Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring, Cemeteries and Victory: No, really.

One of my favorite places to take a walk is a cemetery, you see, most of the time when you walk in the cemetery there isn’t a soul to bother you. (Bad pun, but true.) I have walked some very well known cemeteries in Indiana and Kentucky and there are some that I would like to take a stroll in, but haven’t yet. Then there are some places that feel like cemeteries that really aren’t, I’m going to make an effort to not talk about those.

I have walked in obscure country cemeteries that I just happened upon while out walking, some of them when I was out for a drive. I have snooped around in the Nast Chapel Cemetery, I have some ancestors buried there. I have walked in the Deer Cemetery and I have combed the Harris Cemetery where my father is buried. All of them have a charm of their own, if a cemetery can have a charm, and I do believe that they can, I believe that they do.

There have been walks through much larger graveyards, I have walked through Our Lady of Peace, St. Joseph’s and Concordia in Indianapolis, I have walked through Forest Lawn where some of my friends are interred. I enjoy walking through Greenlawn in Franklin, Indiana, an old cemetery with giant trees and gravestones that are unique and amazing for the period of time that they were erected. My great grandparents, grandparents, a third cousin and several friends are planted there.

Two of my favorite cemeteries are Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, I believe that at one time it was considered the fifth largest in the country, Arlington being the nations largest, Crown Hill may still be number 5. I think my absolute favorite is in Louisville, Kentucky known as Cave Hill.

Cave Hill isn’t a cemetery really, you don’t notice the graves because of the beauty that surrounds them, there are awesome trees, magnolias, dogwood and redbud for spring viewing and when the autumn colors come the area is second only to the New England area, and I can only judge that comparison to pictures as I’ve never been to New England in the autumn. There are stones with bronze sculptures that are amazing, headstones that have stained glass encased in them, older stones of limestone and marble that are intricately carved to look like angels, tree stumps covered with ivy and many have amazing flowers chiseled into them. There is a great pond that is home to many swan, thousands of birds of many varieties, speaking of birds, I have had the unique experience of leaving a special memorial at the grave of Colonel Harlan Sanders, the famous fried chicken magnate. I left a small red and white stripe box with a few chicken bones in it. Since I’m sure that he has contributed to my cholesterol reading it only seemed like the thing to do. There are other notables, many of Kentuckian-only-knowledge and some people very famous from history, not only purveyors of chicken.

Crown Hill in Indianapolis is one of the places where I have stomped the most, so I know it better of course. Not quite the arboretum that Cave Hill, though Crown Hill boasts some 400 different varieties of trees. There are many Hoosier native sons buried here of course, President Benjamin Harrison, a stack of early history vice presidents, the man who invented the Gatlin gun is there just outside of the national cemetery section of the graveyard, the irony isn’t lost on me. The man who laid out the mile square section of Indianapolis, aka downtown; his monument has a map of the city on it, he is also famous for laying out the original, “downtown” area of Washington DC. There are doctors, lawyers and race car drivers, wife beaters, knaves and scoundrels. There are people who have their epitaphs in their native languages and of course, I can’t read them. There are the good citizens of the city and the man who played Uncle Remus in Song of the South is laid to rest there, not too terribly far from John Dillinger, famous gangster.
The high-light and if you have been there, you will see that the previous statement is a pun, there is a place known as Crown Hill and that poet James Whitcomb Riley’s grave is there, at the highest point in the city. On a clear day you can truly, “see forever” from this city landmark. At one time this hill was known as Strawberry Hill and it was known as a great spot for a picnic, actually, I have picnicked there myself.

From this lofty point in the city the downtown skyline is impressive, it’s clean and fresh looking and all the trees between the hill and the central city makes it look like the city is floating on a green cloud. From this point in the city it looks like there are no drug dealers or prostitutes or panhandlers in my neighborhood, from this point it gives the illusion that there is no urban blight. Crown Hill gives a view of a fresh and clean place to live, just a mile or so out, just don’t look down over the hill to the west where one is quickly jolted back to reality.

