Thursday, December 20, 2007

Extremes

Life can be extreme at times, and in Zambia this seems especially so. Here, people’s lives are immersed in varying aspects of extremeness – extreme struggles, extreme weather, extreme life. And sometimes, all of these many extremes collide and come crashing together to form one colossally extreme day.

Today was one of those days.

A couple of days ago, some Zambian friends of ours, a beautiful young couple only married a few years, lost their daughter (their one and only child) to malaria. Their little girl was 18 months old.

The funeral was today – a dreary, rainy day, and everything about it was extreme. The day began when we were asked to take a group of ladies to the mortuary so they could prepare the body for burial before the church service! Here only the very rich can afford to have a body prepared by a funeral home. Instead, in most cases this is a task done by family members. And so, a group of 5 ladies piled into our vehicle and headed off to the mortuary to do whatever it is one does to prepare a body for burial; grandmothers and aunts and one tiny white coffin and all along the way they worshiped God in Nyanja singing a song that went something like “My life, my life belongs to you O’ Lord, my child my child belongs to you O’ Lord.”

When they had finished, we then went to the church for a short service before making our way to the cemetery for the committal. As we entered the church service and took our seats, I looked up and all the female family members were gathered together and sitting on the floor at the front of the sanctuary. As the coffin was brought in they all began to cry and wail and weep. I noticed the baby’s mother, Agnes, with her head lying across the lap of another woman. She looked as though her whole body was crying; as though her flesh were conscious that it had lost a part of itself. It was as though she longed to go to that place that mothers seem to go to for their seemingly endless supply of maternal strength, that strength that enables them to time and time again cast aside their own desires and wants for the sake of others. It seemed that she was trying, wanting desperately to go there, to go to that well and draw once again. But this time, there was nothing there. The well was dry. She was contorted and her back was arching forward and then backward, her arms hanging limp and as she cried, I began to cry. In fact I think we all cried who were there.

After the service ended we made our way to the grave site, rain still pouring down, the coffin again placed in the back of our 4x4. The same ladies that had prepared the body at the mortuary climbed in and we began to make our way across town. The cemetery here is nothing like the manicured lawns and neatly marked graves you would see in America. Here the cemetery is one grave after another, packed in as tightly as they can get them. The whole place is dirt with no grass at all, only a few green and overgrown shrubs along the roads. Most of the graves have only rudimentary markers, made of tin welded to an iron rod shoved into the ground. The graves are piled high with dirt, mounds rising a couple of feet above the surface of the ground. This is due in large part to the fact that when the coffin is placed in the grave, it is usually encased in cement to prevent people from steeling the clothes of the deceased. So, all the dirt displaced by the cement sits high atop the ground making it appear as though the bodies were just below the surface.

As the coffin was being lowered into the grave, I looked around at those gathered, standing in the pouring rain and in a seemingly endless sea of mud, some with umbrellas some without. I noticed that everyone was locked in the most haunting stare I have ever seen. People stared at that tiny coffin, silently, motionless, gazing with their brows furrowed in a look of worry and consternation – as though it were their own child being buried. No, as though it were some part of themselves that was being buried. Their faces seemed to ask how it came to be that they survived such a perilous childhood, and at the same time seemed to wonder if indeed they might yet be the next one to be encased in concrete. Their stares were not stares of simply pity or sadness. These stares were deeper than that, more searching than that, more penetrating than that. And again, I began to cry as I saw this same look fall upon the face of every single Zambian gathered – young and old, men and women, because it seemed suddenly, for a moment, the masks fell away and a pervading and abiding hopelessness shone through. The graveside it seems is no place for facades. When will all of this dying finally end?

After the concrete had been shoveled in around the grave by friends of the family, people came close and began to place flowers on the grave. Only, instead of laying them across the coffin, each person carefully placed his or her flower in the dirt atop the grave, and then many proceeded to break the stem, so that the flower would not be collected and then resold. Even something as simple and beautiful as placing a flower on a grave here is marred by the overbearing poverty. As the baby’s parents came to place their flowers, I watched them kneel next to the grave, weeping and holding one another, and I heard Agnes say as she knelt there, “Hallelujah Lord Jesus. Thank you for this child that you gave us. Hallelujah Lord Jesus.” Amidst her tears and her sorrow, amidst her pain and anguish, this dear sister in Christ, knelt by the grave of the daughter she was just getting to know, and now learning to let go of, and she found it within herself somehow, somewhere, to thank God!

Like I said, Zambia is a place of extremes. Extreme sorrow, extreme difficulty, and yet in the middle of it all, Zambians seem to on a regular basis demonstrate extreme faith! And I am reminded at the end of this day, as I sit and hear once again the rain pouring down outside on already extremely wet ground, I am reminded that our God is a God of extremes! We serve a Savior who went to extremes, to accomplish the extreme, for us who are extremely undeserving! And I am reminded today of the extreme privilege it is to be a part of His family, part of His plans, part of His Kingdom. Because when an 18 month old child dies of a preventable and curable disease like malaria, I am reminded that in this world of extreme sorrows, that there is an extreme hope!

And His name is Jesus. Like Agnes said, Hallelujah Lord Jesus!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how certain life events like this can suddenly bring it all into perspective. We just spent 18 days in the hospital with our 7 yo son, in a beautiful US hospital with every electronic device you could imagine. While there, in the ICU, two kids went to their eternal home. We had a brief, yet vivid scare, as well. It suddenly didn't matter that Christmas would be spent in the hospital. We were thankful for that hospital.
We thank God for you two as well, and the hope you bring to the youth of that nation. May this new year bring exciting stories of hope for you to share.
---By His grace and in His strength, Lee W.

Pamela said...

I am thankful for your stories. I truly find them to be a blessing in my life. I feel as if God speaks to me through your stories. May God bless you and your family. I pray that he surounds you and your family with his protection. I will keep you in my prayers God Bless.
Pamela Whyte