Monday, September 3, 2012

Thoughts from a mission cemetery called Blessing

Amidst discarded beer bottles and other refuse on a weedy plot of land lies a cemetery on a high point of Libreville over-looking downtown buildings, rambling neighborhoods and the grey-green estuary spilling out into the Atlantic ocean.  Recently Steve and I went there to take some photos for a man who is writing a book recounting the lives of the first protestant missionaries to Gabon.  The grave stones are scattered somewhat haphazardly in a sad state of neglect.  After driving towards downtown Libreville and taking a cratered road that wandered and wound around an adjacent neighborhood we found the mission called "Baraka" which translates to "blessing".  Behind the mission building lies the cemetery.  It was a sunny hot day with billowy white clouds drifting lazily across a brilliant blue sky, occasional breezes carried up from the sea stirred the sombre air as we walked reverently around the old headstones searching for specific names to photograph for the author.

Many of the simple arched headstones were weather-worn with etched script hard to decipher.  Another missionary friend of ours had taken an interest in preserving the stories of these early missionaries.  She had come years before us and used a sharpie marker to fill in the script to sharpen the contrast and render the words legible once again.  We did the same for the headstone of the one the author was most interested in our photographing.  Even in the bright sunlight the chiseled words were lost amidst the rough stone so Steve carefully filled in the words with the sharpie, bringing to clarity the epitaph so long ago carved out by a dear friend of the deceased.  The dates on the oldest stones were from the 1820s.  One marked the grave of an entire family, husband, wife, and baby, who most-likely from disease, the young missionary couple in their late twenties when they died just days apart.  Many of the graves told of lives cut short, barely into their thirties when they breathed their last breath in this foreign place.  Their gravestones spoke of their passion to reach this place and love the people here, to shine the light of Christ.  It grimly reminded me of when missionaries packed their belongings in coffins.  They counted the cost.  They knew death awaited them but went forth with the promise of eternal life.  Their life was well-spent sharing the gospel of Christ a couple of centuries ago in this very land where I currently live.

As I sat and watched Steve work I thought about what it must have been like for those early missionaries.  I could imagine this mission located on a high point with views of the sea, a great location to catch those precious sea breezes to cut through the oppressive, cloying humidity that hangs like a scratchy wet woolen blanket.  I could imagine away the crowded buildings and neighborhoods that surrounded and could see the cemetery clean and green.  I could imagine the gravestones with etchings sharp and clear.  I could imagine the mourners left behind fresh with the grief of losing another teammate.  The mounds of red Central African earth piled high as yet another of their team lies beneath never to crack a joke or share in a holiday meal or hold hands in prayer again.  As I sat there and contemplated the lives of those who's earthly remains are left in this dirty plot of land I realized I don't really know what hard is.  Sure I've said goodbye to many a teammate and felt the loss of their leaving and the loneliness amidst the crowds of people in this foreign place but I've never buried a teammate or carved out their epitaph on a gravestone.  What a precious price they paid.  I've never seriously feared death or disease.  I've lived in relative comfort.  It's not the comfort and convenience of home, not by a long-shot, but it's not the dangerous and wild place it once was.  I wondered what it would be like to live my life poured out as a drink offering to a spiritually dry and desperate place.  I wondered if I would count the high, high cost and board that ship with my belongings packed in a long pine box waving a final goodbye to all my friends and family.  Would I have the courage to have children and raise them in a hostile environment?  Would I love the people here with my very life?

It really made me examine my life and my commitment here and now.  It made me question how deep is my love for the still lost people here.  I realized my often grinch-like shrunken heart is needing growth.  Please pray for me to love, really love the people here, love them more than my own comfort.  I confess my love for comfort is a guiding force in my life.  I want to count the cost and find it worth it.  Only God can enlarge my heart and He can only enlarge it as I give it to Him.  He's a gentleman, never pushy or controlling.  I love that about Him but hate that I am so hard-hearted and so stingy with my love.  Sometimes I wish He would just make me do the right thing, the loving thing, to take me out of the equation.  But He doesn't, He has given me freedom and a mind and body and life, He has given me the Holy Spirit that lives within and speaks wisdom and guidance... when I pay attention.

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