Thoughts and signs of spring make me want to go for a walk in Crown Hill or some little country cemetery because of the signs of life there, the blankets of dandelions, the cushions of violets, the green grass, and usually there is lots of it. I’ve been thinking about going for a walk lately, maybe to happen upon some busy robins on the ground or some squirrels dancing about in the tree branches, in the season of Easter, it’s easy to think on spring, to think about new beginnings, those tulips planted next to headstones, the magnolia trees in Cave Hill covered in pink and white blossoms, delicate dogwood flowers that bear the blood stains of the nails of Christ, per legend. The verse that comes to mind so often when I walk through cemeteries, as beautiful as they are is, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

The answer is simple, it isn’t here, the Victor over death has risen, just as he said.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Welcome Back Alleluia, It's Good to Have You Home

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday there was a group of children standing before the altar holding a banner that they had made in Sunday School. The banner a simple piece of fabric had been decorated by the little ones with the words, “Good bye Alleluia.” They had learned in their class that the word Alleluia would not be used or sung again until Easter, and it was time to say good bye as the days ahead would be a time of quiet preparation, not a time to shout the Alleluias that we sing throughout the rest of the year. The children folded the fabric into a small square and put it in a basket that had a lid and they slid it beneath the altar. One little blue eyed blond girl, very young, taking the time to turn and wave good bye as she walked away.

I’m not sure what they were told in Sunday School, it being for the little ones, of course, I didn’t hear the lesson, I don’t fit on a chair that size very well any more. I can imagine what they may have been told and I can see them furiously working on the project, markers flying, knowing that they didn’t have much time to complete their work before it would be presented to the congregation so that we may say our good byes as well. I think that it was a good lesson for the beginning of Lent. A good way to teach children and with great subtleness, teach we adults too that there was a time coming to start looking within and without.

It is during the season of Lent that it seems that nature provides the most darkness, grey inky days, and for central Indiana this year, we had brutal winds and ice pellets that stung the skin while one tried to scrape the earlier deposits of ice from one’s windshields. In the wee hours of the morning, with a scraper in hand that was designed for delicate frost patterns, not thick ice, it’s a little hard to think of Christian charity and introspection. There are those who are doing it though, like the guy who lives next door who is a junior in high school. He started his little pick up truck and while my van was running we cleaned ice from my windshield and then we worked on his. It’s true, many hands make light work, but what’s more, in the pitch black of a late February morning, it’s good to have someone who is helping and offering to do so from a warm heart. Tim had no idea what he was doing for me, an unknown offering of grace. I’m very grateful for his offering.

This past Sunday as the procession of the congregation, palms in hand, walked to the red doors of the church, I was reminded that I had read recently that often the doors of churches are painted red because it symbolizes the fire of the Holy Spirit within. For me, a great symbol, on this Sunday though, it seemed that red should be the color of the coats thrown before the Victor on his entry into the city.

Throughout the week, I thought about how our days were changing, weather-wise, even though it was hard to believe as I scraped frost one morning and the wind blew through my light jacket. There was a warm breeze though as I walked into the church on Maundy Thursday, in fact I did so in shirt sleeves and I paused outside of the red doors and listened to a robin sing, though I could not see it. In that bird song just outside of the church I felt a sense of hope and found peace in those musical notes. Inside there were reminders of what Lent is for, what the ride to Jerusalem was all about, simple chairs lined in a row, a basin and a stack of towels, the leader of the church on his knees pouring water from a stone ewer on the feet of his parishioners, I had a chill as the vision of Jesus doing this very thing came to mind. Then, rising to his feet, I could see Jesus drying his hands on the towel wrapped around his waist as he discussed the meaning of this act with Peter.

On Good Friday, a day that had been very trying for me at work; my body aching from lifting trays of Easter Lilies and loading them into the van for delivery, my mind kept thinking about what Good Friday means to me as one of the stepping stones on the way to the tomb. When the end of the day came, I couldn’t think of any place on my body that didn’t hurt, and then as I entered the door of the church and then saw the barren altar, in my mind I saw the image of Christ nailed to the cross, his head lying on his chest. I heard in the message that night that in the New English Bible that it doesn’t say, “it is finished,” before Christ breaths his last, rather it says, “it is accomplished.” I knew that my pain was nothing, and I felt shame in thinking about it.

