Wednesday of our training in Liberia was a national holiday known as Decoration Day. Decoration Day is set aside to honor those who have died. It is tempting to draw a parallel to Memorial Day, and there is a thread that exists. The tragic history of Liberia makes the enemy of death much more treacherous. Two recent civil wars, and the ravages of Ebola have filled many fresh graves.
Decoration Day might have passed for me without particular notice, but for the presence of a graveyard right across the fence from our classroom. During class breaks I asked one of the men in our class to help me understand. His tutorial made the stark difference between a Christian worldview and the common worldview of Liberians (many who would claim to be Christian) obvious.
We peered through the fence to see the common practices of Decoration Day. There were at least a dozen different groups of people gathered across the graveyard. Gardening tools were used to trim grass and weeds that had grown up. Brushes and buckets of soap and water were used to scrub tombs and gravestones. Then there were the conflicting sounds of singing, and wailing. My tutor pointed out a young man, probably around 20 years old, writhing on top of a tomb with loud, continuous cries of agony. He said the young man was a “professional” hired to honor the deceased. Another group of about a dozen sang, and marched in a kind of line-dance around a headstone. The group passed a bottle of liquor. I understand drinking is common to Decoration Day.
Even a casual observer would understand death is a familiar visitor to Liberians. One who has taken many in exceptionally painful ways.
When our class gathered after our break, I took them to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and asked how they thought about the hope we have as followers of Jesus. I was struck by the depth of their thinking. These are people who are “acquainted with grief”. Every person in the room had a family member who had died either in war, or to Ebola. Death is a more present enemy in Liberia than I have ever experienced.
I asked about the confidence that comes from knowing Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26). Not just that Jesus brings life, but Jesus IS life. They shared words of trust in Christ with depth, confidence, and passion. Jesus is not a way to avoid death, but to overcome death.
On the first day of our class I had pulled a bag of two hundred lollipops out of my bag, for this class of thirteen students. (These guys enjoy candy!) I sat the bag of lollipops on the table and explained that when Jesus called us as leaders in His Church, He called us to grow in understanding, everything we do, teaches. Everything. I explained they could have a lollipop anytime they wanted but they could not just take one. Jesus never gives a disciple something simply to possess, but to pass. They had to take at least two, but they had to give one of the lollipops to someone else. We tracked the spread of lollipops to the other five classes.
After our discussion of resurrection hope, I asked what God might do if they shared resurrection hope that day in the same way we shared lollipops. The next morning every student in our class brought stories of the fruit of conversations they had about resurrection life. One of the students said, “I’m not sure what God might have done in my friend, but He increased my confidence. Christ is the decoration on my grave.”