Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

TEEZing Out the RootsImage
in Death

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

main image

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


in Advent


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

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.”—Luke 1:57-66

There is power in a name. I am learning this over and over here in Zambia. Names connect you to your lineage, your ancestors. Names carry spiritual meaning. Names identify you as belonging to a certain group of people. There is thus always the possibility of feeling instant kinship with somebody you have never met, because your name says you are from the same place or the same tribe or the same family.

It seems that such was also the case for the Hebrews at the time of John’s birth. His naming was of extreme importance, all the more so because his conception and birth had been auspicious, even miraculous. All of the kinspeople of Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that the baby also be named Zechariah. When Elizabeth said it would be John, they said, “None of your relatives has this name.” They thought she was joking or that she was out of her mind. Surely Zechariah would have more sense. He wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.

They were not amazed that Zechariah then was miraculously healed of his muteness. That comes afterwards. They were amazed that he agreed with Elizabeth and was choosing to forsake the passing on of his own name. I am sure that they were also horrified. This baby was their nephew, their cousin, their grandchild, one of their own. He was part of the family. He was special. And his parents were willfully choosing to separate him, to set him aside. How would people know to whom he belonged? How would people know if they were related? How would this baby live life without knowing that feeling of instant kinship with a stranger? To get down to the root of it, how would he ever understand his true identity?

There is, of course, a back story. The angel Gabriel had commanded that the baby be named John. He explained that many would rejoice at his birth and that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. Like Samson he would be set apart and live the life of a nazirite, someone chosen by and dedicated to God. John would indeed live his life set apart from others. He was known as a man of the wilderness who somehow had the anointing and authority to preach the repentance of sins. He was filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. As I have reflected before, he had the deepest of bonds with Jesus. He was absolutely integral to God’s plan and to the coming Kingdom. Zechariah and Elizabeth were aware that all of this would take place, and they embraced it. They dedicated their son to God and named him as God wanted him to

be named, so that he would be known as God’s, not somebody with lineage exclusive to Elizabeth and Zechariah.

As a social worker I wonder at the self psychology of John. I wonder what it meant for him to know from something as basic to his identity as his name that he was different from everybody else. I, along with his kinspeople, wonder if he was missing out on something crucial by not having full association with his ancestors and his living family members. I wonder what identity meant to him. Maybe he spent all those years in the wilderness because he understood himself to be set apart. Maybe he spent all those years in the wilderness because he had to be alone with God, wrestling like Jacob, in order to fully understand who he was and why it had to be that way. I like to think that his family did visit him in the wilderness, that they expanded their ideas of home and belongingness, that his different identity enlarged their own identities. In any case, he came out of the wilderness and prepared the way for the transformation of the very fabric of the world. He figured out his identity at least enough to fulfill his mission.

As we approach the birth of the one whose way he prepared, let us also do the hard work of understanding and embracing the fullness of our identities. Let us be willing to expand our identities to include others. Let us explore the legacies of our names—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let us begin to make new legacies for our names, to do our own part in preparing for the transformation of this world. 

Posted December 12, 2015


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