This morning, (Saturday) as I pulled myself from bed, where it was warm and the city sounds were muffled, I felt those same aches and pains, only intensified and I reminded myself, this is nothing like many feel each day and it certainly is nothing like what Jesus suffered, grab your self by your Reebok strings and move on I told myself.

Later Saturday, evening:

The church was dark, there were no lights anywhere, including on the face of the building, nothing to make it look welcoming, though over the door the sign read, “everyone welcome.”
Inside it was cold and dark, very tomb like and then I felt what a friend of mine calls, “Holy Spirit Bumps,” she doesn’t have goose bumps. Scriptures were read that brought to mind exactly how we got to this point, the journey to the cross began with Moses and the Passover and it never occurred to me that the scripture tells very plainly that Jesus was placed in the tomb on the evening of preparation, he would have been in the tomb at the beginning of Passover. Suddenly, the bells that were ringing throughout the church and the lights that were coming on all through the sanctuary proclaimed that Christ has broken from the tomb and that we should too.

Welcome back Alleluia, welcome back.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Morning by Morning, Daylight Savings Time and Lent

Daylight savings time has started, I’m still not used to it, it keeps me in the dark while going to work, so spring feels like more winter, I don‘t need more winter. Usually when the sun starts rising at the real hour in March, it’s such a welcome sight for guys like me who are really better in the morning. I’m usually up before the alarm clock, so it’s nice to rise with the sun. I don’t need a longer, “day,” I need the darkness to come at it’s appointed time so that I can sleep and rise to be the morning person again. People say that you get used to daylight savings time, I don’t know that I ever will, frankly, I‘m not sure that I really want to. However, I don’t have a fiddler on my roof playing Sunrise, Sunset, so I take what comes when it comes to daylight.

People who know me well know that spring is my time of year and Easter is my holiday. I have to confess that since Easter is nearly as early as it can be this year, it means that the journey through Lent has seemed more like a race through the season, even though it is the same length of time that it always is. This is another reason why I like for the sun to rise early in the day, it sheds light on the look I’m taking on my inner self. That’s what Lent is really about, not the notion of giving up something. I don’t know that I’ve ever given up anything for Lent, but I have used the time to think about what’s coming and what’s behind and what needs to be put behind or away.

This Lent has been different than last year, but it is because I made it so; taking the steps early so that it would be what I needed for it to be, I think that it’s what God has called me to do. Time to listen for his still small voice, time to look deeply at my sins and seek his forgiveness. I’ve pondered on what Rev. Rachel said in a sermon this past summer, “we should seek to forgive, we do not have to seek reconciliation.” It has been food for thought during this time of introspection. Some of the things that I’ve held on to for the longest time are starting to slip away, I don’t think of them as often, I think that is how God let’s us know that we are accomplishing what we have set out to do in working to forgive, and for that I am grateful. There have been several things that have slipped away from me this Lenten season. Thinking about that, I guess I haven’t given up something, I’m giving up something. I just had the Eureka! moment that it as an ongoing process.

Beginning Sunday we commence the last steps to the Great Feast of the Resurrection. It starts with a parade for a victor, is interrupted by a, “dinner party” that goes sour, is darkened by the brutal death of the Messiah, and then the fulfillment of scripture in his rising to new life once again making him the ultimate victor. It is hard for me to imagine being able to fit all of that into one run on sentence. But in a filbert shell, that’s the story. It is also hard for me to imagine that in that one sentence our life is completely changed. In so many ways our lives fall into the same pattern, maybe once, maybe often.

There are times where we feel like we are king of the world, (we don’t have to hang off of the front of a luxury liner to feel that way.) Then, through a course of life events we come to a point where we may wish that we could die, we fall into the deepest darkness, somewhat like the darkness of a tomb where we feel that we are descending into hell. This is usually the point where we seek the face of the Lord and through grace we are raised to new life where we feel like we are king of the world again. I feel like this is truly the lesson we are shown so that we may see at what level we are able to experience just exactly what Jesus went through. It’s here that we have to bear in mind that we will never be given more than we can handle.

Daylight savings time or not, this story doesn’t change. The words of the old hymn come to mind, “…morning by morning, new mercies I see.”