Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 30) transports me to the cemetery of Gashes Creek Baptist, where I made my annual walk this afternoon to catch the splendor of April’s purple and pink phlox creeping around the concrete monuments dating from the late 19th century. The markers all tell short stories of their own with what is etched in the marble and granite stones – dates and Bible verses and loving messages and Masonic and military symbols are common; an etched baseball glove is among the not so common tributes. Having a telephone number carved below “Jesus Called” is also among the unique markers. I never make this trek through the graveyard without remembering the summer of 1981. That was my first year as youth minister, and it was the year Big Jim, our beloved but gruff old groundskeeper, had his heart attack and wasn’t able to do the mowing. I had a guilty fear that our youthful antics had contributed to his cardiac arrest; we had driven him crazy with our frisbee golf, especially having designed the 7th fairway to go right through the middle of the cemetery. It was a 2 stroke penalty if you hit a marker, and a 3 stroke penalty for hitting Big Jim while he was mowing. Anyway, I commandeered the services of several guys in the youth group to help me take over the mowing that summer. Big Jim would walk out to the edge of the field to watch Tim and Joel and Kyle and Laron and Keith and Jeff and I “work,” and he would just shake his head and whistle through his teeth, muttering about how we’d never make it in the moffit – that’s what it sounded like he was saying when he waxed nostalgic about life in the southern mafia, the organized crime syndicate of bootleggers he had been in the thick of before he was rescued from the penitentiary and came to find the Lord. It was a fun summer, despite our lack of know-how and poor work ethic; it took a group of 7 or 8 of us twice as long to mow and weed-eat as it took Big Jim to do it himself. We spent more time in horseplay and joking around, dark humor to be sure. Big Jim was back in full stride the next summer, but our dark humor was not, as this was the summer that my mother’s body was laid to rest after a six-year battle with cancer. Two months after her internment, one of the wittiest clowns in the youth group, Jeff Allen, lost his life in a car wreck and was buried just a couple of graves away from mom.
I don’t know what kind of flowers covered the cemetery ground back in the Psalmist’s day, but we can surmise that it was a familiar place for him, as his poems walk through the graveyard on a regular basis. Today’s passage recounts feelings of hopelessness and despair that he could only compare to a lifeless body being laid to rest in the cold clay. There is nothing to be gained, the poet argues, from returning to the dust, for the dust has no voice to praise or testify to God’s faithful love. But whatever it was that caused his spirit to sink into deathly despair and depression, there had been a rescue. His prayers for resurrection had been answered: O Lord my God, I cried to you for help. . . You brought me up from the grave, O Lord. I cried out to you, O Lord. . . I begged the Lord for mercy, saying, “What will you gain if I die, if I sink into the grave? Can my dust praise you? Can it tell of your faithfulness? . . . You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. From whatever dark night had buried the Psalmist’s spirit six feet under, his demeanor was now as bright as an April field covered with creeping phlox.
As I walked through the cemetery today, I took note of the names familiar to people who grew up in that community – Dotsons and Wilsons and Wilkersons and Reeds and Craytons – and I looked at dates, showing lives as long as centenarian Stella Noland’s 102 years and as short as baby Ray Morningstar’s one year. I remembered that it was not only unruly teenage boys who were drawn to the graveyard, finding it a playground of sorts. Children of every generation got their frames climbed whenever they ventured out beside the front steps to climb on the tallest of these monuments, one belonging to a certain Heber A. Latham who passed in 1904. I realized today that I don’t remember anyone ever talking about who this person of obvious import was. An internet search turned up only one reference; his name shows up in an online tome of the history of the University of North Carolina, 1775-1889. In 1910 the class of 1885 held their 25th reunion, and a member of the class, Alexander J. Feild, private secretary to NC governor Willam Kitchin, was the keynote speaker. In his speech Feild gave this memorial: Four of those who graduated with us laid down their burdens while it was still morning. He cited Heber Amos Latham as one of the four who prematurely met their Maker. The history book also noted that in his senior year the young Latham had competed in one of the debate societies and received a handsome copy of Tennyson’s Poems for his effort. Today I honor the life of this largely forgotten soul, Heber A. Latham, and I honor the spirit of all those souls still remembered and beloved whose bodies lie there in the Gashes Creek ground, pushing up phlox instead of daisies, whose lives long and short burned bright nonetheless as they charged their way through the world. I pay them tribute with something Mr. Latham would have read in his Tennyson book: When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wonder’d. Honour the charge they made!
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.