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Heavyweight Preaching

I'm thinking you have to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. For added bluster, sure, as in, "It was ungodly cold last night, wasn't it?" That was it as an adjective, an add-on. "Who on earth made this ungodly mess?" You know.

But the word ungodly lost currency as a noun long ago, a usage that was once theological and judgmental. Fifty years ago, it didn't matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, you knew very well who the "ungodly" were: they were them and not us.

But nobody’d say that word today, and those who would and do are best kept at a comfortable distance.

What I'm saying is, the use of the word ungodly as a noun dates an immense stony sermon that spreads 475 feet across a hill in southeast Kansas, just behind a golf course. "CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY," that massive message proclaims, all upper-case in whitewashed boulders, each letter 18 feet high and 12 feet wide. That's heavyweight preaching.

"Scripture Hill," the locals call it, because it is. It's not Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Monument, but the size of that sermon will stop you in your tracks--it's that huge: "CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY."

Creating those words became the holy vocation of a godly man named Mr. Fred Horton, who, in 1889, spent his working days as a dispatcher on the Sante Fe railroad. To say the least, Mr. Horton was a pious man--no fool would have taken on such a job otherwise. He worked on his vision every day after work.

His wife and kids would hitch the horse to the wagon, people say, and head to railroad yards to pick up Father after work. After a short supper, he'd hoof it up the hill. Mostly he worked up there alone, although sometimes, people say, he had a little help from a man remembered only as an African-American, a man who had a wagon, which--my goodness! --must have come in handy. We're talking stones akin to boulders here, not pebbles you skip off a pond.

You got to love the whole story, whether or not you buy the sermon. This Mr. Horton, ordinary guy full of extraordinary passion, wasn't looking for fame or fortune. He just wanted to tell the ungodly--people who don't think much about God--what was plain-and-simple fact in his book: that they are loved. Horton's huge whitewashed stones aren't intended to blackball anyone. He thought he was just being helpful, and he was.

More than a century ago already, Mr. Horton could no longer do maintenance up there, and, sadly enough, the Great Plains are not without bushy weeds. What townspeople knew was that if nobody knocked them down and the whitewash faded in the hot Kansas sun, that 475-foot message would simply someday disappear, and there'd be no more "Scripture Hill."

Somebody had to keep Mr. Horton's work alive, the locals told themselves. And you'll be pleased to know, as I am, that they did and do and will. An entire 120 years later, Mr. Horton's sermon is still there brightly. Arkansas City is very proud of their Scripture Hill.

But big as it is, you won't see those words easily because Mr. Horton was a man of his time. He wanted that scripture to be seen by thousands and thousands who rode the Santa Fe Railroad, so those words are still up there boldly on the hill above tracks, but no one travels the tracks anymore. The scripture is there, but if you want to see it, you'd better bring a drone.

No matter. Every year, the locals pull weeds and put down whitewash on those big stones Mr. Horton arranged up there steadfastly. That's why the sermon on the hill is still there, as distinct as if that bible verse were written in the landscape by the hand of the Lord just yesterday.

I'm quite sure Mr. Horton the dispatcher would like that--and so, I must admit, do I.

Fact is, even if you consider yourself among the ungodly, you can't help take heart when you look up and see all those crisp white letters still writ large across Scripture Hill. I swear, it’ll bring a smile.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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