Every once in a while life is especially sucky. Like this weekend, for instance.
This weekend, Francis* came back to our village. Francis came back to our village, and now everybody is upset. And not the kind of upset that can be resolved over a cup of coffee and a short chat. This is the kind of agitation that has everybody arming themselves with bows and arrows and spears before they walk to their gardens. This is the kind of tension that has our people chasing strangers through the bush. This is the kind of anxiety that keeps people up at night, terrified of what might happen to them if they don’t stay alert and on guard. And it’s all because of Francis.
I’ve talked with the guy on several occasions, and I always thought he was pretty cool, so it’s a little weird having him as the focal point of so much hostility. He’s just about my age, with a wife and three little kids. His story is pretty similar to everyone else’s in our village: He moved his family way out here, away from trade stores, schools, and an aide station, because he wanted to hear God’s talk. He put up with ridicule and mockery from those living back along the river, because he wanted the life-changing truth that he believed would come when we finally told him God’s Story in his heart language.
He helped us mill our timber and build our houses, he helped our partners learn his language, and he’s waited patiently for over three years to hear this talk. And then, two weeks ago, he left with a couple of his in-laws to go to town, and now that he’s come back, everybody’s ticked.
And, I suppose I should clarify, no one is upset that he came back. They’re upset with HOW he came back. Francis left our village in a chopper, and he came back in a coffin.
It turns out he’d had cerebral malaria for three weeks, but no one ever told us until the morning he started screaming uncontrollably in pain and crying for his deceased mother. By the time we were able to get a chopper called in and send him out to the hospital, he had gone unconscious. Two days later he was dead.
Now, a week and two days later, they’ve finally been able to transport his body back from town (via bus, canoe, and rugged swampy trails). Our village is devastated. A strong young man, with a wife and kids, is gone, and the cause of his death was totally preventable (though not in the way you would think). Every death, in fact, is preventable. No one ever dies here. They are killed. Even doctors talk like this. At least the doctor who treated Francis did. “Malaria killed him.” he said. “Though malaria and sorcery are basically the same thing. It’s often hard to distinguish between the two.”
Now the community is trying to figure out who killed Francis. They’ve already talked together and “figured out” that it was someone from their old enemy tribe. Later today, they’re going to try to channel Francis’ spirit through a piece of bamboo and see if they can get a more specific answer. I don’t know what they’re planning on doing after that. In the meantime, every day we hear multiple reports of “sorcerers” that have been chased away from the village.
The whole thing’s been hard on our team as well, though our thinking follows a different path. When we came here, we knew that every family in our village was here because they wanted to hear God’s Word. We hear it from their lips almost every day. They desperately want to hear God’s talk in their language. They want to make sense the convoluted garbage that has come to them through the trade language. But we don’t know the language well enough to tell them yet. And now, one of these amazing people is dead.
Francis was never able to hear about Jesus. He wanted to, but he never did. Our team is easily still a year away from being able to present the story of redemption to his people. And yet, as I looked at his lifeless face this morning, before we put him in the ground, it occurred to me: It didn’t have to be this way. Francis didn’t die a year before the Gospel came to his people. He died SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS** after the Gospel SHOULD have come to his people!
We are living more than 2,000 years after Christ first told His followers to take news of His salvation to every tongue, tribe, and nation. Let’s be honest, it’s just plain STUPID that there are still entire language populations that don’t have access to that message!
It breaks my heart that Francis died cut off from God, especially knowing that he wanted the Gospel so badly, but for as much as it hurts me to think about it, I’m pretty sure it hurts our Father even more. Every day people are dying who SHOULD have heard about Jesus, but didn’t, because we (the Church) have failed to take the message to them. Every day God pleads with His people, through His Word. His message is clear: He wants us to GO TO THEM. To share His grace. To bring them hope. To bring them life.
His message hasn’t changed. He’s saying the same thing today as He was 2,000 years ago. He’s saying it to us. To me. To you. What’s your answer?
* I changed his name out of respect for his family.
** This is me being gracious. Frankly, I think every tribe should have been reached well before even that. Just think, if Christians in each “reached” language had gone to just one other language each generation, then the term “the unreached” would be a relic of the past.