Thursday, December 17, 2009
The Cross at the Side of the Road
I have been doing quite a bit of job-related driving recently. Last week I drove to near Beaumont, then over to Austin and back home on one circuit. Earlier this week, I was on the Oklahoma border. In better economic times, I would have probably declined these jobs, as they are outside of our normal trade area. These days, we do not turn anything down. Not only can we do that job, we can do it tomorrow.
A drive deep into southeast Texas is an interesting experience. Of all the regions of our state, I would have to say this area is the least stereotypically Texan. To those of us located even just a few hours north, it seems more an extension of southwestern Louisiana, but without the Cajun flavoring. The flat land was always poor and never much good for farming. The region remains impoverished, given to logging and trailers.
I never mind driving, for there is always something to see along the way. Roadside churches are a never-ending source of interest. In one town, I passed a storefront church--the New Life Church (but of course)--which, in its storefront window promoted not only the church, but its fresh shrimp and catfish, as well their print shop for tee-shirts and banners. They also managed to find room for a poster denouncing "Obamacare." Further down the road, I passed the ramshackle Church of Ace, which struck me as funny, in a "Church of Butch" kind of way. But, I later discovered that Ace is the name of a now near-extinct community there, which explains the wording. Still further on, I passed the Community Missionary Baptist Church, a modest structure to be sure, but neat as a pin. On the sign out front, they proclaimed: "Teaching the Bible, verse by verse." You have no doubt what these people are all about. About 750 feet down the highway, I passed another, more substantial Missionary Baptist Church. The story here is clear, if you know how to read the signs. The smaller church split off from the larger church, and their statement of purpose, as spelled out on their sign in front, served as something of a rebuke to the older church, where apparently, they perceived that the Bible was not being taught, verse by verse.
But poking gentle fun at small-town Texas religious idiosyncrasies is not where I am going with this story. The placing of crosses and memorials at the site of highway traffic deaths has become a common practice (This was not done in my youth, and seems to be a phenomenon of the last two decades or so.) On a long stretch of straight highway, I noticed a particularly large white cross in passing. Something about this memorial caught my eye. I pulled over and made a u-turn and went back to verify what I thought I had seen. A small sign next to the cross said simply "We will miss you Josh Henry." Upon closer inspection, I noticed that friends had written notes to his memory all over the white cross. His cap was hanging over the top of the cross, and his hard-hat was hanging on the left bar of the cross. A football had been propped-up against the foot of the cross. A couple of beer bottles were standing upright nearby. The immediate area had been swept clean, and in what had originally caught my eye, a ring of crushed Bud Light beer cans encircled the cross.
I did a google search a few days later, and learned a few more details. Josh died after being thrown from a truck that wrecked on October 17th. He was 21 years old. The particulars follow a sadly familiar script: 2:30 in the morning, 92 miles per hour, and of course, driving under the influence of alcohol. The driver walked away from the mishap, but has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.
I do not know about his religious affiliation, but would guess him to be nominally Baptist or Pentecostal or some variation thereof, as is normative for the area. His funeral was probably overflowing in attendance, and no doubt the preacher comforted the family with his assurance of heaven, based on a childhood profession of faith. Back in my Church of Christ days, we snidely referred to this as "preaching someone into heaven." [We, of course, eschewed such behavior, as I am not sure we really believed anyone was actually going there.] This is all speculation of course, on my part. I am just guessing, based on my knowledge of the culture.
But Josh's makeshift memorial serves a stark rebuke to any funereal platitudes, smooth words and warbling Southern gospel hymns. It seems to me that the friends who erected this memorial weren't buying any of that at all. This young construction worker loved football, beer and having a good time with his friends. And now, for his buddies, abruptly and incomprehensibly, he is gone, leaving a gaping hole where once existed their life with him. We exert so much time and effort in the construction, maintenance and nurturing of the Lie--the unreality of our existence, if you will--that is to say, our denial of the fact that every day is the day of our death; if not today, then certainly tomorrow. And for all of us, there comes a time when this edifice crumbles in the face of the Real. Josh's friends--confronting eternity--struggled to comprehend this reality. Does he live on only in their memories? Or is there more? And why this way? Their messages and testimonies scribbled on the roadside cross, in a pitiable attempt to hold on the memory of Josh, and the placement of tokens of their life with him, spoke volumes to me. For we are all pitiable and feeble. We all seek to hold tight to that which is slipping away. We mourn over death, and ask why. For Josh's friends, my prayer is that they one day will know that this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality and that in the end, Death is swallowed up in victory. And for Josh, all I can say is all I know to say--With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.