Lament and Isolation
A conversation between Raymond Bukenya and Mahlatse Mashua.
This piece focuses on Raymond’s reflections and questions that came up while in quarantine, reflecting back on his whole year including the loss of his wife, Brenda. Parallel to this conversation is a written-visual lament titled ‘Why‘ by Raymond. This poetic piece has a Job feel to it. Like Job, these pieces together present as a conversation that jumps in and out of the reflection of Raymond’s personal spoken-word pieces addressed to God.
MM: Raymond, as the world deals with the ongoing disruption of COVID-19, you had some “enforced” time-out to do some reflection of your own. This wasn’t a retreat or sabbatical – but a compulsory travel quarantine in March, as you came back home to Uganda. Although it wasn’t the most ideal space or place for this reflection, I wanted to talk with you about some of your wrestling during this time. Perhaps you could start by sharing a little bit of the backstory on how you found yourself in quarantine and how you experienced this time?
RB: Thanks for asking, Mahlatse. I had never dreamt or imagined myself in quarantine, but as you mentioned, COVID-19 made things happen.
I had travelled to London earlier in March for Neurosurgery, following a Brachial Plexus injury I sustained at the end of January due to a motorbike accident. As the COVID-19 infections increased in the UK, especially London, my kind of surgery was rendered elective, which meant that I either stay indefinitely till the storm is calm, or return to Kampala to my family. The latter was the easier and better option, but 14 days of institutionalised quarantine awaited me! As day one and two went by I got time to rest, read and talk to family on video calls. But days 4, 5 and 6 ushered in a weird reality of loneliness and isolation.
MM: Raymond, that sounds hectic. I can’t even begin to imagine the burden that these events brought. In fact, these fourteen days in quarantine were really just the culmination of what has, for you, been an incredibly difficult year with a lot of pain and loss and trauma. In April last year, after a very short and traumatic illness, your wife, our friend, Brenda passed away. Since then you’ve had to mourn the loss of your partner and reimagine parenting, you’ve survived the motorbike accident and faced the disappointment of having to postpone a crucial operation for your arm. As you passed day 6 and 7, you say isolation began setting in. How did you begin to process some of the losses of this last year?
RB: Brother, sadly, I did 16 instead of 14 days, because the Government officials weren’t ready with the paperwork to release my group.
The isolation and loneliness ushered in traumatic reflections and a deep longing to just be with my children, whom as you’ve mentioned, were without their mother because she passed on in April last year. This was a loss that I inevitably continued to process alongside the physical and neuropathic pain that occasionally assaulted me due to my Brachial Plexus injury. In the meantime, my left hand began to swell, yet I had no access to a Physiotherapist, or Orthopaedist. The painkillers I had with me were helpful, but not for all the kinds of pain that confronted my core – in heart, mind, and soul – as a wounded and grieving man. Perhaps being near my kids would have helped, but I also feared to be carrying COVID!
MM: An extended quarantine time, isolation, loneliness, physical pain, psychological pain and existential pain – Raymond, what does one do when every part of you hurts?
We know that scripture offers us guidance in our times of trouble and that the Spirit is given to us as a comforter. But so often as Christians we want to rush through the struggle and pain and questions and get to the answers and resolution. I want to slow us down and stay here for a moment. Because scripture, and the experience of other fathers and mothers of our faith, teaches us to spend time sitting in the discomfort. I am struck, for example, by the story of Job. Can you share more about where the traumatic reflections and subsequent questions started to take you?
RB: Brenda and I lived in three major places for the almost 6 years of our marriage; Oxford, Moroto (Karamoja), and Kampala. Over 60% of that time was spent in Karamoja where we didn’t have access to good healthcare, and by God’s grace, we didn’t have any major health problems. When Brenda was diagnosed with cancer, I had all questions, especially “Why(s)”, that you could imagine! When she died – I WENT BLANK! I wondered whether it mattered anymore! But did it ever matter at all? If it ever did, then perhaps it still mattered somehow. I wished we had stayed in England years back. Or remained in Karamoja. Why would she die just sixteen months after we had returned to our homeland? Why after giving birth to little Isabel? Why just after a major reconciliation with her dad? Why cancer? And why did we have to find out so late? God, WHY?
