Wednesday, September 26, 2012


A Little Coffin in Use

Nineteen years of memories – What do I see when I close my eyes?   

                The dearest of Africa’s Great Lake’s memories – dance, celebrations, bountiful meals, weddings, baptisms, Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter, football (soccer)goals, cheering crowds, and children’s laughter.

                Yet a few memories haunt to the deepest part of my soul.   Some memories still cross my mind that causes my body to jerk and shake.   Old pastoral literature occasionally pulls the veil off of pastor’s souls to disclose that we are wounded healers (David Hansen and Henry Nouwen have written wonders on these matters.)    Some have compared our wounds to those of wounded soldiers in a war.    Old missionaries remind me that we came to a battle.   We’ll be scared if we wade into the fight.   In the still moments we close our eyes and feel again the wounds of battle.

                Pastors are to be men of love.   Yet sometimes we hate.    The dictionary defines hate as to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; and detest (    The dictionary does not do justice to pastoral hatred.   The things I hate I hate with much more intensity than words can describe.

                Memories of missionary pastoral hatred occasionally waken my sleep.    I hate little coffins.

                Before getting on a plane to Kampala, Uganda in 1993 I read the news.    Some research concluded as much as 30% of Uganda’s adult population in the early 1990’s was HIV positive.    Could such startling statistics be true?

                Jana, Sophia, and I arrived in Entebbe Airport in March 1993.   Light bulbs hung from wires in customs.    Uganda was recovering from years of chaos.    Debra Tarbet Carr met us.   We bundled our luggage in a Toyota Corolla Hatchback.    Then we began the journey.   We left “the new airport,” and drove past “the old.”   Debra knew my historical mind, and pointed out the airport where Israel’s famous “Raid on Entebbe” took place.   Then we drove past the banana plantations and small dukas (kiosks and shops) that dotted the old Entebbe road.

                Then we reached Katwe, the edge of Kampala.   Katwe was the small scale industrial hub of Kampala.   Expatriate friends referred to it as the wal-martization of Uganda.   (Kampala was just a big Wal-Mart store.   All you needed was to find the section of town that sold what you needed and start looking.) Katwe had a section of gates.   The competitors were right next to one another with a plethora of options.   Katwe had a section of furniture.   Again, the competitors were next to one another with bountiful options.  
Coffins being manufactured in Kampala, Uganda
Katwe also had a startling coffin section.    I hope my memory is colored by years and culture shock, but I remember it stretching for hundreds of meters.    The number of coffins was sobering.    AIDS was obviously devastating Uganda.    I believe in the theory of understanding called, “Follow the money.”   If one followed the economic boom of Uganda in the early 1990’s one had to notice the booming funeral industry.   Death was everywhere.    Within the hundreds of coffins were small child sized coffins.    Hatred for those coffins was the only emotion I could feel.    AIDS was an indiscriminate killer.

Our first missionary task was “office bouncing.”   Most missionaries hate it.   I thoroughly enjoy it.    Office bouncing is the gathering of legal documents.   It involves registering organizations, keeping their documents current, getting visas, paying taxes, etc…    The pragmatic key to office bouncing success is pastoral – make friends, pray, see the mundane as an opportunity to speak good words for the Lord.    

Over time those who bounce offices well are those of great influence.    Yet, office bouncing in Uganda in the early ‘90’s had one glitch to efficiency – the commonality of death.    

Africa’s Great Lakes culture at her best is one of community compassion.     We live in a web of social obligation.     When a member of our community is in trouble we drop everything and go to help.    Funerals are one of those moments.   Yet there is also a dark side to the practice of community compassion.   Some put on illusions out of fear.    For instance, if one does not attend a funeral some in the community will assume that missing one was actually the cause of another’s death.    AIDS changed Africa’s culture rapidly as urban myths were created.     Why did we have so many deaths?   Some concluded it was witchcraft and poison.   Thus from both fear and compassion each death stopped all in the deceased’s social web.

