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“Where have all the flowers gone?”

By September 30, 2016 2 Comments

There is not one blade of grass.
There is not one color in the world,
That is not intended to make us rejoice.

He did well, I thought, but then I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. We were in a tiny country church whose doorway the deceased, an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s, had not darkened for a decade at least. The preacher didn’t know the woman, nor did I. But, truth be told, I’d give him an A-. Not reluctantly either. Okay, A maybe. 

Having read ten thousand essays makes me forever a critic, even if I’d rather not. But then sermon evaluation is way of life for any full-blood Christian Reformed kid of my era. I grew up in a loving home where sermon critiques were Sunday fare. But the only roast on the table was baked with potatoes and onions because preachers didn’t get cooked at the Schaap house; my father was himself a PK. But sermons were pulled apart, and if found overdone or rare, declared so. What I’m saying is that I can’t help myself. When I hear a sermon I evaluate.

Yesterday, I thought the preacher was sound and personal and comforting, which is just about all that’s required at a funeral. An old friend whose father was a preacher used to tell her that funerals were lovely things because all he had to do was read Psalm 90 and he’d have rapt attention. Yesterday, the bar was low.

I didn’t know the woman who died, my wife’s aunt. She lived a whole state away, and the family wasn’t all that close anymore. But it’s hard not to notice a casket up front of the communion table. Still, had my heart been heavy with grief, like some hearts were, I wouldn’t have been so critical.

The woman’s obit claimed she was the one who made sure that all five kids got to church, that they knew what they needed to for Sunday School and catechism, that kept their spiritual lives in line. Like most farm wives of her era, her kingdom was the home, which reportedly she kept well and smilingly. What she loved more than anything, the kids had told the preacher, was flowers and birds.

So that’s where he started. He admitted his thumb was anything but green. The only plant he had in his study, he said, was plainly dying. He didn’t know what it was either, a chancy admission at a rural church. The sermon–it wasn’t too long either–took aim at life’s fragility, how the wild flowers in ours and her backyard witness mortality. Beauty was fleeting. See those flowers? Well, tomorrow they’re gone.

Nothing new in his sermon. But then I’ve read Psalm 90 a hundred times, but I still get knee-capped by a half-dozen or more memorable phrases, including that climax: “establish the work of our hands–yes, establish the work of our hands.” There’s some pleading there. I get that.

The preacher’s sermon was not an unfamiliar tune. In ancient poetry it’s called ubi sunt, I think, if I can remember notes from English lit. “‘Where have all the flowers gone?” some hippy trio used to sing. It’s lament, and it’s old and staid and serious; not frivolous, not silly. He didn’t try to be cute. There’s nothing cute about Psalm 90, after all.

“Our flowers are only flowers”–that’s what he was talking about. It’s a line Edgar Allen Poe, but it was, for the most part, the heart of his sincere and gracious homily, and, as I’ve already said, it was good and right and fitting.

But I’ve been toying around with Calvin lately (that’s not meant as oxymoron), and I’ve become convinced that somehow my own Calvinist education cheated me out of respect for JC’s marvelous sense of the eternal beauty of this world. Sometimes, I swear, I think Calvin was Lakota or Navajo because flowers aren’t only flowers in Calvin. See those lines up at the top of the page?–that’s him sort of, maybe a bit of a Schaap turn, but just about pure Calvin.

Those flowers, the heavens above, the farmland all around–harvest right now–the hills and mountains, lakes and plains; they’re not just object lessons. They’re not gods, as the Yankton Sioux who once lived here might have regarded them, but neither is this world a flannel graph. Calvin thinks they’re so much of God that only in their presence, only in our natural world, do weak-kneed human beings come to know, for certain, that he is God and we sure as heck aren’t. Flowers let us know just how much we need him.

How about this?

Nothing is so obscure or contemptible.
even in the smallest corners of the earth,
that it cannot display some of the marks and the wisdom of God.

Seriously, that might well have been Sitting Bull, but it’s John Calvin. 

What that preacher said at the funeral wasn’t unbiblical (my spellcheck doesn’t know what to do with that word). Not at all. “Consider the lilly,” “the birds of the field. . .” You know. “Dust to dust”–it’s all there. I’m saying he didn’t breathe a word of heresy.

But I couldn’t help wonder whether that farm woman who tended flowers out there in the yard all her life long didn’t see more, even in those early-bloomin’ hollyhocks, than ubi sunt. I can’t imagine she thought of them as symbols.  

A rose is a rose is a rose, I wanted to tell him.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a very fine funeral, and all around the front of the sanctuary stood beautiful flowers.

This morning I’m just thankful for having been there, at a funeral with more family than friends, at a little country church in a world, by the way, radiant and gold with harvest.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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