Looking in to the Warrumbungles from the southwest, 2011

Pitjantjatjara Funeral

The little church is in a valley. After the funeral service the whole town joins the long dusty train of vehicles out to the cemetery. The body is taken on ahead, along with the family, and we all follow at a distance. There are not enough cars to go around really; the community is poor. So cars and trucks are overloaded, and the being packed in together adds to the discomfort of the dust from the road.

The trucks and cars are stopped a little distance from the burial ground. There is grief numbed confusion as we climb out. It has all happened before so many times, yet there is a sense of unsureness about what to do now.

From some indefinable signal the whole mass of us move as a body to the grave. There, behind the raw wound in the earth stand the family. Kunmanara's family. Kunmanara who has died. As we look around the atmosphere and presence of the place strike us with an indelible memory. Presence with a capital P.

There is nothing you can see here. Nothing but trees and mountains. No sign of the power of humanity, only the vastness of nature. The sound of a hundred people walking is swallowed up in the dust and the acacias. In some absurd mental aside we notice that it's all Acacia victoriae- that thorny one, and then even that is swallowed up in the vast oppressive silence of the place.

For a precious moment which we will often remember, we see this place from the perspective of heaven. Everything is turned upside down. Our flat valley is lifted up high and runs down into the range, it hangs here. The steep slope of the ridge, scarred with gullies plunges to meet it. .... Psalm 121..."I will lift up my eyes to the hills..".... and poised over the valley in the misty air is a huge boulder. It lies across a couple of others; all three together form a hole socketing into the hill. They hang there, a great eye of God, looking down upon us. God somehow close, watching over us. We know the rocks are not that close, but today they are.

And then as we walk, the vision is all gone. Devoured by dust and heat and flies. Death has brought us out into the wilderness. Our crowd of people is a small knot of mourners in the wasteland. The service begins.

It's hard to follow the strange language. The elder's voice is eaten away at the edges by the very vastness of the place. The carking of crows drowns out syllables. Whimpering toddlers increase our irritation, mixing with sweat and flies. There is a sense of unreality in all this. The discomfort drones on, and some of us don't hear the reading begin: "Ka wati kutjupa pikatjara ngaringi, ini Lazarusanya Bethanynya-ngurara...." We are in John, chapter 11.

In the end it becomes a mixture of boredom and anger. Boredom because we hardly knew this person, and we're strong and healthy, so what does it matter, so why are we out here in the heat? But anger because we know it is wrong, people shouldn't die. And we know we will, too, one day, and it seems just now there is nothing we can do but wait.

Do not go gentle, said Dylan Thomas......... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But you still have to go.

It's hard trying to work in another language, painfully linking syllables together, trying to hear what has been said. But just sometimes everything works. There is no translation by us, the words echo alive in our minds..... We know.....

Munu nyangatja watjara wangka katu mirangu, "Lazarus! Ngalya pakala! Ka wati miru panya paluru ngalya pakanu mara, tjina kulu mantarangka karpintja, mulya kulu tjutuntja. Ka Jesulu tjanala watjanu, "Aralaya, munuya walatjura." And in that peculiar miracle of hearing we know Lazarus has been raised. And into our gloom and despair God sends a small shaft of hope. "Lazarus, come out!" And life comes back alive from the dark cave of death.

Just now the shaft of hope is lost in the final acts of the funeral. We file past the grave, shake hands with the family, look down at the chip-board box, and join the subdued procession back into town. And we go back to our work, and life goes on.

Perhaps then it hits us. Life goes on! People are grieving, but life goes on! Death is not the end! There will be a concrete slab laid over the grave. And in the summer heat the slab will crack. Someone will cut across all the laws of science, and ignorant of good doctrine will be happy that Kunmanara's spirit has escaped to be with Jesus. And we will see very clearly the limitations of time, and science and good doctrine, and we will see the sign in the cracked cement, too. Life goes on.

The Australian vulture is the crow. Perhaps we have heard tales of the eyes being pecked out of lambs still alive. The black crow feeds on the dead and preys over the lost and weak.

I used to run in the early mornings. Out in a waste area of land, in a flat bottomed valley, on a road going nowhere. And they would come and watch me. First one crow and then many... thirty or fifty. Wheeling and crying a few feet above me, sensing my vulnerability alone out there. It was as though they were trying to call death down upon me. Sometimes, despite myself, I would stop and hurl stones at these horrible heralds of death pursuing me.

There will come times for us when we are in the wastelands, if we have not been there already. Despair, depression, exhaustion, or some other thing will bring us to a halt. It will be very hard to see how we can go in life beyond this point. Even as a teenager, paralysing fear or other emotions can slam our life to a halt. And for some of us in these situations death will seem to threaten us. It will be like the crows in waste places circling overhead, waiting for us to weaken. Waiting to pick the life out of us. And if we are very old, or very sick, then we may know that it is not just fear that we are facing, but that this might be our time to die.

When we are in the wastelands, this story of Lazarus being raised to life is a sign to us of Jesus power. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He conquers the power of death. So John tells us with the story of Lazarus. And then in a few weeks time all is lost. The Master Healer himself is claimed by death. But like Lazarus, he too is raised by the power of God. When we are in the wastelands, even in the presence of very death itself, we can stand.

The power of God can reach in and touch us in the face of death at a funeral, or a death bed. And the power of God could reach into the tomb and bring Lazarus out. We know this because on Good Friday, , God submitted to the power of death and then overcame it. Even after God the Son dies on the cross, he is raised again. We feel him now.

Let us see that when we are in the wastelands the harsh cries of the crows are not the victorious cries of death. They are the bitter cries of frustration. Jesus lives. Death has lost its power.

 


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