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Monumentum Obscurum
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RENEWAL LEAVE UPDATE #6

 

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The “veterans” of the 11th PA Reserves at the

monument of the original regiment in Gettysburg –

Rick Grossman, Bob Kaylor, Mike Cobb, and Chuck Cubbison

 

 

 

I spent the past week of my renewal leave in Gettysburg, PA, doing some research on long-term pastorates at the Lutheran Seminary and, later in the week, having a reunion with some of my high school friends. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we were a unique little clique of history nerds who often spent weekends in the spring and summer participating in Civil War reenactments, studying history, and having debates about who should have done what when in a particular battle. Needless to say, most of us didn’t date much…

 

Chuck, Mike, Rick, and I spent the day on Thursday touring the battlefield—though since most of us have been coming here since we were kids (and I worked there as a historical interpreter during college) “touring” really isn’t the word. Just like we did 30+ years ago, we tend to gravitate toward the obscure, especially those monuments and parts of the battle that most of the public passes by on their bus tours on the way to one of the now 10,000 or so ice cream shops that are in town (or one of the 13,000 “ghost tours” now being offered). From the sublime to the ridiculous, or from cavalry to kitsch, to each his own, I guess. 

 

The 6th PA Reserve monument—a Gettysburg

monument that almost no one sees.

When we were reenacting, we portrayed Company C of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, who participated in a famous charge into the Wheatfield during the evening of July 2, 1863. Through the lens of history and research, the charge really wasn’t that critical to the tide of the battle but the veterans of the 11th had built it up as a single-handed saving of the entire Union Army. Reading their regimental history one might forget (as the veteran officers seemed to) that the 11th was part of a larger brigade, with the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves on their right—a regiment that was just as big a part of that “famous” charge. Today, the 11th PA Reserve monument sits prominently at the entrance to the Wheatfield, but the 6th Reserve monument seemed to be missing. Enter the fun of an obscure monument hunt! 

 

I played a hunch and found the 6th PA Reserves’ monument in a boggy, bug-infested swamp on the other side of the Wheatfield Road. The only path to it is overgrown and rarely used by anyone except Civil War geeks with time on their hands (which I had). It’s a beautiful monument that almost no one sees. I took the guys back there later in the week, and we also enjoyed stomping around off the beaten path looking for others. Chuck and I later spent a couple of days tracking the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg to the Potomac River, which involved a lot of back roads, hidden signs, and even a bike ride on the old C&O Canal towpath to find Falling Waters, the site where the Confederates crossed the river (Mike joined us for that one, too, since he lives nearby in Shepherdstown, WV). We discovered stories and sites of little-known battles like Monterey Pass, where George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Cavalry attacked the Confederate wagon train in the middle of the night in a driving thunderstorm. We passed through tiny hamlets in Maryland like Funkstown and Boonsboro, and enjoyed the beautiful rolling farmland of the Cumberland Valley. 

 

I love the hunt for monumentum obscurum (not sure if that’s proper Latin, but even the dorkiest pursuit sounds intelligent and cool when Latin-ized). There’s something special about rooting out the untold story and filling in the gaps of other stories that you’ve learned over the years. It’s worth the pursuit to find those obscure places and engage the stories of people who are largely lost to history but whose actions, even in an out-of-the-way place, made a difference.

 

Chuck and Mike on our hunt for the obscure

monument at Falling Waters.

But as we were parting the weeds and traversing fields in search of those obscure monuments, it occurred to me that the best find on this part of my renewal leave was rediscovering the stories of my old friends. We hadn’t all been together for more than 30 years and there were a lot of gaps in our stories that needed filling in. We have each toiled in relative obscurity in our places in the world, experiencing the ups and downs, the joys and heartaches, and the triumphs and regrets of life that one really begins to reflect on at middle age (and like it or not, we are now middle-aged!). Some of our stories have been rough, with difficult detours. We have all experienced times of wandering in the weeds looking for a marker point for our lives. We have a shared history that enabled us to easily pick up right where we left off and to be very transparent with one another. As interesting as the obscure battlefield monuments are to me, the stories of my old friends are even more interesting and important. I really treasured our time together. At this point in our lives, who knows if we’ll all be around to do it again in a few years—but I hope that we can. I want to hear more stories! 

 

We were soldiers once, and young…

Since our time together, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that pastoral ministry is really largely about hearing and engaging stories. Every person in a congregation brings a story with them—some of them obscure, some tragic, some triumphant, and some bizarre. Those stories are monuments that need tending to, and pastors have a unique opportunity to help people blaze a trail to the deeper parts of their lives contained in those stories. I realize that I’ve been pretty good at telling people stories about the Bible, about history, and even some of my own stories, but this experience has made me resolve to be better at listening to the stories of others; to learn and know them and hold them up as monuments to God’s grace in the life of a congregation. Every person I encounter has their own story to tell, their own monumentum obscurum to explore. I can’t think of a worthier pursuit in this next season of ministry than to get deeper in the weeds with people and learn how God is chiseling their lives into something beautiful and monumental. 

 

Next weekend I’ll be sharing another reunion with my college roommates, and I’m looking forward to hearing those stories as well. This has been a great part of my renewal leave and I’m grateful for the learning and the opportunity to do some things I love with people I care about. 

 

Now off to discover some more monumentum obscurum! 



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