Sunday, April 14, 2013
On March 18, 2013, a lightning-strike ignited a fire in the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Owensboro, KY, and quickly spread into all areas of the building. Hours later the fire was still burning, and by mid-morning the church had been destroyed. (The photo is from this article on their local paper's website.)
Normally, something like this would be a distant tragedy for us in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. But our pastor at National Avenue Christian Church here in Springfield, Laura Fregin, is one of the mentors to a group of Disciples of Christ ministers called the Bethany Fellows. And the two pastors at Owensboro - Jake Caldwell and Rebekah Krevens - are members of that fellowship, and very dear to our pastor. So as the soot and ash were still falling in Owensboro, our church was grieving with theirs.
In the week that followed, Disciples of Christ churches from everywhere sent the Owensboro church copies of the Disciples' hymnbooks, so that as First Christian Church worships in borrowed spaces, they will know that their fellow churches are with them in heart and spirit.
But today, as our Pastor Laura was preaching on life after Easter, the tragedy in Owensboro, and living with many kinds of death and resurrection, an old, old story came to my mind... with a message for our Kentucky sisters and brothers.
For at least a dozen years I have been telling this story, one that I remember from nearly forty years ago. I remembered it from before I ever called myself a Christian; before I came to belief in God; before I could even pretend to have faith.
I don't remember the details any more, despite repeatedly asking folks who might know. All I can tell you is that sometime in the late 1970's, two churches on Glendale Avenue in Toledo were torched on the same night, just about a week before Christmas. (My memory is foggy, but I thought one congregation was east of Byrne Rd., and one was near Green Valley. If you have any information about this, please let me know...)
One congregation's fellowship hall burned down; the other church was a complete loss. Included in the damage were many thousands of dollars of Christmas presents for needy kids, lost in the heat of some arsonist's rage and insanity.
What remains crystal clear for me out of that December tragedy was the image of a TV news broadcast that occurred the day after the fire. One of the pastors was being interviewed by a reporter about the effects of the fire as they were standing in front of the wreckage of the church. The reporter asked the pastor, "How does it feel to know that your church has been utterly destroyed, less than a week before Christmas?"
Unbelievably, the pastor smiled.... and replied, "Oh, no - it's really not as bad as all that."
With a stunned look, the reporter glanced over his right shoulder at the still-smoking remains of the sanctuary in the background, and then back to the pastor. The pastor, however, kept on smiling and said, "No, you don't understand...they destroyed the building, not the church. The church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. "
I can't tell you why or how that idea stuck with me, but it has... for nearly four decades.
Dozens of Christian bloggers I know have published items in the last several years talking about searching for church communities and what "communities of faith" might or could look like. There are an awful lot of people who are searching for what Michael W. Smith would call "their place in this world" - and for a long time, Chris and I were among them. We're ever so grateful to have found National Avenue Christian and a community of faith that welcomes and accepts us, just as we are. It's a gift beyond imagining, believe me.
One thing I believe that true "faith communities" don't do is what my friend Natalie Lentz would call "worshiping the barn instead of the Savior." Sadly, I've been a member of more than one congregation who were more concerned with the risk of coffee stains on their carpet than with welcoming strangers into the presence of God and into a circle of faithful friends. In fact, those experiences have led me to believe that the more reverence a congregation puts on its building, the less impressed I am with 'em.
What I remembered, too, is that I've been a witness to several congregations whose buildings have been destroyed since that weekend. Living in Ohio, Kansas and Illinois, there were lots of stories of tornado damage - including a one-year-old church building that was picked up whole by a tornado, and dropped exactly one foot off of its footings - still upright, seemingly intact, but completely unsafe and un-salvageable.
The amazing part in all those stories was that in the aftermath, "the part that remained" became only more enthused, more servant-oriented, and more engaged in the community. They took care of each other, and they took care of their community, too.
I know that doesn't always happen. Sometimes "the barn" is the last thing holding a shaky congregation together - and when the building goes, so does the church.
But my experience is that people of faith focus on the Resurrection, and the rebirth of life and hope - and not on the whippings, beatings, agony and death that led to it. My prayer is that Jake Caldwell and Rebekah Krevens will be reminded again and again that the church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. And I trust that in Owensboro - like it is here in Springfield - it is the very best part.
This message, however, is not just for the church. So many people I know are dealing with pain, loss, and destruction. For each of them, I share this from another old friend in the recovery community tells me: "If it doesn't bleed, the hell with it! If it doesn't bleed, it can be repaired, replaced, or done without. It's people! People - that's what's important."
In my experience this is true - even in death. Long after life ends, long after breath ceases, long after ashes are scattered...the love that was shared and the memories that were made live on. I've seen this in the lives of my own parents, and in the life and death of friends across the country who have blessed me with a season in their path.
The part that remains is almost always the very best part.
These scribbles posted by Steve Flower at 2:36 PM