Suffering and loss figure more prominently in Tanzania than the UK. Life expectancy is just over 50. Two friends of mine died in the last year or so - they were 30 and 50. I recently went to the funeral of the five-year-old grandchild of another friend and, just before I left, a good friend lost his year-old son to malaria.
Preventable diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera and malaria inflict devastation on families and communities. For many, healthcare is basic and not affordable.
As a mission partner, the urge is always there to ‘do something’. I want to provide a solution, offer help or give money. I have the nagging feeling that my friends would still be alive if they’d had access to the healthcare available to me. Often I was only able to contribute a little towards hospital fees or other expenses.
We want to meet all the needs and find all the answers. As mission partners, denying ourselves sometimes means conceding that we can’t always do that. It can be painful but we have to accept that ‘for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1) and that our ways are not necessarily God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8). We are challenged not only to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ but also to ‘weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15).
I'm now back in the UK, serving as curate at a church in Blackburn. My first funeral visit since I returned was quite a shock. As I approached the house I had to check the address - it was too quiet! The door was answered by the widow and her two grown-up children. We talked quietly, unhurried, over a cup of tea, pausing now and again when one or more were overcome by grief.
In Tanzania, grief is more of a slap in the face than a private burying of face in hands. When somebody dies the whole neighbourhood decamps to the house to share the family’s grief. There is weeping and wailing, hymns are sung, conversations continue, contributions are made and everybody is fed. It’s raw, emotional and concentrated.
There are many strengths to this but I was never entirely at home with it. I struggled as I was unable to have a time of reflection or to offer what I considered to be significant consolation to the bereaved.
Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to ‘deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark.8:34). I think a mission partner is stretched to do that as they live in a different culture. For me, grief is more comfortable here in the UK: I prefer the quiet and the intimate. That is perhaps a reflection of my character and upbringing: it’s who I am. In Tanzania I had to learn to deny myself, my preferences and my self-importance. I had to simply accept and be one of the many, part of the wider community united in grief.
Picture: The community gathering together for a funeral in Tanzania
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