July 2017: The Thirty-Third
Last night, the rain was quite strong for several hours. I enjoy hearing the rumble of the thunder, hour after hour. A fresh wind blowing through the window made sleep come easily for me. I woke at about three in the morning, and I lay still, enjoying the morning rain until close to 4 a.m. I headed to the kitchen to make coffee. I look forward to having time in the quiet of the mornings to be alone with my thoughts and to seek the Lord. It’s in these still moments, which are gifts from the Lord, when things finally seem normal. I am thankful for the way Christ knows exactly when we need them.
Strangely, it doesn’t take the news of a new crisis to remind me that we are in a war zone, it’s the small things. For example, the news that an elephant was killed by stepping on a landmine, proved even the wildlife is not safe. During drought and famine, nothing goes to waste. The whole village shared the elephant meat, and for the first time in weeks, everyone ate until they were full. One of the chaplains showed up at my door with about three pounds of the meat. After I cut off the rotted and damaged parts, there was about a pound remaining. Vicky stir fried rice and vegetables with it. I invited five of the senior chaplains to come and share our feast. It was actually very good and tasted close to beef.
The hardest thing is when news arrives from the front of another chaplain being killed. We got word of Chaplain James Tian Nyial falling in a rebel ambush. In my mind, I know the men are home with the Lord and in a better place, but my heart still feels the loss. My deepest concern is always the loss of the family who are left behind. I feel sorrow for the children, who will never know the bravery and faith of their father.
James earned the respect and favor of the men in his unit. They said, “He was Jesus to us.” What makes that statement even more powerful is the fact that James came from the tribe that led the rebellion in 2013. He testified that after seeing the devastation to South Sudan from the former vice president’s attempted coup d’état, he would never rebel. James knew Jesus Christ came for reconciliation, peace between God and men. As a chaplain, his role was to be an ambassador of the Messiah. I was proud that James boldly stood for Christ, regardless of the personal cost.
When the conflict was in its early stages, a large enemy force, about one thousand men, were moving into Nimule. Intelligence scouts had spotted them and knowing their intention to attack our village, warned us to prepare. The area commander told us that there were not enough soldiers to repel the attack, and asked that our cadets and staff join them. A protection mission like this guarantees that no one gets much sleep, because it requires round the clock patrols. The cadets studied all day, got a few hours’ sleep, and then went out into the bush to patrol all night. Since even our senior
staff were needed, no one really had any rest, but no one complained. Every morning as the men were jumping down from the vehicles and removing their gear, we saw smiles and laughter. When we asked how they were doing, keeping up with studies and sleeping so little, they told us that they were just glad to know that all of Nimule was safe and hoped that the troops guarding their own families were as vigilant as they were being. This went on for a couple of months, until the enemy moved out of our area.
James moved with our men. He was asked on several occasions, “Why are your brothers attacking us?” He would say, “I am from the tribe of the Lion of Judah. These chaplains are my brothers. The rebels are deceived and I am praying for them.” James never considered being a part of killing innocent civilians. This godly example earned the respect of all the men and senior staff. Once deployed, James worked with an artillery unit. He continued to serve with the same zeal for the Lord, and led many in his unit to faith in Jesus Christ.
In February, as he traveled to the chaplain refresher course with a small contingent of soldiers; they fell into an ambush. The rebels were greater in number. James and his force fought to the last man, but they were overrun. The soldiers’ bodies were found lying where they fell on the road. James was killed by his own people. I know James would have said that they were his people by blood. He had given up his earthly citizenship for an eternal one.
James journeyed to the Kingdom of Heaven where he will wear the crown of righteousness for all eternity. He was born a rebel by blood, but redeemed by the blood of Christ and forever changed. The moment that he surrendered his life to the Lord, he crossed a threshold of the point of no return—-he truly died to himself, and was no longer his own. He marched to the beat of a different drum, and the drummer was the Prince of Peace. We also know that over the twenty years of war, James’ entire family had been killed.
At my request, James’ wife came to the chaplains’ base. We prayed with her, and gave her money to support her two children. It’s difficult to watch these widows grieve, knowing I cannot change what has happened. I am not a man given to emotion, so these encounters are awkward. I pray for grace, and do my best to comfort as a father rather than a soldier. Watching James’ widow leave, reminded me that we can never let our guard down. We fight not only a physical war, but we are also in a spiritual war zone, and that is why we are told to be vigilant, and sober-minded and aware at all times.
Physical war creates a multitude of hard situations and each must be navigated carefully or someone dies. Ultimately, that responsibility falls to me, and I pray constantly for God’s wisdom. This ministry is not my own, it belongs to my Commander in Chief, the Lord Jesus Christ. Each chaplain belongs to Him and He holds the number of their days in His hand. I feel honored to have been part of preparing them for martyrdom and their final journey. James was the thirty-third member of our staff to fall in the service of Christ. The soldiers really loved him and will mourn his loss deeply. He was thirty-six years of age and he had served with the South Sudan Army for six years.
Far Reaching Ministries