursing homes and those closed off in their homes. Don’t fear to reach out and take someone’s hand. Read the Word and share it with others and pray. Live your life in the joy of knowing Jesus. Treasure the Gospel above all else. Delight yourself in the King. Don’t forget you are held by your Maker.
That’s how I’ll remember Victor.