Derek and Celesta, along with their two daughters, are spending five months working and living in Uganda this year. Derek reflects on the ways he has already been changed by their experience. They will return to our hub in Antioch in October.
Since our arrival in East Africa, funeral ceremonies have been an all too common reality. We arrived on June 12th, and in just over one week, we have been invited to three funerals. One in particular – in Embu, Kenya – was especially personal for me. Allen, a dear friend of mine since 2006, lost his 8 year old son, Dennis. The young boy died as the result of a chronic condition related to his kidneys. Being a father, I was overwhelmed with grief as I empathized with my friends. Tears filled my eyes as I watched Dennis’s mother, Karimi, say goodbye to her son, trying her best to hold back the pain she felt from losing her child.
The child and his family had been battling the illness for the past three years. During this process, they used all the money they had to take him to various medical facilities. They arrived at Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi, clinging to the hope that this would be the place where they could find help. Sadly, a week later Dennis passed away.
Prior to this, I had never been to a funeral service in Africa. To my surprise, I was asked to preach a sermon. I felt the heavy responsibility to provide words of comfort and hope for Allen, Karimi, and their two remaining sons. At the same time, I knew that if my words were to be of any encouragement, they must be directed by the things I have learned from God’s Word.
As I was praying about what I should say in such a time, I felt the need to be brief, for the sake of the family. I also felt the need to communicate a message that would contrast that which is typically preached at Christian funerals in Africa. In such a setting, many preachers feel the need to proclaim a message focused on salvation from hell. These sermons are far too often disconnected from the very real emotional needs of those who are grieving. What mother wants to sit through an hour long sermon that has nothing to do with the pain she is currently feeling?
As I looked into the eyes of those who were hurting, I knew that they needed this time to mourn. They needed to know that at the other end of their mourning God would be their comforter. They needed to hear the great truth that we see demonstrated in the life of Jesus: God himself feels their pain. God himself grieves over the loss of a human life (John 11). I used this opportunity to communicate a message of God’s incredible compassion – his ability to “suffer with.” I communicated to Allen's family that our LORD himself has experienced our pain and also suffers when we suffer. I then encouraged those in the community around Allen's family to assist them during this time of need. It wasn’t a long sermon, but I pray it communicated a comfort that can only come from God.
As the ceremony continued, women sang songs of comfort and praise to our LORD. At times their emotions were so strong that they were unable to continue singing. This entire experience was one that I will never forget. I was reminded of our responsibility as the people of God to communicate the encouragement and hope of our God to those who are hurting, even in the face of death.
By Derek Bargatze