In the midst of death we are in life
Posted by Keith and Lyn Scott on Thu, 02 Feb 2017 | 0 comments | Bookmark:
Death is common in the Zambian townships. The people are poor, they eat neither well nor often enough and medical care is haphazard at best. The elderly lady myself and Francis took to hospital died when she was 79 years old. As average life expectance in Zambia is 57 years, her death was neither untimely nor remarkable. Yet she was a human being, and, as John Donne pointed out long ago, any human death diminishes each and every one of us.
Part of every Christian funeral is to assert that belonging. We stand together as sisters and brothers in Christ, inextricably linked. We can never say to God “this your son, this your daughter” without God replying “this your brother, this your sister”. It is something that might need to be learned by populist political leaders who claim to be Christians.
The world, as the old Ulster saying has it, is “ill divid”. In Zambia that ill division between rich and poor does not end with death. The wealthier Zambian family can afford a funeral director, complete with hearse, complete with sirens and flashing lights, to carry the coffin and alert the world of the death of a valued family member. Poorer Zambians make their last journey in the back of a borrowed pick-up truck, their bodies washed and laid out wherever they die by friends and family. Even in the graveyard the division persists. The graves of the wealthy are set in quiet, dignified, grass covered rows marked by proper carved stones. The graves of the poor, are scattered in rough bush, marked, if at all, with simple hand painted signs.
Esinut Ncubi was not wealthy. Yet the Christian Community gathered together to pay tribute to a valued and beloved sister, honoring her as the unique and valuable human being she truly was, and is, in the eyes of God. Her friends in the Mothers’ Union got her ready for that last journey, then accompanied her in the back of the pick-up truck. When she arrived at the church, the same women lifted the coffin from the truck and carried it down the aisle into the church.
All three of the parish clergy were present, lending an importance and dignity to the service. Esinut was an Ndebele from Zimbabwe. Having fled the conflict between Shona and Ndebele many years ago, she was largely alone in Zambia, but she was no Eleanor Rigby, with nobody to care. Those that cared for, even loved, her gathered to say their last farewell.
“Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” – “Where charity and love are, God is there”, and somehow neither poverty nor wealth matter, only faithful friendship, genuine love and the presence of God in our midst.
A feature of Zambian worship is the exuberance with which people express themselves, especially when it comes to singing and dancing. The singing in Kwacha has been largely a cappella. The singers are untrained but their enthusiasm is an inextinguishable part of every act of worship and expression of faith. The dance and the song ran like a thread right through the whole of Esinut’s funeral. The women in the pick-up truck sing as they travel to the church with the coffin. The whole congregation sings the hymns with gusto and during the peace a choir separates out from the congregation and begin to sing and dance together. The singing goes on as the congregation files past the coffin at the end of the service. As the members of the congregation pile into borrowed pick up trucks, mini buses, larger trucks and travel to the grave yard, still the singing continues. The committal takes place and the grave diggers, mostly the men of the congregation, take it turns to fill it in and mound it up and plant the simple hand painted sign proclaiming her name to the world. Friends and family queue up to place single cut flowers into the freshly turned earth. As they do so the singing, which has never quite died away, breaks out again.
There is an affirmation of life in the song. Death may have had its way, but the song is raised in defiance, to affirm hope, to proclaim resurrection. That ordinary Zambians can and do sing with such vigor and hope is striking. Nothing, not hardship and poverty, not even death seems to quite overwhelm neither their singing nor their innate optimism. There is, in the song, an expression of hope and trust in God and the divine victory for life and creation in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As the funeral ends a storm breaks, and soon rain is lashing down. It goes on until well past the next day’s dawn. At around 02:00 the following morning my phone rings. It is Pastor Marvelous. Mary, his wife has, after the false alarm of a few days before, gone into proper labour. Lynn and I jump up and turn out the ambulance to take them both to the hospital as the rain pours down.
About 12 hours later, Mary gave birth to their first born son. If death has its way so does life and love. Faith, hope, love these three are fundamental, they are what endure and triumph, in wealth, in poverty, even in death. They triumphant because they are sourced in the light which has come into the world and which neither death nor darkness has mastered.