“I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.”
In mission work, in life in general I suppose, there is always juxtaposition of states of being: joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and fear, beauty and horror. They exist side by side, often in the same situations. The tension then is trying to hold these separate experiences of the world at the same time, and recognizing the presence of God there in the midst of it.
In the last few weeks, the Episcopal Church of Sudan has suffered two terrible attacks. One in the diocese of Ezo (on the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic), and one in the diocese of Twic East (northern Jonglei state). In Ezo, there has been a renewed ferocity of attacks by the LRA (rebels/terrorists of northern Uganda) in the last few weeks. People have fled to the town center of Ezo for protection, but even there the LRA attacked. The bishop, the diocesan staff and 12 of their parishes are currently displaced. On August 12-13 there was an attack on Ezo town by the LRA. The ECS church was attacked, a lay reader was killed, and 8 Sunday school children were abducted by the LRA. The LRA are known for forcing children to become soldiers, and the torture of those they kill or abduct.
In Twic East diocese there was an attack by approximately a thousand heavily armed militia on the village of Wernyol and the surrounding area, on August 29. More than 40 people were killed in the area, and the ECS Archdeacon Joseph Mabior Garang, was among the dead. He was killed in the church in Wernyol while leading morning prayer.
More than two thousand have died in south Sudan in increasing internal conflict since April. See Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul’s appeal regarding these recent events: http://sudan.anglican.org/jongleiappeal.php
I received the news of these two attacks after returning from a wonderful trip to two dioceses on the border with northern Sudan last Saturday. The news, devastating in itself, also adds to the growing despair people here feel about the instability of the peace. Where is God in all this? How can we reconcile these events with the image of our loving God? And why is it that I come back to this question after asking it so many times in the past?
In the last 25 years, more than two and a half million people died in the war in south Sudan. The Church in Sudan is not a stranger to suffering and death, imprisonment and martyrdom. And yet many of the bishops and leaders in the church who I know are people full of a deep and contagious joy. Despite the existence of such horror and despair in the past and present, joy, peace, love, and hope are very much alive in the hearts of these men and women. I am learning from them that a heart full of this mysterious joy, is something that cannot be taught, but must be gained through prayer and experience. In the journey of our lives, each discovery of redemption, each experience of the presence of hope in the face of despair, love in the face of fear, joy in the face of pain, teaches us about God.
Here God is, in the joy and hope of those wise souls who have gone and continue to go before us, walking with God in humility and patience. We have much to learn from these saints of God. “The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will”.
We are each a part of the body of Christ alive in the world today. How will we live into that calling today? Perhaps we should start by finishing the song…. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too!”