Pragmatically, it meant office bouncing was frequently a hurry and wait, start and stop, series of visits.   Office bouncing frequently was met with vacant offices as bureaucrats left work to attend funerals.

With much of the death one could find marginal reasonableness, self-justification, and the illusions of prophetic hope.    I remember messages in Balokole (evangelical / “saved”) churches that predicted a glorious Balokole coming day.    “You see AIDS kills the immoral.   It is God’s judgment.   In a time to come only “the saved” will remain.   We will rule.”

Little coffins were not so easy to justify.  How does one explain the death of children in a world of self-justification?

I hoped to never know a little coffin.

Besides the first days in Uganda’s startle of little coffins I also first heard automatic gun fire while staying at Rubaga Social Training Centre (a guest house run by the Catholic Church.)   I pushed Jana and Sophia to the ground while the crowd laughed at me.    The sound of gunfire would become ordinary over the years, but at first it was startling.    My Ugandan friends explained that gunfire is usually just watchman or police shooting in the air to frighten a suspected thief.    The wise were home at night inside a locked door, a gated compound, and employed someone to watch their home through the night.    For our first year in Uganda many privately hired policemen to be personal body guards.    

Our first home was located just two doors down from a police post so I hired policemen to guard our home.    They were disappointing.    I found them asleep.   I found them drunk.    I needed to make a change.

One of the wonders in the early ‘90’s Uganda was the RC system.    When Museveni was in the bush fighting a guerrilla war (1981-1986) eventually the hit and run maneuvers faced the pragmatic task of governing.    When Museveni’s enemies were thoroughly defeated in a region there was no need to run after the attacks.   Now the civilian population needed leadership with roots.    His guerrilla army could not step into the void of governing and continue the battles.    Thus he instituted a highly empowered local leadership structure called the Resistance Committee (RC) System.   Among roughly 4,000 people in a community nine would be elected locally to manage the affairs of a community.    Their responsibilities ranged from repairing roads to marital counseling to maintaining the security of a community.   After January 26, 1981 when the National Resistance Army captured Kampala, the RC system became the governing structure of Uganda.

My Abilene Christian University days were shared with Charles Guma, a Ugandan student.   Guma was with us in Uganda as we started.   One of his counsels was to quickly introduce ourselves to our RC Committee.   We became friends quickly with David Muwonge, our RC Chairman.    David became a father like figure to us.

As we struggled to know what to do with the drunken and sleeping policemen guarding our home, David suggested making a new hire.   He brought to our home, Mzee (wise old man) Lasto.   Introductions were shared.   Lasto had immigrated to Uganda from Tanzania many years prior.   He had married a Muganda woman.   He had children and grandchildren.   He had made his living as an askari (watchman).   David told me that Lasto did not drink, could stay awake long hours, and was faithful.   I chose to trust David thus I chose to trust Lasto.    We surprised Lasto by telling him the job started that night.   He asked what weapons we would provide.   At the time we had none.    Lasto surprised us as he began collecting rocks, and making piles at strategic locations.  If a thief entered our compound that night he would have been pelted by rocks from our askari hidden in shadows.  Lasto was resilient and would not be caught off guard.  

The following morning I greeted Lasto with my limited Kiswahili, “Mzee, habari ya asubuhi?   (Wise, old man; how was your night?”   He responded with, “Mzuri sana (Very good.)”  The next evening when he came to work, I greeted him, “Habari, mzee (Wise, old man; how are you?)”   He responded, “Mzuri sana (Very good.)”

Sophia playing with Lydia Bagira's son, Joel
These greetings became our daily rituals.   On occasion, Lasto would interrupt ritual and protocol.    One night came Jana and I attempted to parent infants like Americans.    Sophia was always a snuggler.   She was also a “snack and nap kid.”   Parenting Sophia as an infant meant she was always in physical contact with us.   When she was hungry she cried.   By Jana nursing Sophia she was quickly appeased and fell asleep.   Then a short time later the process began again.    As we moved to Uganda we finally concluded it was time for Sophia to sleep alone.    American Christian parenting books assured us this was the right step.   We must place Sophia in her crib and let “her cry it out.”   

