Author Topic: Time and Place  (Read 2092 times)


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Time and Place
« on: October 06, 2009, 07:32:01 PM »
As some of you know, I participate in a group sponsored by the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Theological Seminary. Our last conference was on the theme of Time and Place and featured Marva Dawn as one of the main presenters. Recently everyone who participated was invited to submit a reflection on that topic for a collection. Since I am the only LCMS person in the program I thought I would share my reflection here, too. (They said it was fine to submit it in multiple places.)

Time and Place

   Driving out of town and following the signs for Denmark, you pass through Poland and then turn left and head into Luxemburg. Such places pepper this whole section of the map near Green Bay, interspersed with names like Oneida, Kewaunee or Shawano. The fields and forests form (if you ever get up high enough on a ridge to notice) a vaguely defined grid of country roads draped over the contours of the creeks and ridges and hills that prevent the lines from running straight. If there are idle tears involved with looking on the happy autumn fields and thinking of the days that are no more, the tears may partly dwell on the pre-historic, Native American past, but they recall the bygone things of the European settlers, too, among these faded red barns on fieldstone foundations.
   You can still navigate by steeples in the distance. The larger Catholic churches and smaller but more numerous Lutheran churches are spaced for distances reckoned by wagon and built with the assumption of big families on the surrounding farms, so they seem ridiculously close together as you’re driving along. You’re never out of sight of the next steeple. Some of the littler churches have closed their doors and left the building as a relic for the surrounding cemetery. Some of the churches are so small that one old-fashioned extended family could fill every pew and then some, if any such families were still around and still interested in that sort of thing. But some of the churches still ring the bells for worship. And back when the churches were built, they held up the cross as the only thing above the tree-lined horizon to navigate by, fixed upon the very tops of the steeples like little buckles or clasps securing the land to the sky.

   But you’re more likely to navigate by something else. Long after the churches were built, the little silos next to the red barns gave way to mammoth blue silos standing in formation above long rows of sheds, as the farms grew larger and the families smaller. Some of the time you might notice a little cross on top of a big silo, presumably put there in deference to the old idea that the food of this life was not the most important thing. There is, after all, a whole parable about the folly of bigger barns. Or maybe whoever put the cross up there unintentionally crowned the silo like a church. In any event, the people who built the tall churches had long since died when these taller silos went up and left the old family-farm silos to crumble.

                 Or you might navigate by the impossibly tall satellite towers, substance-less and mostly invisible, with cables like puppet strings against the sky. The towers are almost invisible as structures but noticeable for miles in any direction because of their glaring red lights, which show up even in broad daylight. They’re the chief thing you see at night, and even airplanes can navigate by them. From the top of such towers you could look down on scores of steeples. But you don’t make much progress against them driving—the satellite towers are so tall and so far apart that you don’t need them to navigate the little distance from Denmark to Luxemburg.
The newest and therefore most eye-catching feature of the landscape would have to be the occasional high-tech windmill. They have a certain space-age look to them—sleek and delicate but deceptively tall—certainly taller than the steeples or anything else that might interfere with the harvesting of wind. If you ever see one swivel, it can sometimes look startlingly like a vast, alien being surveying the landscape from a little ridge overlooking the fields.

                  So the steeples aren’t the tallest things. Prosperity and mammon-worship and the building of bigger barns gave way to technology and man-worship and the babble of a million channels, which is now giving way to environmentalism and nature worship and a reduction in the number of mouths to feed, which will give way to what? There is an ever-changing progressive spirit at enmity with all those old-fashioned churches and their steeples and crosses. Who knows what the horizon out in the country will look like a hundred years from now? But if you proposed to build a church with a steeple higher than a modern windmill you probably couldn’t even get a permit.

