Precious in the sight of the LORD
Is the death of His saints.
We arrived at the cemetery in Machava shortly before the 10 o’clock service for Pastor Berto was to begin. The parking lot was crowded with cars, buses, vans, and people. There were processions of people going in and out of the walled cemetery. There were many people waiting around outside with us. People who would attend Pastor Berto’s funeral and others as well, quietly talking. It was sad to see how many people were there. More vehicles came carrying even more people as we waited. A truck came in with its bed full of passengers who were softly singing. The sky was filled with dark, gray clouds. It sprinkled several times as we waited, but the downpour that they threatened never did come.
We had to wait quite some time for the service to begin. The vehicle that was bringing Pastor Berto’s family had driven through some deep waters and broke down. We have had rain the last several days, and with no drainage system, the roads get very difficult to traverse. A van was sent to pick them up. This van also broke down. Yet they soon arrived. There was also a bus load of people from Iris Zimpeto, Pastor Berto’s father, Jose, is a pastor there. The last to arrive was a van and truck loaded with people from the Iris Matola-Rio center and from the church Pastor Berto shepherded. I greeted these people who I have come to know and love. It broke my heart to see Mama Helena. This always joyful, smiling, loving woman was simply blank. Her pain and hurt was so visible on her face. She was emotionless. Everyone began to file through the gate of the cemetery. Before they entered, they stopped to buy fresh flowers from venders located outside. We were one of the last to enter.
Before me I saw graves in every direction. The grave sites here are different than in the northeastern US. While the bodies are laid in the ground, they are not placed very deeply. Each grave is filled and a mound of dirt about 2 feet high that covers the grave site it left. Later, for those who can afford it, these dirt mounds are boxed off and tiled or cemented. It is similar to what I have seen in the south or in the Carribean. There was a cement building for registering for a burial site. On the side wall was hand painted the pricing for burying a person- one amount for an adult, another amount for a child. But what drew my attention was the sight of our gathering of mourners. The coffin had been placed under a large tree and everyone was gathered around this tree. I wish it had been appropriate to take a picture of this to show you. It is a sight I will always remember. The coffin under the tree, at least a hundred people encircling the tree singing, and the graves that surrounded them as far as the eye could see. The songs they sang were deep and soulful. Each was led by a woman with a strong voice and the people echoed and joined in. A few people quietly cried. Others were so distraught that they were taken off to the side to be consoled. It seemed that this was the proper etiquette. Mama Helena was the first to be taken to the side. She was so upset that she could barely walk. Young Albertina soon was taken to the side as well. I, too, wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pastor Berto is in heaven rejoicing with all the saints before the throne of God. He loved His Savior deeply. He is home. He does not need our tears. To cry for him just seemed wrong to me. Yet I did want to cry for the people here. Pastor Berto’s gain is our loss. He was loved, valued, respected, and is needed here. Yet I have faith that God will use this for good. He will not let Pastor Berto’s flock go unattended. He will send us another shepherd. My prayer is for this man to come soon!
Pastor Alberto on the left.....with Alberto on the right.
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. BUT THANKS BE TO GOD! HE GIVES US THE VICTORY THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.” I Corinthians 15:55
Songs were sung and interspersed with pastors and others sharing encouragement and words from Scripture. Pastor Paulo shared with the assembled group the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ in our hearts and lives, we cannot be saved. We are by nature sinful. Romans 3:23 “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because of our sin, we are separated from God and will spend an eternity separated from Him. Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But, we have hope. Our Father God loved us so much that He sent His only Son as a once and done sacrifice for our sins. Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. “ Romans 10:9 And so, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 8:1 “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set ‘us’ free from the law of sin and death.” Jesus has set us free from the bondage of sin and death. He waits for each of us to accept Him as our Lord and Savior. He knows how long eternity is. He faced death because He could not spend an eternity without us! I once read a quote that said as Jesus hung on the cross, He had my name (and yours) on His lips. This is how much He loves us! If you do not know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, I encourage you today to seek Him. Read the Gospel of John. Find someone who does know and love Him that you can talk with and ask questions. Go ahead and ask the hard questions. Be honest and share your doubts. God is big enough to handle them! Pray and ask God to reveal His love for you. If you seek Him, you will find Him. This is the message Pastor Paulo shared with us yesterday. This is the message that I want to pass on to you.
Pastor Jose, Berto’s father, spied us in the back. He immediately sent someone to translate for us. How kind of him to think of us at his son’s funeral. Pastor Berto’s brother was in the center circle of people as well. His face was full of disbelief and he held his hand to his mouth. He bears a striking resemblance to his brother. Towards the end of the service, the casket was opened and people were invited to come by and see Pastor Berto one last time. As people passed by they anointed his head with powders and perfumes. I chose to remain in the back. I wanted to remember the vibrant joyful pastor who just one week ago led the service at his church in Chinonquilla. This part of the service caused much pent up emotion to flow from his friends and family. People were overcome with emotion and began wailing and crying. This changed the whole tone of the service and it became very difficult. Mama Helena was again taken to the side where she fell face first, prostrate on the dirt path, her body wracked with sobs. Albertina again was overcome with emotion. Several of the younger girls from the Iris Matola-Rio center came to Emily and me for comfort after seeing his body. Beatriz was the most affected, crying uncontrollably, so I took her to the side to comfort her. Even Pastor Berto’s brother, Silas, needed to leave the congregation for a while. It was a blessing to see that each person was immediately surrounded by others who tenderly held and soothed them for as long as they needed it.
It was at this time that the most difficult time came for me, which almost sent me to the side to be consoled. A new procession of people entered into the cemetery, quietly singing. It was led by a man carrying a very small, white coffin followed by a young grieving mother. Tears fill my eyes even now. My heart hurts for this mother that I do not even know. I tried to look away, but then all I could turn my eyes to was the row upon row of graves that surrounded me. I wondered how many of these graves were filled with children taken by the enemy well before their time as well. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of despair for how difficult life is here. I cried for these people. My Brent was at my side and held my hand, giving me strength and peace.
The coffin was sealed shut and the service under the tree came to an end. Pallbearers carried the coffin to its resting place, followed by the crowd of people. Final prayers were said and it was lowered into the ground. As the dirt was shoveled in, people went forward to throw in a handful of dirt. A mound of dirt was piled on top of the site where the casket had been buried. People began going up and forming small holes in this mound and planting the flowers they had purchased in these holes. Don went up with me and helped me place our flowers. It was a beautiful sight to see the flowers covering his grave. Then a large container of water was brought forward. People began washing the dirt off that was on their hands from planting, letting the water flow over the flowers. More water was added to the flowers. Then water was poured over the sides of the dirt mound, smoothing out the sides as well as people forming and smoothing the sides of the mound with their hands. Each grave also had an arrangement of hand-made paper flowers on it. These were made from scrap paper and assembled on a circular piece of cardboard. They were beautiful. All around us were fresh graves covered by the same bed of flowers and paper flower arrangements. You knew they were recently buried because the flowers were still fresh and the paper flowers had not been ruined by last night’s rains. There were too many of these around us. A closing prayer was said by Pastor Paulo. As he did so, the clouds began to release a gentle rain over us all.
Pastor Alberto's service with the J-Term team on Sunday - a few days before his passing.