The following morning, Lasto followed the greeting with, “Habari mtoto (How is the child)?”  When I responded, “Mzuri (good),”  Lasto connected the dots.   We had let a child cry through the night.    All African protocol and employer / employee institutional authority was lost.    I’m sure Lasto’s mind was filled with questions about what kind of cruel race and family we must represent.     African wisdom insists on nurturing and touching children.    Only in the most destitute of situations would one not do all one could to comfort a crying child.    Lasto let me have it.    My Kiswahili was not good enough to follow Lasto’s tirade, but I learned my lesson.    Sophia would never again cry through the night.   She would sleep with us and snack and nap until she decided that she was old enough to sleep on her own.

Mzee Lasto loved children.

Sophia began to walk beating and dancing to an African drum.   Sophia began to speak.    She quickly caught on to preferred languages.    Jana and I preferred English.   Her first words to us were in English.   Our Ugandan staff preferred Luganda.   Her first words to them were in Luganda.    Mzee Lasto preferred Kiswahili.   Her first words to Lasto were in Kiswahili.

Our family settled into routine.

One evening the routine fell into tragedy.    When I greeted Lasto with, “Habari, Mzee? (How are you, wise old man?)”   Lasto responded, “Mbaya.   Mbaya sana (Bad.   Very bad.)”    

I inquired with my best Kiswahili and heard the word I hoped to never hear, “Mtoto (child).”   Something very bad had happened to a child.

I called Jana and Lydia Bagira (whose Kiswahili was better than mine) to inquire what misfortune had befallen a child.    The startling translation was death.    Mzee Lasto’s infant granddaughter had died.   In fact, she had died of AIDS.    Mbaya.   Mbaya sana were the only words fitting to describe such tragedy.    We would see a little coffin in use.    I hate little coffins.

When my hatred for little coffins met pastoral love I volunteered to transport the little coffin with an infant’s body to the home village.   I also offered to preach the funeral sermon.

Pastoral hatred is a haunting journey.    Memories of old filled my mind.

One of my favorite missions’ professors at Abilene Christian University, Wendell Broom once remarked, “There is no problem the resurrection cannot solve.”

Jesus raises Jairus' daughter
The Senior Minister at our overseeing congregation at that point in our Uganda journey, Dr. Royce Dickinson seemed to always find his way to stories of the resurrection as he preached.   

The only way to make sense of the pastoral hatred of little coffins this side of heaven was in the resurrection.

Death is a separation of the spirit of life from our bodies.    It can be a sweet transition.   Some are so privileged to live upon this earth that they can remark, "LIFE SHOULD NOT BE A JOURNEY TO THE GRAVE WITH THE INTENTION OF ARRIVING SAFELY IN AN ATTRACTIVE WELL PRESERVED BODY... BUT RATHER TO SKID IN SIDEWAYS, CHOCOLATE IN ONE HAND, BIBLE IN THE OTHER, THOROUGHLY USED UP, TOTALLY WORN OUT & SCREAMING, "WOO HOO ... WHAT A RIDE!  (Again a Wendell Broom quote.)”

Yet, death also is horrible.   In a world without morticians it stinks.    It is painful.   It is final.  Death of innocent children to a disease that sucks out all pleasures of this earth is atrocious.   I hate little coffins.   I believe my boss also hates little coffins.

There are 4 stories of resurrection in the Gospels.   Two are of children.   One is of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus.   The final one is of the Lord Jesus himself.    My Boss is the Resurrection.    He also hates little coffins.

A sick child on the verge of death makes us drop all pretension and protocol.   A Jewish religious leader named Jairus came in desperation asking for the Lord’s healing of his daughter (Mark 5:21-43).    At first it seemed too late.   When the crowds told Jairus that his daughter had died and it was time to cease bothering Jesus, the master teacher; Jesus, the BOSS OF THE LIVING AND DEAD told Jairus to not fear but believe.   Then the Lord went with an intimate group of mentorees and family to touch the 12 year old little girl.  Then he pulled her by the hand to her feet.    The crowd initially laughed at Jesus courage to proclaim the girl was just asleep.   Now they were astounded.    Because Jesus hates little coffins He is the Resurrection.

