One early Friday morning, years ago, Tabernacle United Methodist, a beautiful church in Amelia County, Virginia burned to the ground. When I arrived, all that remained were cement steps leading to charred posts and black soot. Church members and bystanders could only stare in shock and disbelief.
It felt like witnessing the death of a loved member of the family.
A church building represents a community full of shared memories: baptisms celebrating life, funerals remembering our afterlife, worship services giving glory to the God we love and serve, covered-dish suppers providing good food and joyous fellowship, meetings agonizing over how best to serve God, children’s Christmas specials and youth activities offering fun and spiritual opportunities.
Yet we were all staring at the ruined hulk that used to be an active church. I wanted to do something. I wanted to help but how? After a few hurried phone calls, our church decided to cancel Sunday services and we joined the congregation at Tabernacle. We came to grieve and bring gifts of love.
We came expecting a funeral, but there was none to be found. Instead, we witnessed the miracle of a church being reborn!
A colorful banner was propped over the front steps proclaiming proudly: Worship, Sunday 9:45 AM. Two greeters were there to welcome us, hand out bulletins and attach yellow ribbons. Chairs were placed on the lawn, donated by a local funeral home. A makeshift pulpit with a cross and pictures of the church were placed in front of the burned-out building. A pick-up truck held a makeshift sound system and the choir was seated off to one side. The miracle for God’s church was just beginning!
The pastor began by describing the events leading up to the fire, including a church meeting that actually discussed building an addition, which would include a fellowship hall and a kitchen. Then he described the total shock of the fire and how he had to keep returning to the scene just to make sure it wasn’t all a nightmare.
Finally, he paused and announced to the congregation and to us: “We are going to build a new church and it will have our new fellowship hall and a kitchen.”
He described a stranger driving by the church for years who took all the money out of his wallet, handed it to the pastor and vowed to come back with more. A cabinetmaker promised to build new cabinets as a donation. A carpenter volunteered his labor. A church offered their mission team. Another church offered free use of their building. Other churches donated hymnbooks and office equipment.
There was worship, prayers offered and in the midst of the smoking ruins, a church began to dream and build toward the future. A miracle was quietly taking place.
Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you…Now I say to you that you are Peter (the rock) and upon this rock I will build my church and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Matthew 16:16-18)
I learned a valuable lesson that morning. Most of us take the existence of our churches for granted. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy, like a fire to remind us of the vital role God’s “rock” the church plays throughout our lives.
Over the next few months, I witnessed miracle after miracle as Tabernacle United Methodist Church began the rebuilding process. In the mist of their tragedy, people and funds seemed to appear when they were needed most.
One year later, I was invited to another worship service: This time to celebrate a miracle of rebirth. In twelve months, money was raised, contractors secured and a new church was built on the ashes of the old. In the midst of the rebuilding, as more people were caught up in the enthusiasm, worship attendance and membership nearly doubled.
On the day of the fire, two white lilies were placed on the empty front steps of the burned out sanctuary as a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. One year later in place of the empty steps and the white lilies stood a new church as a vivid reminder of how God creates life in the midst of ruins.