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Fertile Soil, Revisited

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Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

This past Friday I was invited to attend a funeral with Rev. Changwe Hopkins, the training manager for TEEZ.  This was my first funeral in Zambia.  Ever since living in a self-contained old-age community in India I have been drawn to witnessing and trying to understand burial rites.  While in that old-age community I learned that the class divisions that exist in life carry through to the funereal and burial rites, for those rites are still enacted within human systems of power and privilege.  When one of my beloved ammachees or appachens died, laborers would handcraft a simple casket from cheap wood, we would have a small service in the small chapel, and we would place the body into vault.  Over the year the body and casket would slowly slide down a chute in the vault into a mass grave.  When a wealthy person died, on the other hand, the body would rest in state in the person’s home for days’ worth of prayer vigils and then there would be a burial with extensive pomp.  I know that such disparities exist in the United States, where funerals have become a major for-profit industry with services stratified in much the same way as airplane seating.  I have learned that Zambia is no exception.  Coffins, burial plots, and hearses are all up for sale with varying degrees of luxury depending on the price.  I suppose the Pyramids and grand Moghul tombs stand as timeless testaments to this phenomenon of classified and stratified burial rites.  There are of course deep religious and cultural reasons for such monuments and rites which should by no means be ignored.  This funeral on Friday reminded me, though, that after all is said and done the earth accepts our bodies without discrimination.


As I threw dirt on this ornate coffin several meters down I was tempted to stray into the psychological spiral of the Ecclesiastes teacher—Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!  All that we do, even up to and including the residue of our earthly treasure being spent on burial props, is covered over by handfuls and then shovelfuls of dirt.  But then something new and remarkable to me happened.  Youngsters kept piling dirt until there was a healthily sized mound on top.  Elders then stepped up and smoothed out the top and the sides.  Finally, one by one family members and those closest to the deceased came forward and “planted” flowers in the soil.  Yes they were cut flowers, but the symbolism was perfect.  I was taken back to Ash Wednesday.  Remember you are fertile soil, and to fertile soil you shall return.   Maybe the sum total of our individual actions are scientifically meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos.  Yet, we are all part of God’s beautiful and beloved Creation.  Even in our deaths we play a role in ensuring the continuation of that Creation.  Imagine if we started going back to simple wooden coffins and then planted flowers and trees on the grave plots.  This would at once be an act of resistance to destructive consumer capitalism and a celebration of all that we are as God’s children.  What better tribute to the all-purposive and shared meaningfulness of all human life could there be?  


Posted February 23, 2016


Posted by Tyler W. Orem with
in Death

Remember You Are Fertile Soil, and to Fertile Soil You Shall Return

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Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

One of the great joys of learning Biblical languages is getting to know the range of meanings for words that we so often trap into tightly constrained words in English.  One lesson that I will never forget is that the “dust” from which the first human was made could just as easily have been translated as “dirt” or “fertile soil.”  Take a minute or even a day and reflect on the difference that makes!

Yesterday I was invited to participate in the Ash Wednesday service at Chimwemwe Anglican Church, which butts up against Chimwemwe Presbyterian Church where I usually worship.  Rev. Rogers Banda, my backdoor neighbor in MEF, was recently called to serve this Anglican congregation.  I was thrilled to attend, especially because somewhere in my mind I have this idea that “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” comes from an old Anglican liturgy.  I don’t know if this is true, but it is there in my mind.  In short, I felt like I would be celebrating in the very heart of liturgical Ash Wednesday.

Chimwemwe Anglican Church has one of those buildings that has been under construction for over twenty years, being built panoono panoono (slowly, or bit by bit) as we like to say in Bemba.  With drafty holes throughout the facade and an unfinished concrete floor, then, we thought it would be no problem to burn the palms there inside the building, sheltered from the rain outside.  Of course the smoke billowed and filled the entire sanctuary.  Luckily by the (late) time people finally started trickling in there was just a thin cloud remaining.  Let me tell you, that smelly palm smoke was perhaps the most powerful incense I have ever encountered!  It was the  fragrance of dried palms that have seen a year of joy and struggle in Zambia, that were waved with Hosannas at the triumphal entry and then with shouts of condemnation at the trials.  It was the fragrance of ashes that would be placed on our foreheads to remind us of our need to repent, of our call to participate in the Passion, of our own mortality.  Really, I think Ash Wednesday has the richest symbolism of any of the celebrations of our faith.

While pondering my own repentance and mortality throughout the Bemba service, my eyes kept being drawn to what stood before the altar.  As mentioned, it was raining outside and the under-construction building facade was quite porous.  It so happened that there was a leak just in front of the altar.  In someone’s stroke of brilliance, a potted plant was placed underneath the water flow.  A problem that could lead to the slow erosion of the entire structure was transformed into a source of nourishment for life.  


So, surrounded by smoke, ashes, and death was a plant growing in fertile soil being watered through the mechanism of shoddy construction.  There are probably volumes that could be written on the range of symbolic meaning there could be in this tableau.  I am still trying to wrap my mind, heart, and soul around it.  For now I will focus on one simple reflection.


God created us from fertile soil and it is to fertile soil that we will return.  The same soil that nourishes all of life is the basis of our anatomy.  And when we return to fertile soil, we enrich it all the further.  As the living, breathing, walking incarnation of Creation, I am sure that Jesus knew this in the depths of his bones as he journeyed into Jerusalem.  So, even though he asked for the cup to be taken away from him, he accepted a death that would bring life—specifically life that would forever prevail over systems of death like the empire that killed him.  And this life persists within us, to the point of mechanizing our flaws so that nourishment can come even through them.

Remember you are fertile soil, and to fertile soil you shall return.



Posted February 11, 2016


Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8