Jesus Raises Widow's Son
Another time my Boss entered the town of Nain.   It was a chaotic moment.   Jesus entered with a crowd.   Another crowd was leaving.   Jesus’ crowd of anticipation met a crowd grieving with a widow who had lost her only son.   I can’t imagine this woman’s grief.    Academic minds will quickly point out that a widow who lost her only son was completely on her own after the funeral.    Economic disaster with utter loneliness would follow this widow to the grave.    Jesus must have hated that coffin.   He told the widow not to cry.   He touched the coffin.   He commanded the young man to arise.   Because Jesus hates little coffins He is the Resurrection.

Shortly before Jesus entered Jerusalem to begin the Passion he met dear friends, Mary and Martha, who had just lost their brother, Lazarus (John 11).    Again, the situation is full of confusion.   Grief throws humanity into loss and despair.   In the midst of this mystery, timeless truths are spoken and lived.    A Resurrection day is coming.   Jesus, my Boss is the Resurrection.   My Boss hates coffins.   My Boss loves from the deepest part of His heart.   He wept for His friend’s loss.   He weeps for our loss too.   Out of this Divine Anger and Grief comes true Power.   He commanded Lazarus to arise.   My Boss is the Boss of the Living and The Dead.   Lazarus rose. 

Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead
All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.   I believe it to my core.   My hatred of little coffins only can be consoled by the hope of a Resurrection.   

Thus early in the morning in 1993 I went with David Muwonge to Mzee Lasto’s home.   We picked up a little coffin that contained the infant body of Mzee Lasto’s granddaughter.    We placed it on the roof rack of my Toyota 4WD Lite Ace.  Then we preached the Resurrection in deed.

The funeral industry in Uganda made a killing on transporting bodies.    Many AIDS sufferers came to Kampala in the closing days of life to get whatever medical treatment could be found.    The treatments were generally better than the village, but still pathetic compared to North America or Western Europe.   After the dying breaths the deceased’s community would need to transport the body to the home village for burial.    Only the richest of rich had their own transport.   Some relied on connections with Kampala’s elite who may loan a vehicle to extended family for transport.   However, many were stuck.   Thus the opportunistic business people gouged the grieving with extravagant prices to transport a body to the home village for burial.   

Our old Toyota Lite Ace at Work
David and I tied the little coffin to the top of my roof rack.   The fuel was my gift.   None of my friends would be gouged in grief.   I hate little coffins and the actions of little coffin profiteers.

A crowd gathered around my vehicle and began to place eggs under the wheels.   Thankfully, I had sat at the feet of missionary bzee like Shawn Tyler, Monte Cox, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Gaston Tarbet.   I knew the message of the eggs.   It was pure animism, paganism, and an affront to my Boss.     The eggs were sacrifices to hovering spirits.   They were an attempt to appease malicious spirits intent on bringing misfortune to our journey with a community of those grieving for the loss contained in the little coffin.   I spoke an angry message.   It is one of the few times where I’m still convinced my anger was my boss’.    The eggs were gone.   We said a prayer trusting my Boss’ protection.

We reached the home village.    I was seated on a chair among the bzee (wise old men).   The community offered a chair to Jana.   My wise wife refused the chair.   She sat on the ground with the women and children.   The crowd giggled and then clapped.    My wise wife’s humility had earned both her and me immense moral authority.   She refused to take honor that was simply about race.   She knew by sitting with her Ugandan peers she showed honor to the family.   By giving honor to the family she won their respect.

Mzee Lasto introduced me to the village crowd as, "Mukama wange, Daudi Jenkins (My Lord, David Jenkins.)   I was shocked to be assigned a title of divinity.    Then I asked David Muwonge quietly if I had hear correctly.   "Yes," he replied.    "You are mzee Lasto's boss."   The simple introduction would have profound impact on my view of discipleship.

