Written September 25, 2019, when I was in Maputo, Mozambique with my sister Meghan
As many of you know, it’s been a tragic few weeks for my family. My sister’s husband, Madala, was killed unexpectedly and tragically in a car accident in the early morning hours on his way to Nampula, Mozambique. As I write this, two weeks ago today my sister got the news that her beloved husband was dead. She was texting with him only hours before, and he assured her, his “bella,” his “amor,” that he was almost home, that she had nothing to worry about. She will never text him or speak to him again.
People have all kinds of strange reactions to terrible news, to inexplicable grief. Meghan, raised in the States, now living and working in Mozambique, exists in two very different cultures. She’s been told these weeks to handle grief in very different ways. Her American friends are telling her to “feel what you feel” and “take time off.” Her Mozambican family, friends and colleagues tell her to be “Forte/strong” and “have courage.”
Meghan is no stranger to grief, to pain and tragedy, and probably needs no instructions. Like any of us, she’s going to handle it the way she handles it—her way, in the way that works best for the unique human she is. Yet people want to say something, they feel the need to be helpful, want so badly to support. This makes sense. I get it. I needed to fly at a day’s notice across the world to be with her, to be present for whatever she might need. We don’t know what to do or say. We are at a loss in the face of such total and unimaginable loss. Americans especially, in our sanitized, do-it-yourself, independent culture are uncomfortable in the face of death. It’s the one thing we can’t control or stop or do a single thing about. For once, we are helpless, our efforts futile, and we squirm and writhe in our inability to be ‘useful’, to change the outcome. We simply cannot. We are fortunate, in our privilege, that in most cases, death comes for the old, for the sick, for those that we can somehow explain or make sense of, even when it remains acutely painful. Yet a young death? Of a 30-year-old vibrant man just starting his life? It makes no sense. There’s no way to explain it.
Mozambicans aren’t uncomfortable around death. They can’t be. It’s always present, even these untimely, unreasonable deaths that come for the young, the ones you were just talking to, laughing with, minutes before. It’s all too common in a nation without adequate infrastructure, health care, education, nutrition, employment or opportunity for betterment. Death is around every corner. Funerals are commonplace. Cemeteries frequently visited. People have to cope, or they, too, will die. So they do—they share their strength and their courage. They gather around you, insist that you never be alone. They have faith in a God that gathers the dead, gives them a new and better life. Of course they mourn and they lament in their pain, their loss, but it doesn’t have this edge of helplessness, a futile wishing they could have changed it or the egotistic belief that maybe they could have. They seem to know they must accept the impossible and keep living. They know they need one another, even if they can’t do anything. They sit and are together, simply being, sharing stories, giving strength and courage.
A narrative that seems common in both cultures though, revolves around God, and as a thealogian, I find this fascinating and disturbing. So often we try to make sense of the senseless through faith and God. It’s what we’re taught to do—God must have a reason. There must be a purpose, even if we don’t know it. Sometimes we even admonish the bereaving to “trust God” that “God took him” or worse, “wanted” him more than we do. I think this is really off the mark. In our effort to be comforted, we turn God into something She is not. Subtly, we make God a villain, as theologians have done throughout history with damaging atonement theologies. The base of this is that God sent his son to be killed so that we might be saved. In this scenario, God is rather like a blood-thirsty murderer, allowing His son to be killed for a “greater purpose.” We do the same thing then, in the face of the death of our loved ones. It’s almost embedded in our religious psyches. We say—God must have a purpose. He knows. He took our loved one from us. He must have a bigger plan.
It seems to me, believing in a God who became human in the person of Jesus, who beheld Her son die a painful, unjust death at the hands of the state, that this theory is bullshit. What loving God could watch the death of their beloved ones without utter lament and rage, much less have orchestrated the entire thing to happen? To happen violently and unjustly and horribly? I don’t believe in such a God.
It seems to me that terrible things happen. That they always have. That there’s no reason for it, except maybe human freedom and choice and the fragility of human life. That when we live on this earth and when we love, we take huge risks. Huge risks that in a moment, the object of our love, the life we hold so dear can be gone, just like that. This speaks to the amazing power of humans—we do it anyway. We love anyway. We give away our hearts, our lives, our selves even when some part of it knows that it’s all fleeting. That it will all die.
God does not make it happen, God is not a puppeteer in the sky killing off the good ones. Or the bad ones. Or anyone! God beholds God’s creation, walks with us in the deepest of intimacies in all the intricacies of our lives. God rejoices with us and weeps with us and holds us while we hold our dying beloveds. She has a huge heart that is ever-expanding and she puts it in our own chests. She makes us so that we can endure the heights of pain and still keep breathing, still keep living, still keep choosing love. How is this possible? How does anyone go on? To me, God is who keeps giving us life, breathing into us when the injustice of the world breaks us down. This is the God of the crucifixion AND the resurrection. This God is with us as we lament and rage against the very real worldly structures and power imbalances that claim lives too soon, lives deemed not as worthy as other ones. This God tells us death is not the end of the story, and not just because we get to fly away to some distant dreamy heaven, but that more love and more life is possible here, on earth. This is the God I believe in. She is not a tyrant. She is only and always and ever-more LOVE. She desires human LIFE.
People keep asking Meghan if she’s going to leave Mozambique now. Her colleagues, grateful for all the work she’s doing, are afraid of it. American friends and family assume this is the only way – to get out, to escape the pain. Who could stay in such tragedy, in a life so difficult? Yet this is not my sister’s approach. Her lioness heart just keeps expanding. More than ever, she’s committed to the people of Mozambique. More than ever, she knows how death here is not “God’s plan” but the result of inefficient structures and inadequate resources to fully support human life and flourishing. Only humans can change that. Only humans can make decisions to rightfully redistribute the world’s resources so all humans might benefit. Only humans can look at the world’s poorest and not blame them or put the burden on them but love them and work hard on their behalf. Meghan believes in a God of life, a God where MORE life shows up in the face of death.
This is the God that holds my sister right now. This is the God that remains present to the Mquemba family, that pours courage and strength into them as they pour it into each other. God did not kill Madala or desire, in any way, his too-soon death. She just loves him, has always loved him, and keeps loving him. She empowers my sister into the work yet to be done, as She empowered the early Christians after the untimely, inexplicable and unjust death of a young man named Jesus. She envelops, now, sweet Madala in the embrace of love, as she did for my sister Caity and as she does for every one of us, on earth as it is in heaven.