First Monday of Advent: The Only Bearable Thing

By Rev. Dave Carver

Advent Devotional | November 29, 2021

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion...
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

—Psalm 137:1,4 (Read Psalm 137)

Not long after South Sudan became the world’s newest nation, I had the privilege of spending some time with friends there—and of finding Psalm 137 engraved upon my heart in ways that have enlarged my understanding of “home” and “faithfulness” and the power of memory

My South Sudanese friends were staying in Juba, the capital city. When the terms of peace were won in 2005 after five decades of conflict and it appeared there would be a new nation of South Sudan, this small town in the sparsely populated south exploded with an influx of new residents. Many had chosen to come. Others had been forced to return by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. And some of the growth had been fueled by even more difficult circumstances.

One brutishly hot Sunday, I was invited to participate in the ordination of church leaders in a community about an hour outside of Juba. As we arrived, I noticed that the style of the homes, the fabric in the clothing, and even some of the basketry was quite different from that which we had seen previously.

I was informed that this was the meeting place of the Gorom congregation of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, a congregation composed almost entirely of members of the Anuak people, who were refugees from Ethiopia. They had arrived in Southern Sudan in about 2003, and were resettled in this refugee camp some years afterward.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine things being so difficult, so frightening, so dangerous in your own home that fleeing to a neighboring country that is in the midst of a civil war of its own seems like a good idea!

Yet that is what the Anuak did. And they made a home for themselves—somewhat—in the harsh climate of the bush in Southern Sudan.

Under a tin roof in a mud brick building, we sat in chairs that had been carried to the sanctuary by our hosts. The worship service was long. And it was conducted in four languages: English, Arabic, Anuak, and Nuer (a local language of the South Sudanese). And it was hot. Not Pittsburgh hot, or even Arizona hot. The temperature had to be 110 degrees and the humidity made it feel like 125.

One hour. Then two. And still the service went on. Laughing. Singing. Ululating women and clapping men. Giggling children who played and dozed and cried and sang.

In one respect, it was unbearable. But in another, deeper, more important respect, it may have been the only bearable thing.

As I saw those people singing praises to the Lord in their own tongue and with their own songs, I saw them in a place that was not a mud building baking under a tin roof in the forgotten desert of one of the world’s poorest countries. No. I saw them at home.

Do you see? In their worship of God, they were able to re-member themselves—to put their members back in order. To recall, to reestablish, to enter once more into their identity as children of God. While they were there, they were not refugees or visitors or citizens or aliens. No, they—we—were the family of God, coming home.

We sang and ordained and prayed and preached so that we could finally remember who—and whose—we are.

At the end of the day, we sang a song in the Anuak language: “We give you thanks, O God, because you have blessed us.” And then we left the sanctuary, whereupon we formed a line in which each person greeted every other person in worship (and yes, that took some time). Finally our hosts invited us back into the building because they had “a little bread and water” to share.

And there, after singing the songs of home, these lovely people ate—and shared—the food from home. Each of us was given a plate piled high with steaming injera flatbread, beef stewed in bere-bere sauce, lentils ground into a porridge, and sweet cabbage—Ethiopian delicacies prepared with love in South Sudan.

Oh, my friends, I know we are taught that when we die, we want to avoid the place that is hot. But I am here to tell you that I learned a lot about home, about God’s faithfulness, about belonging, about re-membering the Body of Christ amid searing heat and oppressive humidity, surrounded by people who were not wanted in their own country.

It was the Kingdom of God. And they were refugees who welcomed us home.

—Dave Carver is Pastor of First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights. He served on CCO staff from 1982-88.