Backroad Cemeteries

It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.

A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.

I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.

Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.

As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.

The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.

That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.

God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.

This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.

While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.

Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.

I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.

And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.

Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.

I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.

I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.

And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.

I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!

To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.

Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.

Strumming the Chords of Memory

I’m once again taking the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the eNews for this week.

You know how it goes for me. The sermon is done, and so now whatever comes to mind this morning is going to be quarried for gems.

I suppose with today being the 66th anniversary of our congregation, and since anniversaries are something of meaning, how about this?

It might sound somewhat absurd, but last week I spent about $12 to buy specialized batteries for a ramshackle calculator I’ve had since high school. But that’s only the half of it. I spent another $10 to buy three weirdly-sized batteries for a miniature, and equally bedraggled, R2D2 toy I’ve had for nearly as long.

For reference, the calculator’s screen is being held together with tape. The device’s black metal face is more than well-worn, with plenty of age-betraying scratches and dents. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at. And technologically speaking, it’s not even that advanced, especially in comparison to the calculators of today. For the twelve dollars I spent to revive it, I could’ve bought a brand new one with far greater capabilities.

The same goes for my R2D2, which by the way, sits on my desk just below my computer monitor. His white plastic case has yellowed with time, not to mention at some point along the way, the foot from one of his robotic legs came loose. It took superglue and surgeon-like skill to repair and reattach it in a way that it could still function. Like my calculator, he’s pretty beat up, which means he’s not going to be winning any astrodroid beauty pageants in this galaxy anytime soon. And yet, with the new batteries, at least he continues to be as I remember and expect. When you press his button, he whirs, boops, and beeps with glee. Even better, the tiny light on his dome still twinkles magnificently.

To look at these items, you’d think I was crazy for keeping them around, let alone spending as much as I did on batteries to keep them functioning. The thing is, for as immaterial as they might seem, they’re mine. They mean something to me.

I remember the store in my hometown of Danville, Illinois, where I bought the calculator. The last time I visited, I discovered the store no longer exists. Nevertheless, the calculator I got from one of its shelves is still helping me with math problems. I remember loaning the calculator to an old girlfriend—Estella—who, by the way, is the reason behind the tape holding it together.

As far as R2D2 goes, sure, I could buy another miniature figure just like him to adorn my workspace, and it would probably have more articulating parts and cooler sounds. But this is my R2D2. Again, he might not be much to look at, but he’s mine. And truth be told, even if he somehow loses all functions, or I discover him in a completely unrepairable state, I’ll never throw him away. He means something to me. I have memories stored away in my brain that only he can stir. Rest assured that even if he becomes nothing more than a pile of parts to be scooped up and put into a ziplock bag, I’ll keep R2 for as long as my mind will recognize him.

I suppose in a broad sense, when I consider all of this as a Christian, I can’t help but be reminded of how our God thinks on all of us in love. The human race is coming undone, and for the most part, it isn’t much to speak of. We lie. We cheat. We steal. Heck, we even have it in us to grind up babies in the womb. Overall, if there’s a line marking the borderland of horribleness, at some point along the way we’ll cross it. Still, God thinks on us in love. Even Saint Paul, at one time a devilish persecutor of Christians, couldn’t help but share how astounded he was with God’s mercy.

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Of course Paul didn’t just aim that honesty at himself. He turned it toward the entire human race, making sure we’re all fully aware of the predicament we’re in, while at the same time showing the divergence of God’s actions.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The contrast is astounding. Paul didn’t use the term “sinners” lightly. He knew the core of the word. He knew he was referring to all of mankind, himself included, as rebelliously hateful enemies of God and completely dead to righteousness with every fiber of our being. And yet, it’s in this condition that God reached to us. Our yellowing nature, our lives barely being held together by the flimsy tape of human frailty, our broken efforts and our pummeled pasts—God sees all of this. And yet He doesn’t throw us away. We mean something to Him, and so He was willing to do the work and to pay the seemingly craziest price to restore what would otherwise be considered as junk.

That has me thinking from another perspective.

As I noted already, when I plink away at my old calculator or I admire my old R2D2 toy, some pretty substantial memories are stirred. I did quite a bit of reading last fall from Abraham Lincoln’s various writings, and at one point along the way I remember him saying something about how memories are like mystic chords that swell a chorus when strummed. This pathetic old calculator, this silly little R2D2, as trivial as they both may be, are tools for strumming. When I see them, I remember former days. When I reach out to touch them, I reconnect with a vastness of people, places, times and the like, all of which—through the lens of faith—leave me marveling at what, how, and to where God has carried me along the timeline of my own life.

Everything along the way has value. Unfortunately, and as the French novelist Georges Duhamel once said, it’s often true that we don’t know the true value of our life’s moments until they have undergone the test of memory. In other words, what’s happening right now matters, and it will either be remembered with fondness, or it will haunt us like the chains strung around the neck of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

As we navigate life, this can be a petrifying thought, even for Christians.

But be comforted. One thing is for sure, God thinks on and reaches to us in love. The death of Jesus Christ for sinners is the all-surpassing Gospel announcement of this. The One who was given over for our redemption, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). I don’t know how it is for you, but knowing He was and is always with me, I can look back at the things in my life that I regret and be reminded that I meant something to Him then and I mean something to Him now, that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that each day is a new day in His loving kindness, that His grace is fresh and bountiful every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). I can ponder the fact that even my worst day filled with my most grievous Sins has been long forgotten by the One who, by virtue of His atoning sacrifice, looks me in the eye through the words of Isaiah 43:25 and says with a certain and thundering voice, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

With this Gospel at the ready each and every day, when my course in this life finally comes to an end and I draw my final breath, both the joys and regrets of life will all be found resting in the promise of a tearless future in the nearest presence of Jesus Christ, my Savior—the One who promised never to leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Through this lens of faith, even my calculator can be a reminder—a weird reminder, but a reminder nonetheless. It whispers that the same Savior who was with me as I tapped away in 10th grade math class in Danville, Illinois, is the same one who is with me now as I prepare to do a little computing with the average attendance numbers for a church and school four hundred miles away in Hartland, Michigan.

And a small, motionless R2D2 with a similar story looks on in twinkling affirmation.