Then I had one more; “Now what am I to do with life, and these little children without her?” As months went on, there were no answers. Not the kind I had imagined. Perhaps not the kind I hoped for. Struggling to cope and keep up, even with the incredible support around me, I asked God why he didn’t take me first instead of Brenda. Perhaps she would have handled the hustle. To this day I remember the voice that asked me, “Are you sure that’s what you want? Are you really ready?” I may not want it, but was God suggesting that I wasn’t ready to go home? Why?
I was still wrestling with that, and settling for the fact that surely I, like Job and others, can have confidence in the character of God, even if I may be in the dark for a moment. Then came the motorbike accident that would take my pain reality to more dimensions.
MM: Sometimes things don’t resolve how we hope they will. Sometimes, as you say, we are left with more questions than answers. Thank you for sharing how you trace Job’s steps and others in scriptures who had to navigate the path of isolation, quarantine and the sometimes overwhelming “Whys” that come with that. Could you say more about your insights from the scriptures with regards to this?
RB: Interestingly, the story of Job is one of the first stories that got me really hooked as a young Christian in 2006/07, when I first heard someone preach from it and couldn’t believe that Job, a righteous man, had been through the kind of devastation described of him. Yet it’s also said that God was aware, and actually preserved him through.
Over the years, I have spoken about pain quite a lot from the peripherals, because I had observed and related to it as a problem of ‘others’, rather than experienced it personally. Now that it was/is my turn, it became very natural to run back to the story of Job, and several others like Joseph, Daniel, David, Paul, and how God sees them through their personal stories of hurtful experiences of life. During the quarantine particularly, though I could communicate with the outside and got some encouragement, my best communication was happening from inside my room as I contemplated all my circumstances and attempted to ask God, “Why?”. One thing became vividly clear for me and gave me peace, that no matter how many or how strong the storms that I face, God is with me (Mark 4:35-41). That even in the quarantine, He’s not left me completely isolated.
MM: Raymond, I am so struck by the courage and vulnerability you have demonstrated over the last year. I know those are maybe not the words you would choose to describe or define this journey. And I know that by no means are the questions all answered. You and your family are still very much grieving Brenda’s death and your lives will never be the same again. God faithfully demonstrates and models to us what it means to be with the world, in its pain. You have asked God ‘Why’ countless times and will continue to do so. Does God ask that question back to you? Do you ask the question of yourself and allow it to guide how you, too, are called to be present to the pain of the world?
RB: As a minister of the Gospel, an Evangelist and apologist at that, I must confess that I have often faced other people’s “whys”. Sometimes I’ve asked God on their behalf. That changed after April last year. Except that given my study of Job, I’ve honestly been cautious with my “why(s)” towards God. I have come to believe that it’s not in knowing the answer to the “why”, even though helpful if you get it, that the real Answers to my (and our) life questions are found; but in knowing the God who gives those answers. Sometimes, and indeed quite often, God doesn’t just answer according to our wish and desire, but rather according to His will, plans, and purposes. And ultimately, for His Glory. Surely the moments of my experiences cannot fully reveal that. The writer of Hebrews says of the Heroes of Faith in Hebrews 11, that they were commended for their faith even though they did not receive what was promised. We read Job as a hero, but I wonder if he saw himself as one. Paul, James and Peter seem to esteem trials as part of my journey to refinement, as though all this experience were a crucible of sorts! Then I remember the Cross, and what it has made of me!
Sometimes I count myself privileged to know pain for what it really is, even the kinds that you have to explain to people. My conversations about pain are now different – personal.
MM: Raymond, thank you very much for your open, raw and vulnerable overview of your journey. I know that you are still in a lot of pain and continue to hold you up in prayer. I am reminded of two key ideas from Why Suffering. Firstly, that a religious or philosophical system’s credibility is, amongst other things, linked to its ability to give its adherents categories to process suffering and the pain of living in a broken world.
Secondly, that sometimes when we are unable to understand the reasons why God allows our suffering, i.e when the goodness of God is not explained, we can look to the Cross of Jesus Christ and have the picture of the goodness of God displayed. May God keep you as you hold on to this tension of pain and hope.