Pastor's Comments

Pastors Comments

Since last June, we have experienced 12 deaths in relation to church members and two non-church members having memorial services in our sanctuary. Yesterday, in the Welcome Center, amidst fresh coffee and morning comfort pastries, I posted on the "Live Wires" bulletin board a color photograph that I took just over two years ago. The photo captured a Saturday morning ministry and mission fair we had in the Fellowship Hall. Sitting together at the Live Wires table were Calvin Ryder, Suzi Edwards and Carol Cawley. It was a happy day of celebration, complete with delicious snacks, face painting and balloon making, as noted upon their table. Since taking that photograph, and within such a short span of time, I would never have believed that our three beloved friends would die within five months of each other. How ironic and hard to fathom, as all three of them have gone before us. This is disheartening for we who remain, as they each had a way of being the life of the party! The combined deaths of our beloved saints since last June have been difficult for our congregation. Certainly our family members and many good friends remain shaken, disturbed, heartbroken in the midst of lingering grief and mourning.

I am heartened by the love and care offered by our church members, fellowship groups and classes, toward the families of our loved ones, visiting them in the hospital, nursing home and in their homes upon sickness and death. No doubt, we are "a caring congregation." How often I hear family members say how grateful they are to our church members for their faithful support, from cards to casseroles. I am most appreciative of Sandy Elder and the members of her bereavement team for the "specialty meals" they provide for our families and congregation following a funeral. If I make a special request of Sandy, such as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Sandy will deliver! It saddens me, and I regret time does not afford me with as much follow-up care with families following the death of a loved one, as I would like. As is often the case, soon after a death and a funeral with one family, I am consoling, making arrangements and working with the next. For continued and ongoing care that I cannot offer, here is another example of how our Stephen Ministers may assist you during your time of mourning. Please call Sharon Petitt or Cathy Southwell and they will surely assist you in securing a Stephen Minister.

Along my path of many years, deep within my spirit, I have absorbed many stories of pain and heartache related to the processes of death, dying, traumatic experiences and sudden tragedies. I have been soulfully present with grieving family members in living rooms. On my knees, anointing the forehead of the dying with oil in nursing homes, embracing children with hugs, along with shedding many, many tears. There remain occasions of my sitting in silence with the bereaved, offering the ministry of a "wounded healer," mindful of the sacred, whereby presence alone speaks of mystery and holiness. And certainly, I have fretted with finding appropriate words for prayers, when prayer at a given moment might not seem welcome. And yet at times, it remains the most comforting balm of salve when there is not much to hang your heart on. Like many pastors, I carry in my step and on my shoulders, painful experiences of death — as in the suicide of a college student, the murder of a talented young woman, the deaths of a married couple within five months of each other, the experience of a mother working in an emergency room when her daughter and her boyfriend arrived by ambulance following a tragic accident. I had four family members killed in an automobile accident when they were traveling home for the funeral of a beloved mother and grandmother. I even had a church member die in the church building immediately following a Sunday morning worship service.

I have often shared the story of how one afternoon in the parking lot of a college campus, a young employee, experiencing a lot of stress in relation to his supervisor and job, commented on the pace and rhythm of my walk. He noted my sometimes quiet demeanor and gentle affect. Needless to say, I was surprised by his observation and question. He wondered how I pulled this off, noting that I did not seem to be rushed, burdened, or consumed with much worry or stress. Jokingly, I noted that I must have fooled him with my outward appearance as opposed to my experience of loneliness, inner longings and private struggles. I thought about his comment for a moment, thinking my lifestyle had been influenced by visits in emergency rooms, nursing homes, funeral homes and gravesites. And yet even today, when I am walking through a hallway at church or in the parking lot, if I appear sullen, removed, physically present yet seemingly far away, it might be due to the shadow, the influence, the presence or the pull of illness, death, grief and mourning, either in the present moment or in relation to experiences and memories of beloved church members crossing the veil in years past.

Upon my arrival at Chestnut, on the front porch amidst moving boxes, books and worn furniture, I was greeted with the news regarding the death of a beloved Chestnut member, Mrs. Lavada Wilde. I was told that she had been planting flowers at the parsonage a few days before her death. She was also the first to put her signature on the sign-up sheet for the meal celebrating our arrival. In the course of five years at my former appointment on the Eastern Shore, I officiated at 51 funerals, 15 of which were in one year. Within a span of four years at my first full-time appointment in Alleghany County, I officiated at 39 funerals in a little railroad village known as Selma. At Fairview United Methodist, I held 47 funerals while serving in the Roanoke Valley. Needless to say, given these difficult moments, I share a unique connection, as these families remain a part of my family and certainly my soul. When I lay my hand on a casket, offering the words of committal "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," at a gravesite, I find there is something of my spirit that leaves me, and full replenishment of my soul might be slow in coming.

The paradoxical relationship of our being members of the church is our sharing in the rhythm and balance of life. As noted in a recent sermon, within the span of a few days, we experience human frailty with the placement of a casket on a Saturday afternoon; and just a few feet away, we celebrate birth and new life with a baptism at the chancel railing the next day, on a Sunday morning. Our celebrating holy communion has a flow and rhythm throughout worship on the Sundays of our "breaking bread" together. The Apostle Paul addresses this ebb and flow succinctly in the book of Romans. He writes: "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:4-5).

Soon, our liturgical calendar moves us from the Sundays of Easter to celebrating Pentecost Sunday on Jun. 4. We will be having an abbreviated morning schedule with our combined blended worship service at 11:15, followed by a covered dish luncheon in the Fellowship Hall. Believe it or not, we have not had a Jubilee Meal since last September, and so we are overdue. Last month, when "we added to our number" (Acts 2: 47) on Membership Sunday, I read scripture based on the Pentecost experience. In the second chapter of Acts, Luke records how believers are filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in other languages as the spirit descends upon them. He describes how this event changed the fabric and identity of believers, as they were faithful attending worship in the temple, noting how they broke bread at home, sharing meals with "glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2: 47). I find it fascinating, how in the life and history of the early believers, despite the passing of many centuries, we also share this same Spirit, as witnessed in worship and service at Chestnut. We need festive Sundays like this, when all of us come together at one place and at one time. We need to come together for events that celebrate life beyond funerals and our being together. Look at the picture of Calvin, Suzi and Carol, and you will see what I mean.Like good Samaritans, and the friends of the woman of Samaria, we are most open to strangers who have good intentions in wanting to hang out with us. We invite them to have a free cup of coffee on Sunday mornings. Everyone is welcome to worship, pray and sing. And whereas throughout Lent we have been studying the reactions and responses of various communities toward the ministry of Jesus, the same is true in the post-resurrection appearances of our Lord. Given the sensitive nature and tone of this article, one interesting story comes to mind. Remember, after the turmoil of the crucifixion and resurrection, and in fear for their lives, the disciples secured themselves behind closed doors for safety (John 20: 19), as they were afraid of Jewish authorities. In the same chapter, we read of the disciples being in a house where “the doors were locked” and for good reason. And yet, the risen Christ appears among them. Given the circumstances in their day, members of the Easter community were careful and cautious. In our day, as in the case of my doctor’s office and many other buildings which now have signs upon entry: “No Weapons Allowed,” we have every right and good reason to be deliberate in our stepping up the care for one another and the well-being of our community.