I received my chaplain training at MCV Hospital in Richmond, which contains one of the busiest Emergency Room Centers in Virginia. A part of my training was to accompany doctors when they told patients or family there were no further treatments available. Most doctors dreaded this part of their job and often struggled with how to help patients deal with death. I learned that many otherwise excellent doctors had a difficult time admitting they could do nothing more for a patient. Death meant failure for a doctor. So there could be nothing good about helping a patient face death.
I’m beginning to understand better how a doctor feels. Recently, I participated in a worship service designed to close one of our churches in Bedford, Virginia. I didn’t want to be at the service and certainly didn’t want to be giving a message. I dread this part of my job and I confess to struggling with how to help churches face the possibility of closing. It’s difficult for me to admit that I can do no more for a church. For me, closing is failure and there can be nothing good about helping a church face death.
I should know better. After doing hundreds of funerals and being with many people facing the end of their life on earth, I’ve learned that death is just another part of our walk with God. I’ve learned that a funeral is a place to honestly deal with the pain of losing a loved one but it is also a time of celebration for a life lived and the joy of realization that the painful part of disease and death are over.
Nearly every funeral will contain this promise from Jesus: “There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.” (John 14:2-3)
So, shouldn’t the same be true of a church that has lived well within the community? Court Street United Methodist Church was an African American church that served the Bedford community for 124 years… 124 years! Can you imagine the number of people who were touched by God there? I think about all the Baptisms and the weddings and the covered dish suppers and yes, the funerals that happened in that wonderful church. I think of all the mission and community projects that served the people of Bedford and all over the world. I think of the Bible studies and worship services and Sunday school classes and I think about all the children that grew to become leaders in their church and their community. I think about their history of surviving numerous financial crisis, wars and in their case the racial strife and tensions that endured.
Rev. Kelvin Edwards, the church pastor for the past six years faced his church for the last time and began to cry. He confessed to thinking he had come to help a struggling church grow stronger and instead helplessly watched his little church die. He confessed to feeling the failure at first but then he talked about his church in another way. He talked about the relationships he enjoyed with the people there. He talked about how they had welcomed him and his family and how this church had surrounded him with their all encompassing love and grace. With tears running down his face, he thanked the church for helping him grow more mature in his faith and strengthening his walk with God. He would be a better pastor thanks to what he learned at Court Street UMC in Bedford.
As I stood before the church, I learned something significant. Churches like people are meant to be born, they grow up, they serve their community and eventually the church may die. This too is a part of God’s plan. A service of closing for a church that served its community well for 124 years should be no different than a funeral for a life well lived in the service of God. Death is just another part of our walk with God and a closing service is where we honestly deal with the pain of losing something we love but it is also a time of celebration for a life lived and the joy of realization that the painful part of struggle and strife are over.
After a difficult meeting in another state I remember taking a walk to get some fresh air. I was feeling angry even though deep down I knew the speaker I was listening to was right. As I walked, I found myself drawn to a light near the top of the mountain where the meeting was located. The light was a huge cross. I remember standing under that cross for several minutes in the frigid air but not feeling cold. It was as if the warmth of God was penetrating through the cold and anger and giving me a fresh perspective. Within the warmth and the light of that beautiful cross, I realized that the anger I was feeling was not the fault of the speaker. It was because, the speaker had reminded me that somehow in the midst of all my busyness and church work, I had neglected the more important parts of my relationship with God.
My life was forever changed that night beneath the cross of Jesus Christ as I realized my need to work first on my relationship with God through the basics of prayer, Bible study and the time honored disciplines of our faith.
As I stood before the people whose lives were touched by Court Street United Methodist Church, I reminded them and myself that what is important for us to learn in the midst of this service is that a church building was closing but God’s light continued to shine. People and churches will come and go but God’s comforting light lives on forever.
In 1 Timothy we read:
- “Cling tightly to your faith in Christ and always keep your conscience clear.” (1:19)
- “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people.” (2:1)
- “Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas… Spend your time and energy training yourself for spiritual fitness.” (4:7)
- “Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures… (4:13)
- “Keep a close watch on yourself and on your teaching. Stay true to what is right and God will save you and those who hear you.”
Here is what I heard:
- Cling tightly to your faith.
- Pray for all people.
- Train yourself for spiritual fitness.
- Focus on reading the Scriptures.
- Stay true to what is right.
A church closing is sad but it is not the end. I’ve learned to appreciate the Godly leadership of our pastors, of the dedicated people who lead and sacrifice and the communities being served. I’ve learned to be amazed at the lives changed and used by God in so many wonderful ways.
Most of all, I’ve learned that the comforting light of Christ is forever and I strive to more fully appreciate and bask in the warmth of that heavenly glow.
Quentin Lawson · November 20, 2011 at 8:53 am
Patricia Carwile · November 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm
Thanks for this message. I am a member of a small church (New Bethel UM, Gladys) It is an older generation church. My 16 year old son is the youngest member. There are only two other couples younger than 50 yrs old attending. I was angry recently that the church didn’t offer much for my son–not even a Sunday School class. But you reminded me that it is not the programs that count, it is the relationship with Christ. I will have to hope and pray that the examples of family and church family will serve as the light for my son. He is a well-rounded young man with good grades, likes to hunt and fish, and is well-liked. I believe God is working in his life. Mama just needs to stop stressing about our “small” church.
larrydavies · November 22, 2011 at 5:05 pm
Amen. I could not agree more. Usually a church will either face the prospect of closing or a few new people will spark a revival. I pray the second is the answer that comes your way. Thanks for sharing. God bless, Larry
chris weitzel · November 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm
Larry — I had to close down one of the churches on the two-point charge I served in my first appointment. I served them in their last two years of existense, all after the decision had been made (without my input) to close their church. It was a fairly dismal existance as you might expect. And my DS was never in the church as the weeks wound down. (So thank you for being there in your instance.) What I learned was that the only thing to do in the face of death is to preach everlasting life, to put out examples of hope, and to seek ways for ongoing ministry to happen.
larrydavies · November 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm
Amen. Chris. I could not agree more. For me it was an important learning experience and helpful. Thanks for sharing.
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