On May 24 a former BBI student and pastor of the Assemblies Disciples of Christ church was buried. He was a youngish man, in his 40th year, with a young family. His oldest of three sons is ten and his youngest looks to be not more than three. How do we make sense of such sadness: a father, husband, pastor in his prime who dies suddenly and unexpectedly (in this case of an asthma attack!)? The national pastor of the ADC church, Pastor Theodore Houngbedji, preached the eulogy. I was impressed with his attempt to make sense of something so tragic and to comfort those of us present. I thought maybe some of the rest of you would enjoy reading a summary of this sermon as well. It may given you an idea of how an African, Beninese, Christian approaches the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Perhaps it would be helpful for you to know that in the Beninese context an untimely death is usually attributed to sorcery. That means that a person who possesses witchcraft powers has chosen to attack and kill the pastor through supernatural means in order to increase his or her own power. This explanation is troublesome for Christians who believe that in Jesus they are liberated from the oppression of witchcraft and sorcery. Another explanation is that the pastor sinned and is being punished for his sins. Of course, this is more familiar to those of us raised in the “Christian” west, but it has its troubling aspects as well. How bad were his sins? Were they worse then mine? And what about all those other evil persons who live to a ripe old age? A third explanation is that it was simply the pastor’s fate. The problem with fatalism is that it encourages lethargy and an unhealthy acceptance of circumstances instead of encouraging people to improve their lives by making changes for the better.
Pastor Houngbedji read two passages from the Bible. The first is in Luke 12:16-21, the parable of the rich fool. This is the story of a rich man who seeing his storehouses are too small tears them down to build bigger ones. Having done this, he determines to “eat, drink and be merry”. However, God has a different plan. “But God said to him,’You fool! This very night your life (soul) is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Then Pastor Houngbedji read Ecclesiastes 8:8a “No one has power over one’s breath to retain it, or power over the day of death,” (according to the French version).
From these two readings, the pastor drew three conclusions:
1) The life of a man does not depend on his possessions. A person can be the owner of everything except his/her life. The Bible tells us that our life does not depend on what we own. (Here he told a story about a rich, Beninese man who became ill and, money being no object, spent enormous sums traveling even to France to seek treatment. In France, the doctors told him to go back home; all his money would not be able to buy him the good health he was seeking.)
2) A man is not master of this breath. (Keep in mind that the deceased died of an asthma attack!) When someone dies, we can say things like: “He is no longer breathing.” Or “She has stopped breathing.” When the pastor was a young boy, he heard that said about his own father. He resolved to never, never stop breathing and even took to practicing breathing. From time to time as a boy he would take deep breaths. However, when the time comes and our breathing stops, we have no power to keep on breathing. A man cannot retain his breath nor put off death.
3) Your soul will be demanded of you. (You will be asked to return your soul.) There is One who has all the power; this is the One who created us and put our soul within. We cannot resist this One who will one day ask for our soul again. Our soul does not belong to us, but does belong to God.
The pastor, having made these three points, then suggested three ways to live as a consequence.
1) Do not fear those who can kill the body, but fear the One who has power over our soul and who can reclaim it at any time. (Read Luke 12: 4-5) Return to God for fear that God reclaim your soul in order to cast it into the fire. If you belong to God, God will keep you.
2) Psalm 90:12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Pray this prayer: “Lord teach me to count my days and to seek wisdom.” Proverbs teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Pray for the grace to please and honor God.
3) James warns us not to make bold claims about what we will do tomorrow. 4:13 Come now, you who say, “Tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 4:14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 4:15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”
We should put our trust in the Lord and acknowledge God’s sovereign claim on our lives, saying “If it pleases God, tomorrow I will do such and such.” We should entrust our plans to God and seek God’s direction in all our decisions.