Thursday, October 23, 2008

Faith Works 10-25-08
Jeff Gill

Looking Up Into the Rafters

Thanks to the marvels of them internets, especially that Ebay person who is so busy doing all these auctiony things, I will shortly have a Dickens’ Village “Peggotty’s Cottage” to put under my Christmas tree.

My tastes in reading and, sad to say, writing, were long ago warped and distorted by having read “David Copperfield” when I was far too young. Long sentences and repeated semicolon-related offenses are the least of my sins that trace back to following the tale of Trotwood.

On the Norfolk coast, David Copperfield encounters a home made from an overturned boat, described as charming and cozy beyond even the label “Dickensian.”

The Peggotty family lives there, overlooking the North Sea, and I had a sense of what it felt like to live in such a house when I looked up into the criss-crossing rafters of my home church and a number of nearby churches I would find myself in, from time to time, growing up.

I had a slightly mistaken idea that “worship” related to the idea that we gathered each Sunday under the outline of an upturned ship, a “wor-ship” that sailed us into God’s stormy seas of trial, where we had refuge with Jesus at the helm and worked together as the crew.

When pastors and preachers talked of the honored dead who had gone before, the saints in glory who were now a great cloud of witnesses, whether in my Disciples congregation, the Episcopal parish across the street, or the Lutherans to our north and west, they pointed up – at the rafters and joists and hammerbeams.

That was a picture of heaven and the realm of glory that stuck: those knurled knobs and solid timbers spanning the nave (recalling “navis,” Latin for “ship”) were an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible place. High ceilinged woodwork hinted at heaven, and still does.

It was pleasing to see the ancient timbers and lathed ornament of Trinity Episcopal, 1834, on the front page of the Advocate some days back. As I had the chance to tell the congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran the next Sunday, where I was filling the pulpit and whose history followed Trinity in that same space, it was oddly pleasing to reach up on the third floor of the current spatial arrangement, and touch those finials and brackets.

My very strongest sense is that myriad young eyes, and a few adults, had looked at those upper ornaments during church services and thought “I will never actually touch that, but it appears so familiar to me.” And with that thought, I could reach out and touch them.

These were the hints and signposts of heaven, the home of the saints, the pointers to All Hallows for many people over many years.

In the illustrations by Phiz in the Dickens original for “David Copperfield,” and with color and more perspective reading the “Classics Illustrated” comic version, I’ve always had a picture of Peggotty’s cottage, where the ship’s braces and struts are just overhead, within reach. I suspect part of my great love of the movie “Local Hero” is due to the key appearance of a Peggotty-type residence near the conclusion of the story.

Something solid and real and mundane, but just out of everyday reach, visible but almost unapproachable, except by extraordinary means, maybe a little extra assistance not our own. That’s what it means to reach up to heaven, to join the saints in glory.

The eve of All Saints, All Hallows, is of course the night before Nov. 1, that feast day; October 31 is All Hallows’ Eve. Thursday is “Beggar’s Night” in most central Ohio communities, leaving Friday in a bit of limbo.

But Nov. 1 is called, on a liturgically oriented calendar, All Saints’ Day, backstopped by Nov. 2, All Souls’, when everyone from humble Barkis to hopeful Micawber to striving Trotwood Copperfield himself is lifted up as a member of the honored dead, those who have gone before yet still cling closely to us.

Except they’re fictional. Yet their example is as real to me as the long torn down, demolished, vanished roof timbers of my childhood church that I will now never touch. I touch someone else’s reverie on First Street, in the 1834 church building there. And with the saints, I enter the blessed realm through the merit of others’ works, earning nothing on my own but graced and gifted by the generous offering of others.

And we can give one another the gift of a thoughtful and well-considered vote on Tuesday!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a haunted tale at knapsack77@gmail.com.