Post by Erica Hale, Lulu’s Vice President 

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.” -Isaiah 61:3

It’s early afternoon, and we have just returned from a Sunday worship service and some of the most moving, passionate preaching I’ve ever heard.

We are seated in Baptist’s living room, surrounded by his family. The Holy Spirit strengthened him these last few hours and empowered him to preach, but now the anointing has lifted, leaving this man of God weary and showing the ravages of exhaustion and grief.

Baptist buried his brother on Friday, a man who’d been alive and vibrant just a week before, but drowned tragically in a fishing accident. He tells us about what happened as though he’s still trying to understand it himself, sitting on a kitchen chair, bent forward, his hands grasped together as if in prayer

Beside Baptist is his sister, Betty. A year ago, Betty and I sat here in this same room, talking about our children. Her son, Prosper, and my daughter, Rachel are three years apart in age, and we thought they had a lot in common. Betty’s vibrant spirit had lifted the room then. We ate cake and danced, her ponytail swaying.

Today, Betty sits quietly. She runs her hand over her shaved head. The loss of her brother has come just four months after Prosper passed away from Sickle Cell disease.

They recently had to put their mother in the hospital. In just one year, the government destroyed the little village where she lived, razing her hut to the ground. The loss of her home, her grandson and then her son was too much, and she couldn’t cope.

Where is God, when storms like these hit hard and leave you bleeding and broken? Where is He when we are sowing in sorrow, blinded by bitter tears? The Jesus who wept for Lazarus is here in this room, and though He still weeps, He also whispers, hold on. I am the God of the living, not the dead. 

This year, I’ve come to Uganda with my daughter, Rachel. We pray with Betty and she and Rachel talk, and in the heat and intensity of that afternoon the Lord has forged something strong, something beautiful. He’s made family that extends beyond genes, beyond oceans.

Days later, as a cool breeze washes over us like the breath of God, we are witnessing the graduation of 127 students who will receive a certificate in Bible Studies. We’re gathered in the building whose foundation was donated by Ugandan engineers, some years ago. “We know God will put a building on it,” they said. And, He did.

Officials from a local university have also come to recognize Baptist’s graduation from their program and confer on him the title of “Reverand.”

Here in this room, miracles are unfolding. Men and women who had never considered the possibility of an education, of a graduation like this, have gathered from far-flung villages that no one knows or cares about, and they’re celebrating the impossible.

As Baptist’s wife proudly fixes his clerical collar around his neck, a whoop comes from the back of the room. His mother rises, cheering in the African way, and dances around her son. Her face is lit up with the biggest smile, pride and joy so fierce it breaks the heart.

His mother, who wears her own graduation cap and gown, who will receive her own diploma today. Because despite it all, she’s run the race and finished well. 

Betty, there in the front row, takes pictures with her phone. Later, she slips a gift to Rachel – a beaded bracelet made in the colors of the Ugandan flag, and another one strung with single beads. 

“Prosper made this one,” she says. “I think he would like you to have it.”

Through the hard, the broken, the soul-wrenching realities of life in this beautiful, fallen world, we are witness to God’s promised transformation of beauty from ashes, the oil of joy from mourning. All of the things we cannot fix, all of the darkness we can’t lift, He makes whole and light. Comfort in even the deepest valley.

The next day, we visit the School of Hope. I remember walking here when the building had no roof, no floors. Today, it’s bursting with children, running strong under the leadership of Headmaster George, the proceeds going toward making Lulu Uganda sustainable. We’re standing together in the corner of the schoolyard, where an unfinished building is being commissioned.

These bare bricks will soon become a small medical clinic, gifted by another grieving mother here in the United States. Her daughter, who died in the prime of her life, was a doctor whose compassionate heart and love for the vulnerable will live on through this clinic.

We hold up a wooden plaque, carved by Emily’s uncle. “In Loving Memory of Dr. Jenni Kennedy,” it reads, and these bricks will soon become a safe haven of help for children, the elderly, and pregnant teens in need of care. It will stand as a reminder that ours is a God who gives a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. 

Our God who, out of the soil of grief and loss, brings forth trees that bear fruit in ways we may never know this side of heaven. 

It is the planting of the Lord. And it’s often watered with tears. Tears of loss. Tears of hard work. Betrayal, setbacks, mistakes, loneliness, grief, sickness, and suffering.

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! -Psalm 125:5

In ministry and in life, the soil in which these seeds grow is dark and deep, nourished by the things we must let go of and watered by our tears. 

But oh, the beauty of those strong trees of righteousness! The shade they offer to others, the fruit they bear that feeds the soul and awakens the spirit! Their roots planted in Earth’s soil, their branches reaching to Heaven.

We thank you, Lord, King of the harvest, the One who makes beauty from ashes. Even in suffering, we celebrate the mystery of your ways, and the life that always overcomes death.