Thursday, August 22, 2002

Stewardship: Replanting

Stewarswhip: Replanting

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
(Psalm 137:4)

"5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, . . . . seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
(Jeremiah 29:5ff)

In the Dakotas, they say there are two seasons; July and winter. Summer is short and treasured, unlike the mild Southwest where outdoor activities can continue year round and we forget what we should be thankful for. In the northern plains life is very much conditioned by the weather. The growing season is so short there is a very narrow window of opportunity to get the crops planted and harvested. The last frost may come as late as mid-May and the first frost of autumn can come in early August. It's not unusual for a late frost to cause a field to have to be replanted in the spring. But if a farmer waits until it's safe, the crops may not mature before winter sets in once again. When the crops do mature, there is a great rush to get them in while there's still time. The grain elevators work twenty-four hours a day and at midnight there would still be trucks lined up for blocks in our small town waiting to unload. The elevators soon would be filled to capacity and great mountains of corn as high as our house and blocks long would be piled on the ground along the highway until trucks could haul them off weeks later.

The long summer daylight hours of the northern plains make it possible to grow corn to harvest in ninety days whereas in Texas our corn isn't ready for a hundred and twenty days. Vegetable gardens produce so abundantly in the long daylight hours that the joke is you better check the back seat of your car after church or you'll arrive home with more produce than you came with. It's quite comic to watch people unloading grocery bags of zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes into the back seat of other people's cars when they think no one is looking and Midwesterners never throw anything out. There's no choice but to can it, pickle it, or make it into chow-chow if you can't give it away.

There are far more funerals than weddings in the rural parishes of the Great Plains because most of the young people have left to seek work in the city. Rural communities are close knit and strongly family bonded and funerals are major community events. I learned quickly that I had better arrive at the church at least thirty minutes to an hour early if I wanted to find a parking place. Following the service, which in Protestant churches usually lasts only about thirty minutes since there is no communion, most of the people will go to the cemetery for a short grave side service. Communion takes place later, in the church basement fellowship after the service. In years past, the frozen ground wouldn't permit burials in the winter so it was necessary to store the casket until the spring thaw. Every cemetery had a small building close to the entrance for this purpose where the grave side service would be held and caskets would be stored until they could be laid to rest in the spring. Modern technology has made this practice obsolete with electric heating pads that can thaw the ground even in mid winter.

Early in the spring of my first year in the Dakotas, I noticed the men all standing around the open grave before a service staring intently down into the excavation. I couldn't imagine what they were looking at until someone explained to me that they were checking out the depth of the frost line so to be able to make a prediction about when they might be able to start planting. The southern custom of friends and relatives lingering at the grave site to visit following burials is not followed here. Winter grave side services are over with in a hurry with everyone rushing back to warm church basements for dinner and visiting. Even in the midst of loss, our minds look forward to the daily work and necessities of living. Nothing gives more evidence of the continuity of life and comfort of community than the dinner and visitation following a funeral. A few of the church women always would remain behind at the church to have the potluck meal ready when the mourners returned from the grave side service. The abundance of food would be truly amazing and the fellowship would last for hours. This is true communion: it is in the fellowship of community that we are fed and feed one another and faith is celebrated in a superfluity of food and love.

One year, just before Ernie and Val's family had planned a big 50th wedding anniversary celebration for them, a long time member of the church died and the funeral was held the day before the big event. When the anniversary couple's family announced that the party would be postponed, the family of the deceased insisted that the celebration take place as planned. For a second day in a row, people crowded the church basement dressed in the same clothes that had been worn at the funeral only the day before. The feast was prepared and served by the same ladies who had provided the funeral dinner and was every bit as grand and as the evening wore on, a bubbly five year girl danced and whirled to music from a tape player. Her joy was infectious and nothing seemed more appropriate than we all join in and dance with her.

Services in rural America still almost always take place in churches with the whole community in attendance. There is nothing more depressing than the modern practice of holding funerals in cold, impersonal funeral parlours with the family going home alone to grieve. The church community celebrates our entrance into life in baptism, our covenant with God in confirmation, our commitment to the larger community in marriage, and memorializes our life in faith at life's end. We need the validation and vision of the continuity of life lived in faith in order to get past our grief and get on with the task of living.

When the Jewish prophet, Jeremiah wrote the words quoted above, his people had been conquered by a foreign power and carried off into slavery and exile. It was a time of extreme loss and deprivation. He reminded them that faith means more than anything else, to live and engage in the tasks of living, in community. Salvation is something that takes place in community. The whole community, the place where life has taken us, is saved, or none of us is saved. When we stand together, we can sing, even in exile. To walk the Tao is to walk together. We don't live alone, we don't die alone. We don't walk alone and we don't grieve alone and we can't celebrate alone. If we wait to live until we think it's safe, we may never live at all. We entrust our mountains of golden corn to lie on the ground, which incidentally, is a protection against rot because it drains better than a concrete slab, and we never pass up the opportunity to dance.

The bullies that want to kill life in the name of some fundamentalist notion of religiosity always want to kill joy and the celebration of life. They've missed the whole point. When my father died after a long illness, all his brothers and sisters were together at the funeral in a small West Texas town for the first time in decades. We were so thrilled at seeing each other, all come together after so many miles and years apart, that after the funeral, nothing seemed more appropriate than to make a pilgrimage together to my Father's favorite place on top of a mesa a few miles west of town. Within a few hours after the funeral, at least a dozen of us climbed and scrambled through the cactus and sage brush in all our church clothes to the top of Santa Anna Mesa and sat perched on his favorite rock looking out over the plains. It seemed the most fitting tribute possible and it seemed to us all that he was there with us, enjoying the view and cracking jokes. We were ready then to go back home and replant our gardens and seek the welfare of the places in which we live.