The cornerstone by the entrance to the church in Metuchen, New Jersey, where we’re holding Nana’s memorial service reads, “1717.”
Think about that.
“What am I,” I wonder as I cross the threshold, “the millionth person to enter this building?” I think about those who had come before me.
I imagine the stoic, patronizing, agnostic husband coming to church because his wife got religion. He hopes this too shall pass.
And there’s the 22 year old young man who is only there because the last time he visited this church he saw her, the girl of his dreams, but just like that, after the service she slipped away. So he returns Sunday after Sunday hoping to see her again.
Then there’s the young mother who just lost her husband in the Civil War, locking arms with her husband’s grieving, also-widowed mother. What will they do now?
There’s the swaddled baby, the toddler missing her nap, the fresh-faced boy with two pockets filled with living bits of mischief he took from the earth when no one was watching. He’s got plans.
There’s the grandmother who, to her recollection, hasn’t missed more than a few Sundays in five decades of worship there. She prays for every new face she sees—earnest prayers.
There’s the nervous bride in the sitting room and her groom back in the vestry, on the verge of promising their lives to each other and making it all legal.
There’s the potlucks in the yard, the voting booths lining the narthex, and the civic groups planning their holiday fund raisers in the Children’s Sunday School room, sitting in chairs a size too small for their bad backs and large butts.
There’s the alcoholics taking their steps to recovery, praying for the ability to know the difference between what they can control and what they cannot.
There’s the teenage girl wondering if she should keep the baby, and the boyfriend to her right without a clue, the father to her left about to find out and the mother next to him who already knows because, well, she just knows. She dabs her tears and no one notices.
I imagine if this church was built nearly three hundred years ago, then it has seen most any situation that has ever led anyone anywhere to darken the door of a church.
Me? Death brought me.
Nana’s memorial service was familiar in its unfamiliarity—a collection of strangers bound to one another by blood but separated by time and space, mostly only seeing each other when someone marries or someone dies. Usually when someone dies.
We reintroduce ourselves. We all look at bit older since the last time. We try to remember where we last left our conversations. Then we remember we left them at the last funeral. We say we really need to meet on happier occasions, but if we’re honest, we know we’ll probably never make those arrangements.
I open the memorial service by inviting the dozen or so gathered to think about any remembrances they might wish to share about Nana. We sing. I deliver a short eulogy, and we open the floor for a few stories and poems.
From there, we adjourn to the fellowship hall. As we walk, a distant cousin points out a headstone bearing my mother’s maiden name.
Filling the yard to the east of the sanctuary lies a cemetery like every old church used to have. Ghost-white limestone markers dating back before the Civil War stand tall, thin and rounded. One I see actually bears the inscription “R.I.P.”
Over the years, as this church’s property yielded to progress, the original sanctuary expanded to add a wing of class rooms, offices and the small chapel where we gathered to remember Nana.
When it came time to build a fellowship hall, the land to the west was already developed to capacity. So they built a stand-alone structure in the small field on the east side of the cemetery.
The strange effect is that for a person to go from fellowship to worship, they have to pass right through the center of this garden of graves, silent except for the inscriptions of names, dates and titles. No two stones are alike. Not one has a duplicate anywhere under the sun.
Yet for every pilgrim moving from the fellowship of men to the worship of the Most High, those headstones, like a choir half buried and half rising up from their Metuchen soil, sing the same refrain:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)
The next day, mom, her sister’s family and I head off to Staten Island to see the house mom lived in as a baby—72 Fingerboard Road. It is the only time I can recall imagining my mother as a baby.
From there we drive to the large brownstone building where Nana went to High School. This is the first time I’ve imagined Nana as a teenager.
We see maybe five other sites like this and mom comments that we’re the only ones who would ever take this tour. Though rich in history, it is specific only to our family.
It was glorious.
Toward the end of our tooling around Staten Island, though, I develop a sense of urgency. I have a plane to catch, and I don’t want to miss my departure. Though the GPS tells us the Newark Airport is less than ten miles away, I have spent the past three days learning, if nothing else, that things take time.
Also, as Annie Dillard said, eventually “enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
I am a man moving through my little colony of fellowship to the Holy eternal presence of my God and King. On my way, I pass through the court of a great cloud of witnesses—some living, some dead.
They speak into my life. I hear great wisdom I want to embrace. I see behaviors of deep regret I want to mortify. I see the consequences of lives squandered in fear and folly, warning me to steer clear.
I try to listen, but I have enough folly of my own to complicate that sometimes.
Even reflections like this can become an exercise in foolishness if I keep kicking away at the plain simple truth that everybody dies as though I am trying to craft a poem out of what we all know is really much more like prose.
Sure, we all have extraordinary moments, but just as most of those who entered that church in Metuchen over the past three centuries did so for ordinary reasons, most of life we live in ordinary time.
These past few months have taken me from Washington to Tennessee to Texas to Colorado to Minnesota to New York to South Carolina.
At last, I am home.
I have a three year old named Jane. She’s got her little hands on my cheeks, looking into my eyes. She wants my attention. It is time for her nap. And being Sunday, it is time for mine too.
She tells me she is going to get her purple blanket and crawl into my bed to wait for me. She wants to snuggle.
With that she departs.
One day I will depart this fellowship of the saints I love so much to an eternity of exultant praise in the presence of the Maker and Lover of my soul.
My headstone will join the chorus in the land of the living: “A time to be born and a time to die.”
And if my little Jane lives long enough, she too may become the last of her generation, outliving her old brother and two older sisters. She might prompt some young father I’ll never meet to reflect on his grandmother’s passing. And like me, he may use far more words than he really needs.
Since there is a time for every matter under heaven, that time may come.
But the matter under heaven before me now is this: a little girl with a purple blanket is waiting. And she is waiting for me.
So if you’ll excuse me.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).