Just two days ago my wonderful Uncle Andrew died. Although I was not close with him myself, my parents and also my sister were, and he contributed much to their lives especially in recent years. Our prayers, sorrow and gratitude are with his family, especially his wife Janice and children Katie, Emma and Hamish.
Here in Uganda, death is far more common than in New Zealand and it confronts us continually. Our neighbour Lucy is tightly connected to our surrounding community, and hardly a month goes by where she doesn’t attend a funeral – or a wedding. There are more deadly illnesses here that affect younger people, and Uganda’s weak health system with low numbers of health workers and poor medicine availability fails to prevent too many unnecessary deaths.
So I encounter death all too often through my work. I’ll never forget last year when I got a call from a nurse in one of our remote OneDay Health centers with the bad news that a young man had been bitten by a snake. His family refused to take him to hospital due to lack of money, and after a few hours he died at the health center. I’m proud of our 33 nurses ina their remote OneDay health centers, that while they often brush with death they are in the everyday business of saving lives. Through offering women life through family planning and antenatal care, curing malaria and pneumonia, and life saving emergency medication. It seems a strange juxtaposition that just today we sent out our annual report celebrating 100,000 patients treated in the most remote areas of Uganda, while at the same time I mourn my uncle and consider easter.
Each time I encounter death I am struck by an obvious yet easily ignored truth. Life is temporary. I can’t help but be reminded both of the precious time we have and of our own mortality. A good friend of my uncle just shared with me.
“We are all reminded that our time on earth is temporary so we must use it well.”
Or in the words of Gandalf “All we have to do is decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Death and life can feel so close. The space between is thin, even at our first breath. The most dangerous moment in all of our lives (and our mothers’) is the very moment of our birth. At that borderline both overflowing joy and deep sorrow are near realities, hanging in the balance.
And of course we don’t know how long that time is. Many of the greatest people have had their lives cut too short, some due to their greatness. Kurt Cobain died before 30. Martin Luther King was murdered before he reached 40. Ugandan Bishop Janani Luwum was martyred before 60 for standing up to Idi Amin’s corrupt government. Uncle Andrew was only 69.
As a Jesus follower this paradox comes home to me even more this weekend. He died far too young in his mid thirties, with only 3 years to carry out his mission and do all the stuff we’ve heard about. Call his disciples, bring new life and healing to physical, spiritual and emotional wounds, start a world changing movement and then be betrayed by one of his closest friends. In this strange story Jesus went willingly to his own death, to provide a new kind of life for everyone. To redeem not through power or violence, but through weakness and sacrifice. To offer us a life full of unlikely yet beautiful paradoxes. A life where we should somehow put others above ourselves (still haven’t figured that out). A life which is eternal but starts now. A life where death remains abhorrent but has somehow been overcome and need no longer be feared. A life which fills and covers that space in between our earthly life and death.
So as I mourn Andrew, remember Easter and keep our sacrificial remote nurses in my heart, I am filled with sorrow. But not despair, because of a belief I hold close to my soul. I live in hope that life is eternal, not ending after physical death. And when I encounter that space between life and death, I try and hold my faith within the profound mystery of what is, and what is to come.
“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.” Paul – from a prison cell