I remembered Royce Dickinson discussing church worship debates in the USA.   He pointed out that American culture has no gestures to communicate honor.   Americans also seem to have no language to communicate submission and honor.   Lasto in one introduction taught me that Lordship is about honor and submission to a boss as well as to divinity.

A Young Dave Preaching in a Ugandan Village
Speeches were made.  I was asked to preach.   I spoke the simple old message of the Gospel.   I told the stories of the Resurrection.   I prayed the 23rd Psalm to comfort.   I sat down.

The little coffin was lowered into the grave.   We each threw a handful of dirt into the grave.  Then the village laborers filled it to the top.   It was over.

We had a meal.   We drank chai.   We journeyed back to Kampala.

A few months later, Mzee Lasto again told me, “Mbaya.   Mbaya sana (Bad.  Very Bad.)”   When I inquired I was told, “Mtoto.”   When Jana and Lydia translated we found that Mzee Lasto’s daughter had died of AIDS.    Her coffin was not little.   We went through the same ritual with the same message again.

My most startling memory of the day of Mzee Lasto’s daughter’s funeral was lifting her coffin to the top of my car.   The coffin was light.   The lift was easy.   Ugandans called AIDS “Slim.”   Mzee Lasto’s daughter had the substance of life sucked from her body in her last days.  Her coffin was so light it seemed to not hold an adult body.

A few months later we were in the USA on furlough.   News came to us of an impending great tragedy.   Mzee Lasto was sick.   A short time later news came that Mzee Lasto had passed.   Slim had caught him.   Mzee Lasto died of AIDS.  In one year a granddaughter, daughter, and grandfather had all died.   AIDS was an indiscriminate killer.

I hate little coffins.    My Boss is the Resurrection.

Pastoral hatred does many things.    Those who know me best remark of my remarkable ability to give and receive love.   I know my own dark demons too well to take that title.    Yet, those few intimate friends also note that my love sometimes comes out as hatred.

I hate little coffins.    That hatred comes from my Boss.  Here are some other matters that I hate:

I hate listening to religious gatherings that judge victims and superimpose victory.   AIDS would not develop a master Balokole race in Uganda.    All would suffer.   All would someday bow to my Boss.   He is the only One Righteous.

I hate the practice of polygamy.   I’ve loved many polygamous friends.   Yet, the consequences of polygamy are family dysfunction and death.   Little coffins thrive in polygamous families.

I hate my Kizungu (Western) culture of serial adultery and divorce.   It is ethically one step below polygamy.   My polygamous friends attempt to care for all their wives and children.    My Bazungu (White race) friends who practice serial adultery and divorce leave more shattered relationships and lives than my African friends.   If they are Balokole serial adulterers they also become masters of manipulation and deception.   The consequences to children are horrendous.

I hate discos and bars that lure youth into sexual immorality.  Even with condom proselytism we cannot escape that a thin piece of plastic can never protect the human heart.   We were designed to mate for life.   Any relationship that denies that truth of created order will become a disaster.

I hate little coffins.

Yet, those little coffins have given me startling love.

Jesus After Resurrection Sharing Holy Communion with Disciples
I love the faithful.   I cannot conceptualize that anyone seeking the spiritual is my enemy.   Little coffins showed me the profound commonality of human life.   Denominational identity is irrelevant squabbling for those who trust in my Boss’ Resurrection.

I love children.   I’ve always done all I can so they can thrive.   I want to build institutions to bless them for generations.

I love youth.  I love their athletic feats.   I love their music and dance.   I love their courage.   I love their intelligent search for knowledge.

In these painful moments I close my eyes.   My memories overwhelm me.   As my body shakes comes forth my deepest beliefs, hopes, and actions.

In 19 years in Africa I’ve only twice performed a funeral with a little coffin.    I’ve begged God for children’s lives many times.   I can’t answer the question of why twice God was silent.    Yet, I do believe in my Boss’ Resurrection. 

Though I hate little coffins, my Boss is the Resurrection.

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