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A Dying Church
My years of parish ministry in Pennsylvania were marked by quarterly visits to homebound members, nursing home residents and others unable to get to church receive communion. Advent, Lent, Pentecost, and World Communion Sunday were not simply liturgical celebrations and seasons; they became opportunities for pastoral care, for deep listening and learning about living and dying from elders who had seen and experienced much in life and who were, in most cases, struggling with the painful diminishments of physical and mental frailty, the loss of spouses and life-long friends, distant and occasionally inattentive family and a world that seemed to be getting more and more limited.
There were, of course, exasperating moments like times when the parishioner to be visited was not available because of a hair appointment. How homebound can she be? And there were the occasional hilarious occasions like the time my solemn recital of the words of institution provoked my not quite with it parishioner to lift her little communion cup and offer a loud and enthusiastic toast, or the time another nursing home resident decided she liked the image of Jesus stamped on the communion wafer so much that she would save it, tucking it down the front of her night gown. I often wondered what the nursing aid thought when that was discovered later in the evening. But as I grew wiser I learned how a perm can lift the spirits of a woman whose life otherwise feels drab and gray, and if this was in fact the “joyful feast of the people of God,” then why not a hearty toast? Cheers.
Twenty to thirty home visits four times a year could sometimes feel burdensome amid the other busy demands of pastoral life. Clergy colleagues were known to commiserate from time to time and, one year, the spouse of one close colleague lifted our spirits by making long strands of cellophane wrapped sour balls for me and her husband (it was Lent). We were to eat one sour ball after each visit, marking our progress through the list and getting a little sugar energy for the next afternoon appointment in an overheated room. Betty and I considered marketing this little device through church supply houses – red hots for Pentecost, mini candy canes for Advent, etc. – but we never quite got that business off the ground.
Two decades later, however, what I tend to remember most is the immense privilege of being invited into these lives of challenge and suffering to encounter incredible grace, gratitude, confidence, even joy. Inevitably there were times marked by complaint, bitterness, resentment, or despondence. But this was never the dominant theme of these seasons of visits. Ash Wednesday was very present for these dear friends: “Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return.” They wore the mark of ashes daily in the form of hearing aids and walkers, wheelchairs and adult diapers. Unlike those of us who skip through our days as if in absolute control of our destiny, these Christians understood the truth about our vulnerability and dependence as they navigated the hard terrain from this life toward what lies beyond. They knew that, in some sense, the church is always a dying church, sharing in its body (and in our bodies) the death of Christ in the most ordinary of guises.
In the February 1 issue of The New Yorker I was surprised to find a reference to Chicago Theological Seminary in a retrospective article about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneering researcher on death and dying in this country. In the mid-1960’s, while a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, four CTS students asked her to help them study the needs of the dying, leading to her ground breaking research and its methodology of learning from the dying themselves. (A subsequent conversation with colleagues revealed that our own Professor Robert Moore was an early assistant to Dr. Kubler-Ross during his graduate study at the University of Chicago.) How fascinating that from the request of these four CTS students grew a revolution in how doctors, nurses, pastors, and family view and care for the dying.
The word “vitality” is much in vogue today when talking about the church, no doubt prompted by our deep anxiety that much of the church doesn’t feel very vital. Vitality is not to be sneered at! But we would also do well to remember that vital churches are always dying churches, that Ash Wednesday’s admonition is for all of us. Remember that you are dust. The rush to Easter often side-steps Ash Wednesday, and sometimes even the Cross. But the Good News is only encountered on a vulnerable pilgrimage and that, in the end, was what I learned on all those home communion visits, and what so many others have learned as well.
Toward the end of his Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale in 1976, Dr. Gardiner C. Taylor spoke about the privilege of preaching the Gospel. He tells of being summoned to the bed of Deacon Clapp who was dying. His wife told Dr. Taylor that his last words were, “I wish I could hear him preach one more time.” “Now, no preacher has of himself or herself,” said Dr. Taylor,
anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege, almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the Gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, just might thank God as they cross the river that He made you a preacher.