My name isn’t there. And thanks to 1990’s photo technology, I can really only make out the three names in front: Scotty, Mike, Reg. I never knew Reg. He left before I arrived. Scotty and Mike I knew – and they are fine. Well, none of us from that time are fine today. We’re grieving. The mural is gone, except in our memories and my photos – nerd that I am. The story needs to be told. And it’s odd that I’m telling it. I wasn’t there. But on this night, when we grieve, and shed tears, and look to the hope of the resurrection, it needs to be told.
It was the 1998-1989 school year at CCRF. 3rd Kohn was a boys floor back then. The rumor was that, at some point in the past, they held a contest to see what mural they wanted on the wall. Someone submitted a stupid cartoon rainbow and butterfly as a joke. It was the only submission, and so, the dorm mural was a stupid cartoon rainbow and a butterfly.
A young freshman – Brian Oberdeick by name – who had more than his share of artistic talent and theological ability, produced some pencil sketches that he had drawn up with a new idea for a mural – one that wasn’t so embarrassing. I still remember Scotty Christenson telling the story. “We all said, well sure, if you can make it look that good full size. And he didn’t. It looked way better.” At the center of the mural was a cross – the center of our life in Christ. Chalice, the waters of Baptism, hands raised in prayer, the Word of God, the churches song. It was all there. A summary of the life in Christ, with the desert of the world on one side and the storms of life in the other. The Christian life in one mural. It was the best painting on campus – and we got to see it day in and day out. We saw in those brushstrokes a summary of our confession.
But the most striking thing – and it becomes more striking to me each year – was the cemetery. Yes, we had a mural with a cemetery on our wall. Next to a caterpillar and beautiful monarch butterfly – symbols of the resurrection – were the gravestones. The largest stone bore the inscription “Romans 8:38-39”:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The stone behind it said “Only sleeping.” And then, a collection of stones fading into an innumerable distance. The front stones bore names. They were the names of each resident that year. Some had left before I even arrived. But most were still there. Scotty, Mike, Mike, Marty, Brian, Scott. So young and full of life. The day when any of us would lie under a cold stone seemed impossible far off. How could these – well still boys really – ever face death? It was a comfort to know that death would not hold us forever. But it was an abstract comfort. Because none of us were dead.
Today I received news via facebook that another member of my 3rd Kohn family is now “only sleeping.” The mural gets more correct all the time. I’m told it was painted over years ago. The first I heard of it, the floor had been changed to a women’s floor and the residents found the graveyard disturbing. It would be a few more years before it was confirmed – the mural was gone. Another, less theologically aware, less artistically appreciative floor had given it the whitewash. But the message can not be erased. The boys of yesterday will come to fill ever more and more of those stones. And each one will still be prefaced with “Only Sleeping”.
On the side opposite the tombstones, hands are raised in prayer and thanksgiving. Multi-colored tongues of fire go up, while the spirit descends as a dove. We offer our prayers in the Spirit. And we are comforted in our grief. A number of my friends have posted hymn verses on their facebook walls tonight, as we say good bye to our friend. As we grieve the loss of another who meant so much to so many.
I ran with a mostly different crowd. I didn’t see him too much. But two stories stick out in my mind. One was the story of them coming in each Friday night to wake up my roommate. Loudly. Usually at about 2 am. “Where’s pickle?” Let’s just say that I was surprised, week after week, they found the right door. Or for that matter, the right building. College foolishness. No hard feelings. It still brings a smile to my face to remember.
The other was one day, I was in their room – which only happened once or twice. We were talking about their loft. Every year, they would bolt it to the wall – highly illegal. Every year the inspection team would come in, give it a shake, and commend them on the sturdiness. And we shared a laugh at the expense of the administration.
We sang in choir together – different sections. We lived together, but hung out with different groups. We likely played Euchre together – although they were usually smart enough to avoid having me as a partner – I have always been terrible at cards. Those are my memories. Indistinct and growing fainter.
But the words painted on that wall – words that have been gone for years – burn brighter and more clearly with the passing of each member of my 3rd Kohn family. At some point, it will be down to one, and then the last will go. The tombstones were painted so long ago when we were so young, so naive, and yet so sure of the confidence that was ours, and so secure in that hope; a hope that has not grown dim over the years, but ever more sure. They were, we knew prophetic. Although we could not imagine the time ever arriving when that prophecy was fulfilled. It’s a little closer now than it was. And the girls that followed us were correct- we are very disturbed by the news. That another is placed under the stone of death grieves us beyond words. We hate to see this, as much as our Lord hates to see it. He hated it so much, he went there first for us, to give us a way through death, and into life. That’s why we could have the confidence to see those names every day and find it hopeful. Why those who came later actually envied the men who got to have their own names on those painted stones. Why I return to that image from time to time. Because Scott is only sleeping. And we wait. He will wake one day.
At the top, next to the cross, it says, “God is with us.” It was true then. It is true now. It will be true tomorrow. And thanks to what Jesus did, Scott is with God.
Rest in peace, old friend.