Asbury First United
George Austin feathered out straw bedding for his livestock in the last week of his earthly life. The makeshift manger, before which he stood, ladling out the straw, afforded a beautiful view off the neighbor’s pond. This was the week before George died. He may have had a premonition. He had made some arrangements. But he found himself looking out at Foster’s pond, enjoying this view from the manger. He grown up and grown old around that pond. Foster’s pond is down the Genesee valley, that hotbed of Wesleyan religion, a part of the old burned-over district. George grew up and grew old farming a piece of land near Houghton College, and yes this is a true story.
The week before his funeral, his eye wandered down the valley to gaze at the pond, a pretty, spring fed pond with a couple of oak trees near the bank. What a spot! What a place! A swimming hole in the summer, a skating pond in the winter, a place for private meetings in the harvest moon. George Austin found himself day-dreaming beside his makeshift manger. He leaned on the pitchfork, now and then. You are entitled to lean on the pitchfork, now and then, when you are in your last week. Or year. Or decade. Or…
The weeks before Christmas provide four Sundays for worship and teaching. The ancients used one Sunday each on four doctrines dealing with the future: death, judgment, heaven, hell. It may be that this story of George Austin and the neighbors’ pond will illumine these points for you.
Leaning for a moment, George recalled an Epworth League breakfast that had been held, one summer Sunday morning. The preacher had all the young people meet at the pond at sunrise. The class that morning dealt with death and resurrection. He remember they were asked to recite 1 Cor 15., and as he ruminated he heard all the old questions and answers again, even after 70 years.
What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being that we may live with Christ in the communion of saints.
The class went on. Woodsmoke, bacon, and coffee: he could smell them again as he remembered. He peered at the pond. The face and scruffy hair of a 15-year-old boy looked back at him. His reflection. He wondered what God’s reflection would look like. He glanced at the manger. A phrase pierced him: “all flesh is grass. It withers and fades”. Again he looked at the pond. He imagined his reflection looking back at him. He thought: maybe I am a reflection and my real self is looking down at me from heaven.
George Austin snapped open the twine on another bail. He filled another part of the manger, and then paused to look again downhill. A light snow filtered out over the pasture. He gazed again at the pond. He loved the way the land rolled around it. Leaning on the rake, his memory settled on an autumn night: a full moon, a full barn, frost on the pumpkin. As he reminisced, he could feel again the chill of the October night he remembered. He was alone by the pond. A young man now. He had never felt more alone in his life. Something had gone wrong. There was nothing to be done. It was too late. He had hurt someone, not intentionally but consciously and culpably. It was not the sort of thing that would put him in jail. It was not something that people would know about. But he knew. Again, a verse: “be not deceived, God is not mocked; as a man sows, so shall he reap”. The old confirmation catechism questions came back to him:
What do we mean by the last judgment?
We believe that Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.
He looked down the length of the long pond. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” George’s eyes moved around Foster’s pond, as he remembered how he had learned to ask for forgiveness.
That week before he died, George Austin was laying hay in a manger, feeding his horses and cattle. He stopped again to look at the pond. In a way the little circle was the center of his life. Along its banks he had known both heaven and hell. At sunrise, with the Epworth League, in his youth he had learned the teaching of the church. But life itself had put clothing on otherwise skeletal words:
What do we mean by heaven and hell?
By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.
By hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.
He thought about a cold January afternoon. Below zero in the Genesee valley. Snow falling. Trudging over the drifts toward a well frozen pond. He remembered the sight: the pond covered with skaters, hats and scarves blowing, a bonfire under the oak trees. He couldn’t wait to get down to the bank and put on his skates. He had met someone here the week before, and he prayed all week that she would be back again. He remembered sitting on a log and lacing his skates. He looked up and there she was: red cap, red scarf, and red cheeks. Snow, wind, fire and the sense that God had given him someone if he had the courage to accept. He could feel the numbness in his toes, still, as he remembered that heavenly day—a heavenly, snowy, heavenly, snowy, heavenly day. The girl in red he married that summer.
A Frost poem came to mind: “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring…” The manger was full, and the view from the manger, down to Foster’s pond, was full too. George knew another memory would come, unwanted. Hell is the absence of God, our rejection of God, the dark tragedy that somehow shadows all of life. Neither can we understand it, nor can we fully escape it, at least in this life. There is an abiding, tragic dimension to life, which no amount of religion even can erase. The horses took satisfaction in their manger meal. Passingly George thought about the famous manger of Christmas.
Now the dark hurt of life was before him again. He looked at the pond. This memory was not of heaven at all. Not of the presence of God at all, but of God’s unfathomable silence, absence, distance. A memory, in that way, hellish and hard. It was a frightening, bitter memory. Again the pond, now in early spring. A group of men gathered at the shoreline. A boy skating on the pond in the March air had fallen through and had not survived—7 years old, his. George remembered the feel of the warmer wind, the sound of car doors, the bluish tint to the early spring conifers, the sound of car doors, the murmuring of the men fumbling to offer condolence. He had known the silence of God at Foster’s pond. Somehow, by grace, he had survived.
At the end of his life, George looked out on what he had experienced. Here is his view from the manger: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. All are future realities. How shall we live, in view of the manger? Shall we not sing with Mary:My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendents forever.