The news of death mocking at our door found me as I traveled some thousand miles from home last week. It has taken me the whole of the week—listening to the pounding of its disjointed rhythm—before I could cull out its message.
Somewhere between 1 and 2 am Lual Atak called me, broken. I could barely understand his mangled words, “James Akech Wol—one of the very bright boys who just graduated from our first senior class on December 9th—suddenly dropped dead today. We are all in shock and we don’t even know what caused him to die.”
In fact, no one knows why James died; he simply died. When I handed him his yearbook during December’s High School graduation ceremony, less than two months ago, James was definitely happy, joyous, and free—high in both spirit and hope. As always, in the darkness of war and corruption where there is no real medical treatments much less the ability to diagnoses illnesses, many stories quickly broke out trying to “explain” the inexplicable, a seemingly tragic, senseless loss of life. Some claimed, “He seemed to be weak over Christmas break.” Others blamed, “Someone poisoned his food.” Those near him said, “He choked on a fish bone.” The brutal truth is, we may never know the truth; that’s the hell of war which Winston Churchill spoke of so often.
We do know that some days before James died, he had in fact, choked on a fishbone. Those around him did the customary patting on the back, and he seemed to be fine. The next day he complained of his throat itching and went to our clinic at New Life Ministry. The staff there could not find anything wrong. Lual Atak had James driven to Aweil, the capitol of our region where there is a “hospital”. The staff there said he had developed an infection from the bone and they needed to “scrape it off”. They did some sort of surgery. The third day, all his friends who visited him said he looked much better and even “took porridge” for breakfast. Later that same day, he died.
The night Lual Atak called me, we cried, grieved, and remembered the scrawny kid we pulled from the bush so many years ago. How far he had come. How lovely he had grown, inside and out. He was one of the boys that Lual Atak had under the trees on my first trip to Sudan in 2005. James was a double orphan and so the family of MWP is all he had. He was one of the orphans who slept under the open stars in the bush with Lual Atak and I. We homeless merry—at having found ourselves together—often chatted late into the night telling make-believe stories, since the believable world around us was unimaginable. Other times we huddled together, crying as echoes of hyenas eating other children off in the not-too-far distance bound us together forever as only the helpless can be knit. Lual Atak and I grieved until we finally came to a place of knowing a letting go had to begin. Begin.
For now, letting go involves faith, and faith causes us to grieve because as the Apostle Paul tells us, “Faith is holding onto that mysterious Thing which we have not yet seen or experienced for ourselves.” We grieve because we hold onto Hope for that which—as of today—we can only imagine. Colossians 3:2-3 tells us that we have died and our lives are hidden in Christ with God. When I truly rest in that, my grief softly folds into awe over new life, like a mother’s birth pangs give way to tears of joy when her new babe takes her first suckle. Author Marion Woodman puts it something like this: Just as our mother’s womb prepares us for this life—until her body knows it is time to push us out upon this earth—so is our life here and now acting as a great uterus preparing us for the Great Birth into the next life. Only this time, Death serves as our misunderstood, and according to the mindset of our mortal thinking—oft untimely—midwife. When the waters of this life break and death pulls us to the next, the flow can seem cruel and far-flung amiss. Perhaps, though, we have misunderstood. Just perhaps, rather than mocking us, death is birthing us into what we have always held at bay; only by faith in longing for what is to come will we glimpse what is promised, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
James was one of the few students from New Life Ministry that never received a personal sponsor. I remember one time him questioning me, “Why are the letters I receive every year from different people when my friends get new letters year-after-year from their “same same” international families—with pictures to know how they are changing year-by-year?” All I could tell James was to keep praying and God would unite him with just the right family. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote in his long-awaited hopes of receiving a sponsor: “I am James Akech Wol, from NLM, Nyamlel, South Sudan. I am an orphan. Arabs killed my parents and took our cattle during the time of the war. There we used to ran bush by bush for safety… I was bare-footed, naked, I was just having a small underwear. Soon James Lual took me to the market with other orphans and bought clothes for us including shoes…[At first] We studied under trees. In 2006 the school was built nicely and it became boarding school. From 2006 up to now we are in good life. Thanks.”
Today, we can only imagine faint images of James Akech reunited with his first-birth parents. Today, we see him showing Jesus how high he can jump when he dances, and we hear faint whispers of the sweet laughter of our Christ as He joins in the jumping dance of James’s life, and the celebration of James’ rebirth and union among the saints.
Brave Passengers, for that is all we are, this is the message I have culled from death, “Hold fast in that flow—even when it is fierce and your faith causes such grief–longing for the Thing yet to be seen. It is only your fear that mocks you, not I. My pang tears sharp indeed but all I strip away is the veil between this world and your new home.” Please remember Lual Atak, all of James’s teachers who’ve loved and invested in him these last 13 years, and especially his fellow classmates as they mourn not being able to dance with James during this next season of their lives. Even as their hearts labor heavy in their chest, each of James’ classmates are preparing for their college entrance exams. They were James’ family and his witnesses as the “untimely” midwife came for him.
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