Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Death in the Mountains

Written by Rev. K. Herfst
Saturday, May 2, found my wife and me maneuvering the pick-up truck up and over the mountains that rise high above the town of Cubulco. Although it had rained the night before, the dry ground had eagerly consumed the moisture and the road was passable. Our destination was Pachajop, where I hoped to preach in an independent church. This church always extends a welcome to us and appreciated the occasional preaching we have been able to do over the years. Normally, it is about a four-hour walk to get there, but thankfully, the road has been repaired to the point where we can travel by truck and make it there in a little more than an hour.

A little later after noon, we arrived in the centre of the community. Gustavo, the current pastor, was waiting for us. There had been a change in plans, he told us. An elderly sister of the congregation died earlier in the morning and there would be no service in the church. We parked the truck and set out on foot to extend our condolences to the family. They lived only a fifteen minute walk from the church.

The courtyard of the house was bustling with activity. We recognized many of the brothers and sisters of the congregation and they walked over to greet us. Lunch was served, not only to us, but to all who came. In the simple home the body of the elderly mother, draped with a blanket, lay on a wooden plank, waiting for the arrival of the coffin. We gave our condolences to the family and listened as they talked about her death. The night before, the brothers and sisters had gathered to be with hen Together they had sung praises to God. This sister had been a Christian for some ten years and was ready to go home. She longed to praise her Lord.

Arrangements were made for the evening service and we headed back to the house we were to stay in. Although I had taken messages along, I had nothing appropriate, and so needed to prepare a message for Sunday morning. Pastor Gustavo would preach that evening.

As darkness settled over the area, we climbed back up to the house. More folks had gathered and after another meal, we squeezed into the little house. Chairs were supplied for us, and we sat rather awkwardly in the middle of the room. About 8.00, the service began with singing, prayer and the reading of various portions of Scripture. Gustavo preached from Psalm 116. Afterward, the singing resumed. The service lasted all night, but at midnight, more food was served. We took the opportunity to retire for the night. No one minded.

The house we stayed in is situated beside the Roman Catholic chapel. Already earlier in the afternoon we had seen the processions and dances honouring the "holy cross." We had been warned that the celebrations would last all night long-but, "just close your door and you won't hear them," they told us. It wasn't quite that simple, but being as exhausted as we were, sleep came quickly. The marimba, the yelling and all, continued all through the night, terminating at sunrise with a number of deafening fire-crackers.

Sunday morning dawned and we headed back up to be with the family once again. The group was even larger now, and the family, though extremely poor, had slaughtered a pig during the night to feed everyone. Most visitors helped out in one way or another. Some brought corn, others a chicken or other food items. Breakfast was served to all who attended. A dog with canine distemper trembled and shook pitifully among the crowd.

By 9.00 the service got under way. Again, there was a lot of singing, reading of Scripture-both in Achi and Spanish. At one point, the son of the deceased woman got up to speak. He gave a moving testimony of his mother's influence in his life. She had become a Christian before he did and at first he wanted nothing to do with her or her God. He testified of his mother's prayers and persistence and God's grace in his life. As he spoke, tears flowed freely. It was the first sign of any emotion that we had seen. He thanked everyone for coming and pleaded that everyone would stay until she was buried. Usually that happens within 24 hours of a death, but in this case, they were waiting for another family member to come from another part of Guatemala, and the burial would not take place until Monday morning.

Finally, they called on me to preach, and I sought to encourage them from Philippians :21, focusing on the fact that death for the Christian is described as gain. The Christian dies well, but only because he or she has learned to live well. Paul, for one, had learned the secret of life: for him, to live was Christ.

By the time we reached the home where the truck was parked, the group celebrating "the holy cross" had dispersed. It was quite a contrast. True, we had been confronted with death in the mountains. Tears flowed. But we also experienced the reality of the Christian's hope. The next morning, they would carry the coffin down twisting mountain trails to a burial place about an hour and-a-half away. These believers would accompany the family. They would sing of the Christian's hope. Death is not the final word. Life is. Resurrection is.

The death we faced was that which we witnessed in the superstitious rituals. The dancers wore wooden masks. Weird expressions were frozen on their lifeless faces. For all the noise, there was nevertheless every indication that death reigned here: a spiritual death. There was alienation from God, from the living God they pretend to serve.

What a privilege it is to bring a message of life in the context of death! It is also a matter of urgency. Thank you for making it possible that the message of life continues to be preached in these remote mountains of Guatemala.

The Herfst family would like to thank all who sent cards or expressed concerns in other ways during Jackie's recent bout of hepatitis A. Thankfully, she is doing much better Your thoughtfulness and prayers have been an encouragement to us.

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