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Making History Today: Walk About Zion

My mother had a fascination with cemeteries, a fascination that was not maudlin at all and one that I did not understand until I was much older. As an adult, I have found myself entering that same world of being intrigued with cemeteries. These days with the rise of cremations (including my own someday), columbaria can hold a certain interest, I suppose.

But for me there is still something about visiting a graveyard that engages the mind and the imagination. What stories lie with those bones beneath the ground? “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes …”, but clearly there’s more to that person than what’s left in the casket buried underground. For those whom we knew or who are part of our family history, there are memories, either personal memories or ones we’ve been told.

But even then there’s more to it than memories. There are persons whom I’ve never known whose graves I want to visit. Where I live today is not far from the grave of Daniel Baker, that 19th century evangelist and founder of Austin College who was born in Georgia and graduated from Princeton University, as well as that of his son, William Baker, also a graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Seminary and the organizing pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Austin. What made them tick? Why did they come from the East coast to Texas?

In that same cemetery several members of my own family are buried, some of whom I knew well. There are so many questions I have now that I wish I had asked while they were alive. I know that they are not where I am standing, but I am aware of the spirit with which they lived. I’ve known people who talk to the person near whose grave they are standing. I’ve been known to do that myself.

In the Texas State Cemetery in Austin are graves I’d like to visit – Barbara Jordan, for example, and Willie Wells, a Black Hall of Fame baseball player who never had the opportunity to play in the “white” Major League, and Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas” and J. Frank Dobie, among many others. If I were to wander among these graves, I would wonder about the stories they might tell that never got told. I would also be reminded of their many gifts.

In the Kingsville, Texas cemetery are not only the graves of Richard and Henrietta King, founders of the King Ranch and of the town of Kingsville, but across from those graves are the graves of James and Julia Skinner. James Skinner was the first president of what is now the Presbyterian Pan American School, a school begun from scratch on land given by Henrietta King, a Presbyterian herself. What stories could they tell!

I have been privileged to visit the Princeton City cemetery on a couple of occasions. In that cemetery are the graves of such luminaries as Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, John Witherspoon, Aaron Burr, Sr. (a Presbyterian minister and father of the third Vice President of the U.S. and duelist with Alexander Hamilton), Jonathan Edwards, Henry van Dyke, among many others. The legacies of these persons are not limited to this one place, of course, but walking around there that triggers the imagination.

In the past three columns we have featured lineages of families who over several generations have borne witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this part of God’s kingdom. This has not simply been an effort to heighten our awareness of strong Presbyterian family roots (though it is that). Nor has it been simply a desire to celebrate the past (though, no doubt, there’s some of that too).

More importantly, these columns have been attempt to inhale something of the energetic spirit of grace that shaped and guided them as they responded to Christ’s call to discipleship in whatever form that response took. What has fascinated me in this most recent series of columns has been the response from many of you, sharing the names of others who “from generation to generation” told “the stories of Jesus”. The list keeps growing. It’s like walking in a cemetery, but not in a sad way, but in a way that knows these folks are very much with us.

We also do well to remember all those saints who labor day-in and day-out who may not be a part of well-known families, but who are just as faithful and loving and gracious in living lives of discipleship. Those who are in the pews every week have important stories to tell. That dash between a person’s birth and death that appears on many gravestones is so important.

In the closing words in Psalm 48 the psalmist encourages his listeners to “Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.” That’s a good part of what we are about as the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest – to walk among those who have gone before us, get to know them, listen to their stories, their witness to God’s grace, and then to share all that with another generation as we try to make our own witness to that grace and love.

Or, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to:

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738

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