December 18, 2017

The Gift

Carol Loescher

John 12:46 “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on Me should not abide in darkness.”

There are grades of poverty and degrees of darkness. At first, I took her for a woman who was mentally ill. She sat in the dust, rolled in the dirt, and gave no thought to her appear­ance. Her filthy clothes were torn and hung loosely on her equally dirty body. In a wild moment, she would toss red dirt in her disheveled hair. Close beside her, a dog wandered around aimlessly and seemed to possess a keener mind than hers.

Walter and I encountered the women when we walked to a funeral in our neighborhood. A crowd had gathered, and she was seated on the ground not far from the gaping grave. Most people were ignoring her. Like them, Walter and I walked quietly past her without even acknowledging her presence. The sun was hot, and we found a seat on a crude wooden bench in the shade. I launched into conver­sation with a lady seated next to me and was shocked to learn that the woman on the ground was the mother of the deceased! Grief had driven her to anguish and despair. Moreover, it was whispered widely that she was responsible for her son’s death. Had she not left her husband? Had she not been warned that abandoning her family would lead to something terrible? Most of the mourners seemed not to mourn at all. Apparently, the young man had died of an asthma attack. “Status asthmaticus” was merely the means of his death, but to the crowd of spectators, it was not the cause of death.

Death seemed to shroud her like a blanket. She sat in the middle of “mourners” who most­ly watched her from a distance. On either side of her, mounds of dirt marked the graves of her sons and daughters. Among them was the husband that she had abandoned years previously. The son in the coffin was her last living child. She had no surviving immediate family, but she did have a name, and it was Janet.

There is something darker than blackness. It is the suffocating absence of light. In rare lucid moments, Janet rose from the ground with a handful of tattered photos. Shuffling up to someone in the crowd, she would point sadly to the picture: “Oh, what a beauti­ful daughter; oh, what a fine son!” Walter and I could not understand the words that she spoke when she hobbled our direction. Clutching the photo of a young lady, she pressed it into my hands. She did not need a translator to communicate her sorrow.

Janet was dazed with fresh grief kindled by the photos, but a few friends spoke kindly to her. Even among those who blamed her, pity prompted tears. Some were not as sympa­thetic. The “pastor” in attendance refused to “preach” at the funeral because the deceased had not been baptized. Men in the crowd were marshaled to transport the coffin to the grave. With­out ceremony, it was lowered into the earth. A small group of women encircled Janet as the coffin disappeared with her son. Near the edge of the circle, a little boy cried. The dead man was his father. A kind woman tended to the young mourner while others sang hymns in the local dialect. Surpris­ingly, Janet stood and joined the chorale. Their voices did not mask the sound of dirt on the coffin.

We left her there. But she did not leave our thoughts. A few days after the burial, I walked down the same dirt path. With my Bible, a bag of rice, and photos of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, I returned to the burial scene. A neighbor accompanied me to the mud-bricked house so that she could translate for me. Mourners, in Cameroon, sit for a season on the floor to express their grief and show deference for the dead, so I was not surprised to find Janet seated on the ground when we arrived. However, she was no longer beside the grave but, rather, inside her house. She wore the same clothes but not the same expression. Her hair, like her thoughts, was more orderly. The con­vulsion of anguish was over, and her mind had begun to focus again. I was a stranger to her, but she received me kindly. Four or five of her friends were seated on crude benches around her. I wanted to share my story and the images, so I sat in the dirt beside Janet.

With the help of my neighbor, I shared the life of Jesus. Everyone in the room listened carefully and occasionally offered comments. Janet loved the images and made a clicking sound in her throat of approval when Jesus conquered death and rose from the grave. The story was not new to her. In fact, she told me (through the translator) that she had already put her hope and confidence in the Lord. We talked about her son: Could she dare to hope that he might be in Heaven without a proper bap­tism? I explained that God receives us by faith, not works. By now, her friends were equally drawn into the conversation. They nodded their approval, but the idea seemed new to them. We talked of the love of God for sinful men; of His works, not ours; of His grace, not our merit.

Light and hope crept back into her heart, and the gloom receded a little. When the story was fin­ished, a man on a bench told me that Janet wanted to “give” me something. I felt uncomfortable. Janet was poor, her home was pitiful, and her suffering was profound. I did not want to impover­ish her further, but she proposed something priceless that had no monetary value. Janet wanted to sing to me! Her sacrifice of praise was strange and beautiful. The African words and melody made the music magical. As she lifted her alto voice, friends in the room joined in and harmonized. In that moment, I felt the richness and privilege of missions. The light of the Gospel reached into the dark recesses of Janet’s heart and brought hope.

Jesus is no stranger to suffering. His cradle was as crude as Janet’s bed, and the stable as simple as her mud-bricked home. He, too, was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. He conquered sin and the grave. Janet is not the only one singing His worth:

And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy . . . for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Revelation 5:9

Carol Loescher serves with her husband Walter in Cameroon. The Loeschers are sent out by Gospel Fellowship Association Missions.

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