Meet John. He has worked with the maintenance team here at Kudjip for 4ish years now, first on building projects, then on our grounds crew cutting grass and collecting rubbish most of his days. In the 1.5 years I’ve been in PNG, John has never complained, and has rarely asked for anything. At our daily morning worship in the workshop, his soft, airy voice occasionally jumps an octave and can be heard above the chorus of others with distinction. John’s favorite pastime is smiling, which shows off a large gap his front tooth used to fill. He loves to have his picture taken, and make others laugh. He wants to return to school to get his training certificate in carpentry. He loves Jesus, and calmly yet passionately shares about his faith when called upon. He is a son, a brother, a father, and a darn good friend.
Yesterday, I awoke to a text message informing me that John was dead. The day prior was PNG’s National Repentance Day, a day set aside for the citizens of PNG to “talk sorry” and repent of their wrongs. Late that night, John attempted to help prevent his drunk family member from getting into trouble and, amidst a chaotic crowd, was stabbed in the head by the one he had come to help. Further, John had been using his minimum wage earnings to help pay for his now killer’s university education.
Our hospital’s morgue is a single room concrete structure with the sole purpose of housing fresh death and raw mourning. Ironically, it is located immediately adjacent to the maternity ward, where my wife works to bring new life into this world daily. I stood outside its doors for hours as the sound of wailing ebbed and flowed from those concrete walls with the steady trickle of family members, co-workers, and friends arriving. I wanted to go in. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t bring myself to do either. John’s father arrived from another province. He is a pastor. I didn’t need to ask who he was – his facial resemblance to his son was stark. I stood there with my guys. We told our versions of the circulating stories surrounding his death, where we were when we heard, who had come, etc. Of course, none of those things mattered, but such conversation seemed the only acceptable way to avoid the question in most of our hearts…. where is God in this?
Good things in life take time. If character, courage, patience, love, and positive change require hard work and sacrifice, why does evil get away with bearing its fruit so quickly and effortlessly? Loss is sudden. It is permanent. It is uncontrollable, unavoidable, and imminent. And where is God when it strikes? This is a question the ages have yet to answer sufficiently, as every truth-seeking man has asked it at one time or another. I wonder, however, if maybe our peripheral vision is closed to God in moments of suffering and our blurred tunnel vision is looking in the wrong direction for Him. Like being trapped in a hole, we spend these moments looking upward toward the light for help from God to pull us out, when in actuality He is not above, He is beside. He is weeping with us, surrounded by dark muddy walls. In my humanness, I suspect I have fallen prey to the assumption that a good God couldn’t possibly co-exist in the same space as such evil and loss. On the contrary, I believe I’m beginning to slowly understand that this space of suffering is exactly where a good God must exist – in the midst of injustice and evil, not above or without it. It is frustrating that darkness is still there, but what was true in the light is still true in the dark – He is good and kind, and He cares for this heart. He weeps with me.
“The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see His love. God is suffering love. So suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.” ~ Nicolas Wolterstorff
The workshop will feel empty tomorrow as our maintenance team trudges back into the routine. We’ll post John’s picture on his locker and look forward to seeing him in heaven someday. We’ll attend the haus krai (funeral), make contributions, give a few speeches, and “talk sorry” to the family. I’ll cry a little, but not as much as I wish I could or feel I should. We’ll follow the cultural customs for grieving, which are good and right, but none of it will change the truth that John won’t be riding around in the back of a dump truck tomorrow manifesting joy amongst our community. His absence will sting for a while, and then time will ease the sting. Grief is a powerful thing, but it cannot erase the suffering of this world, and therefore the value of the work to bring hope and restoration remains. In other words, work mission must go yet. And thus, we will carry on, led by the tears of the Father beside us, and the memory of that big toothless smile…
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” ~ Pirkei Avot