                  The particular steeple I am looking for is St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a little more than twenty miles out in the country east of Green Bay. Their pastor is very ill and recently retired, so I am filling in during the vacancy. The church is in Montpelier, a name without a discernible referent here, geological or otherwise. The congregation was founded by German immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century and moved to its current location in 1865. The current brick building with a steeple sticking up past the old trees went up in 1888. The cemetery sits behind and to one side, with a brand new parochial school building and parking lot to the other side, with woods and farms beyond in every direction.

                 Today I get the honor of dedicating the new school building as part of the service, which is a shame because I don’t know these people well enough to appreciate their big day the way their ailing former pastor would. The school is celebrating its 125th year of k-8 Lutheran education, beginning from a one-room schoolhouse and classes in German, to the “old old” building (now gone) to the twice renovated “new old” building still standing across the road (too much asbestos in it to tear it down, so it is used for storage) to today’s brand new school building with a gym and everything.
                  I’m early and I don’t have a key, so I decide to check out the cemetery. On a whim I want to find the oldest person here. I begin with the most cracked, worn and mossy and unreadable stones, and by tracing my finger in the vague indentations I find a man who was born in 1792 and died in 1868. The names are all German—Gruetzmacher, Dahlke, Zeitler—row after row in an orderly grid from those who were already old in 1865 all the way up to the present with funerals the previous pastor did earlier this year. The names remain the same, but the language of the Bible and hymn verses engraved on the stones changes from German to English right around the first world war. There are some veterans of that war here, who fought and maybe killed or were killed by other Gruetzmachers, Dahlkes and Zeitlers. Some of the older stones display not only names but family vocations like Mother, Father, or sometimes Aunt or Beloved Son, and sometimes those relationships are in bigger lettering than the actual names. The newer stones are still shiny and looking like they will always be shiny.

                   Some people arrive early for church and hustle into the school building to do some last minute preparations for the pot-luck, so I take the opportunity to walk through the new school all decked out for classes to start. The principal—Mrs. Zeitler—shows me around the hallways and classrooms—row after row of shiny desks labeled with colorful nametags—Dahlke, Gruetzmacher and a host of other familiar names from the cemetery interspersed among them.

Over in the church, people are streaming in excitedly and filling the narthex, which is an obvious ad-on to the front of the building from about 40 or 50 years ago. The sanctuary holds maybe 200 people tops, but today they will be, as they say, hanging from the rafters—extra chairs everywhere, balcony full, people standing in the narthex and even outside. The mailboxes along one wall are labeled with row after row of Zeitlers and Gruetzmachers and so forth, some of whom tell me about the big dedication of the new old school building in 1950 and how this day compares to that day. Old-timers in wheelchairs who remember the hitching posts out front like yesterday and toddlers and infants in carseat carriers who will live to see God-knows-what before they take their place out in the cemetery all pack themselves tighter together as the church bells begin to chime.

The chancel is lavish with old world religion original to the 1888 construction—statues and paintings and an ornate elevated pulpit in which I am to stand. I don’t know these people. I am a child of the same German Lutheran immigration and the same, vague European grid draped over the contours of the Upper Midwest in the 19th century, so in broad sociological terms I am one of them. But I have never been to this grid of gravestones, these rows of school desks, this particular block of church mailboxes. I can’t say I know these particular people.

                    But no matter. I know what they believe, teach, and confess. I know what their retired pastor would say, as would the pastor before him and before him. I know what the next generation will say, for I will be the one teaching it to them, at least for a little while. I know what all the headstones in the cemetery bear witness to, and what the builders of this building were trying to proclaim when they climbed the scaffold to put the cross on the steeple and looked out on nothing taller to the horizon. I know what the progressive spirit with its idols towering above the steeples would try to prevent them from saying, but what the people of all ages here would still say in unison if I began at the beginning today by asking, “What is the first commandment?” You shall have no other gods before me. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
And we all still sing, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”     

Jeremy Loesch

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Re: Time and Place
« Reply #1 on: October 06, 2009, 08:01:08 PM »
That is very nice.  Thank you.  Blessings on your work during the vacancy.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!

A Lutheran pastor growing into all sorts of things.