Friday, September 30, 2011
Memento Mori, again. . .
I can overdo this, I know. One can get too much of a good thing. But the fact is, they show up all over these days, in so many different forms that it's just hard to keep up--these little reminders of death, mementos of the end, visual reminders of what I all too often hear anyway--the clock ticking away in me.
Still, those images, those reminders, march into my life like unwanted guests.
Yesterday, I sat just outside what was once the Lutheran church at Highland, Iowa. The imprint that old edifice left in the earth is twenty-feet wide, maybe thirty-feet front to back, although determining just exactly how that tiny frame church might have been positioned, eighty years ago, is anybody's guess, its congregants long gone, some of them buried in cemetery just a few steps east.
That little church was no Lakota teepee or else we'd know for sure that it opened to the east, to the sun, to the dawn. My guess is that the graves would have stood behind it, the church itself facing west, the road in front of it. No matter how you position it, it's just remarkably small.
The churchyard cemetery is a ecclesiastical feature lugged along by European immigrants and then, here in America, simply abandoned. Graveyards on church property are long gone today, and who knows why?
I can guess. Once American Christians began to understand that to survive they had to do a better job of marketing, someone on the inside likely argued that we ought to let someone else carry out the morbidity of putting away our dead. Why should the church bury its own? Sheesh, how do you expect to get the unchurched in to hear the Word when they've got to zig-zag through a minefield of silent tombstones?
Once upon a time, Highland Lutheran buried its own; but Highland Lutheran is no more, and no church I know of plans a graveyard any time soon.
Makes all kinds of sense. Not long ago, a new preacher in this community was asked whether the church he was now serving, a progressive congregation, would ever build a sanctuary instead of renting a theater, as they now do. I can't quote his answer, but he said something like this--"Well, maybe, but I can guarantee you it won't look like a church."
I understand why he said what he did, but isn't there something really odd about that answer? As if what a church should do is paint itself in camo? Maybe I'm just getting old. No, I am.
Anyway, nobody in their right minds would ever get anywhere close to suggesting a brand new church plant, even here in the rural Midwest, should adorn their lawn with tombstones. Think of your image.
Yesterday, once again, I sat there in the middle of that juxtaposition at Highland, Iowa, and was thankful it was there, really, thankful for the grassy outline of a building, a church long gone, a congregation no more than thirty people who used to meet out there from somewhere in the 1890s until the town disappeared, mid-Depression, 1935. All that's left is the stones and the outline of the old church.
Nothing else--nothing at all remains; but as some deeply religious writer once said about the wide-open spaces all around a Highland, sometimes nothing is really something.
It was a blessing to be out there with my students, and this morning I'm thankful for the place and the moment, for the wind, for a bright and glorious expanse of this good earth, an expanse only God can fill.
Enough of the memento mori stuff. Today I've got to teach, and tomorrow I'm off the Willa Cather's Red Cloud. Life is to be lived.
Last summer at Alkmaar, the Netherlands, slowly eating a couple of wedges of the smoothest Gouda my tongue had ever noted, I found this stone lady in the local cathedral, that blasted skull just beneath her hip. Couldn't help but giggle then. Can't help but giggle now.
If old men are somehow destined to uncover endless mementos of death, as I seem to be, I'd just as soon do more giggling.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:27 AM