Every Advent season I think of Sikolastiki from the Republic of Congo. Sikolastiki was a co-worker of my missionary friend Carolyn Butler who, along with her husband Ron, served 35 years in the Congo.
In “Under African Skies – Reflections for Advent and Christmas,” Carolyn writes about Sikolastiki: “During the years I knew her, I watched with her over the death of her four youngest children and eventually that of her eldest son. … An equanimity and calm acceptance bore her through her profound grief because God had revealed to her as a young bride that she would have five healthy children, but also that all her children would die before she did. Nothing I saw in her actions or heard in her words ever expressed anything but acceptance of this revelation and its fulfillment in her life.”
If I didn’t personally know Ron and Carolyn Butler – and their stellar reputation from serving 40 years as missionaries on the African continent – I might find the Sikolastiki story implausible. I can imagine saying to her, “It was revealed to you that all 5 of your children would precede you in death? How so?”
But I believe the story because I knew, and trusted, the Butlers. During one year-long missionary furlough, Ron and Carolyn lived in Urbana. For the first 2 months, they stayed with my wife, Jennifer, and me. They were delightful house guests. Calm. Quiet as church mice. Voracious readers. Interested in everything.
Every morning at 4:30am the coffee was made, which thrilled this early riser. Our refrigerator constantly was full of food. The rhythm of their day included an hour-and-a-half of prayer, reflection and writing. When they told us their stories from Africa, we listened and held those stories in our hearts.
While I was a campus minister at the University of Illinois, I met Suellen Butler, the oldest of the 3 Butler children. Suellen became a graduate student at the UI. While a student, my campus ministry board hired her to work as my associate campus minister, a position she held for 4 years.
Suellen had the gift of warmth and a great laugh. Wherever she was, students gathered. She was accepting, loving and authentic. In 1987 she left campus ministry to serve in a church in Cape Town, South Africa. Before leaving, she married a fellow from Michigan. At the wedding, I was Suellen’s Man of Honor. Standing beside me was my wife Jennifer, one of the bridesmaids.
Over the years Suellen got a Ph.D. at the University of Cape Town and was hired as a professor. Along with raising 3 girls, she rose to become a dean at the premier university on the African continent.
In 1993, Suellen returned to the States for her youngest brother’s funeral. Just 28, Jeff Butler was shot and killed in the middle of the night in northern Kenya while serving as a young missionary pilot. Jeff’s body was flown from Kenya to the United States. He is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery east of Urbana. I officiated at his services. His headstone says, “A friend of Jesus, a friend of Africa.”
In April 2020 at age 59, Suellen succumbed to lung cancer in Cape Town, leaving her husband Don Shay, 3 young-adult daughters and her mother Carolyn, who years earlier had moved from the Congo to Cape Town. On October 2 this year, Greg Butler, 58, died of brain cancer in Springfield, where he had raised a family and worked as a carpenter. Greg was Carolyn’s only remaining child. Ron Butler, Carolyn’s husband, died in 2010.
In September, Carolyn returned to be with her son and say good-bye. After Greg’s death, Carolyn’s sister traveled from Illinois to Cape Town to spend a month with her. “She is so comforting to me,” Carolyn wrote to me in an email message.
When Carolyn first wrote about Sikolastiki and the death of Sikolastiki’s 5 children, it made her think about the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth had been barren and “well along in years” when an angel appeared to her husband Zechariah, saying Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child. (Luke 1:5-26)
When Elizabeth conceived, she merely said, “The Lord has done this for me.” Carolyn Butler wondered what the neighbors must have thought when this barren, older woman finally conceived. “Yet there is no indication that she ever stopped saying, ‘The Lord has done this for me.’” Carolyn wrote.
Life comes right at us. It did to Sikolastiki. It did to Carolyn Butler. It does to all of us, eventually. Part of the challenge of Advent – when the faithful ponder the coming of the Messiah – is accepting that God is in charge of all of history and that he works all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, believed that. Sikolastiki and Carolyn Butler, who outlived their children, believed that. When I imagine the Christ-child in the manger, I, too, sometimes with faltering, shaky faith, can believe that too.