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Editor’s Journal: Trusting a promise

Far away from the pomp and pageantry that accompanied the public mourning and remembrance of the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a different sort of realization with a distinct absence of memory brought sobriety to me this week. Tucked away off a road seldom travelled (and literally in the middle of nowhere) is a small cemetery with graves dating back to the early 1900s.

The road is largely overgrown and many of the headstones lie fallen to the ground. The silent artillery of time has demolished some of the graves, and more than half of the tombstones are slick as the rain of more than 100 years has washed over them. Names once clearly etched in stone are no longer visible. The earth is packed hard around the cemetery, and weeds and grass grow tall amidst the wild flowers.

Two small graves appear off the side of the road. One contains the bodies of two infant boys. They are the sons of Fred and Metta Carson. Wilber lived less than a month (May 31-June 2, 1911). Merrel survived just longer than one week (Jan. 8-15, 1913). To the left of this grave are the remains of Bula L. Carson. She lived four days—Sept. 1-4, 1917. In the area adjacent to these graves are the graves of other small children—probably the victims (as near as historians can tell) of some sort of influenza outbreak. Perhaps Bula was even infected by the influenza pandemic that swept over the world just after her death (1918).

Gravesite of infants Wilber and Merrel Carson, who died in the early 1900s. (PHOTO: DOUG BAKER)

Gravesite of infants Wilber and Merrel Carson, who died in the early 1900s. (PHOTO: DOUG BAKER)

The graves of their parents are not here. As best as historical records can tell, they moved on to another part of Oklahoma—perhaps the panhandle— where they died during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Those were in the days when stocks crashed and the rains disappeared. In the words of author Timothy Egan in his bestselling work on the era, The Worst Hard Time, “dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains—a force of their own. When the dust fell, it penetrated everything: hair, nose, throat, kitchen, bedroom, well. A scoop shovel was needed just to clean the house in the morning.”

Egan states that the most eerie part of the weather phenomenon was the darkness—literally midnight at midday.

“People tied themselves to ropes before going to a barn just a few hundred feet away,” Egan writes. Many children died from what doctors termed, “dust pneumonia.” In desperation, some parents even gave their children away.

The only response to an awareness of such events is to lament. Such thoughts are terrifying to most people. For over time, even the most pleasant gravesite could soon become something akin to where the Carson children are buried —remote, isolated and forgotten. They are not alone. Most people die and are buried with their memory barely lasting through the lives of their children. Worse still is the grief of a parent laying their children to rest in their graves. At times, the pain of this fallen world seems like too much to bear. The reality of pain is overwhelming and immobilizing.

Bula Carson lived only four days after her birth in 1917. Perhaps she was the victim of the influenza epidemic which swept over the world in 1918 just after her death. (PHOTO: DOUG BAKER)

Bula Carson lived only four days after her birth in 1917. Perhaps she was the victim of the influenza epidemic which swept over the world in 1918 just after her death. (PHOTO: DOUG BAKER)

And yet, the church of Jesus Christ in the modern day seems blissfully unaware of the sorrows of this life. Most congregations have lost the theological reality of lament. To lament anything in the modern era is to be seen as weak, frail and something to be avoided if at all possible—especially during the public worship of God. Modern evangelical worship styles highlight the celebratory aspects of God’s character almost to the total exclusion of the realization that Jesus was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Faced with the reality of Lazarus’ death, Jesus wept (John 11:35). On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus poured out His soul before the Father in agony. How often is prayer portrayed as agonizing by the American church today? Yet, that infamous evening in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus’ lament and prayer to the Father was so intense that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44). Here was a man in deep lamentation.

Why? What would cause the Son of God to lament in such a manner as this? What could possibly lie behind such raw emotion? Even as Jesus rose to find His disciples asleep, Judas appeared with those who would usher Him to trial in the middle of the night and finish what God started from before the foundation of the Earth. The crucifixion of Jesus was no accident, no mere death of a good man. Jesus did not gleefully go to Golgotha. Rather, in obedience to the Father’s will, He endured the cross.

None can enter into the suffering of Jesus. While God’s children might fill up His sufferings (Col. 1:24), that moment at Calvary was unique in the history of humankind. The cross stands ever to remain through centuries—undaunted, unchanged. Its power to loose men from the corruption of sin comes at a very high price—the life of the Son of God—the One described as the Lamb of God slain from before the foundation of the world.

Thinking of the senseless, cruel act of Timothy McVeigh’s sin as I listened to the names of the 168 victims read aloud by members of their families, I tried to imagine what Oklahomans must have felt during the immediate aftermath of the explosion. My mind also wandered to the graves of the Carson infants. By their graves on this day, there was no distant relative to remember, no sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” no prayers uttered, no one—nothing but a deafening silence shouting that the way of all flesh is death.

The hope of the world resides in a dying man beaten beyond recognition and nailed to a Roman cross centuries ago. By His death, resurrection and ascension, the curse has been reversed, but not fully realized at present. Biblical hope by faith is the present possession of those who are called not to see Jesus with their eyes, but to hear and believe the Gospel. Through the efficacy of a divinely enabled capacity to hear and heed the biblical Gospel, hope is grounded in the historical reality of Jesus as He now stands in victory over death, Hell and the grave.

One day (perhaps sooner than anyone would dare to think) the graves of Wilber, Merrel and Bula Carson will be opened. They will appear in heavenly splendor through the power and promise of Jesus.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15.

Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Sharon

    My husband and I often visit old cemetaries. My friends laugh because I say they are romantic places. The grave markers and inscriptions tell of love and sadness. I see the infants and children’s markers and thank God I have not been asked to go through that grief and I wonder at how those mothers got through it. Often there are old roses and other plants that have outlived the gardener who put them there. And sometimes there are flowers to indicate even after many years someone is still remembering and missing a loved one. Men often outlived several wives and numerous children before there was better health care and more doctors and the story is right there in the plot amongst all the markers, big and small. I enjoyed your story. I chauffered my grandparents when they got elderly and they yearly visited graveyards to see where old friends had been layed to rest. I guess it planted the seed. I got to hear a lot of stories about older times and different people and it was a special time with them. Yes, I go atleast twice a year to Wheelock and clean their graves and put out flowers. I know they are not there and with Jesus but it brings me comfort even after thirty-plus years. Sharon

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