By Robert M. Chapman, II
They are no longer with us. The place in the pew where they sat remains empty. Certainly, their absence is still felt by their families and all of us. In our return to the sanctuary, I am aware there are a number of our faithful members who are not with us, as they have died since we were last together. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, the pandemic kept our community from gathering with their families to celebrate their lives and their contribution to ours. How difficult it has been for everyone, not being able to share a communal sense of bereavement. The dark side of the pandemic prevented a natural response of bringing consolation and comfort to our mourning family members. While being discouraged from gathering, in many instances, we were unable to share their stories, give witness to their faith and have a meaningful funeral or memorial service to bid farewell. And so, we remember them with great thanksgiving: Frank Barger, Jean Gibbons, Al Meyers, Thelma Wall, Sonny Moore, Earl Gray, Audrey Curtis, Randy Warthan, Hilda Snapp, Irene Meyers, Margaret Parker, Doris Bryant, Barbara Willis, Vickie Foley, Madeline Nicely, Roy Harris. We will remember these beloved friends in an All Saints Sunday worship service on Sunday, Oct. 31, the day before All Saints Day.
In our return to in-person worship, I am looking for and miss the interactions with many of our beloved who departed us in the last 15 months. Faithfully attending every Sunday until age and health slowed her down, I was always able to evoke a response from Audrey Curtis, by calling her Susan or Judy. The smile on her face of our mutual affection toward each other, was returned by a reply toward me of; “Well, how are you John?” Our calling each other different names was a running joke between us. She was a great partner to dance with at our Valentine’s Day dinner. How about our good friend Sonny Moore, whom I always called “Surfer,” born on the Eastern Shore in the small town of Cheriton, Va. Accompanied with Nancy, these devout pillars were at Chestnut whenever the door was open, serving in any way the Holy Spirit led them. I miss the friendship and kindness of literally looking up to Frank Barger as he was always asking me if I had been “behaving myself.” His contributions to the lives of many of our Boy Scouts remain within them. I admired his spirit toward exploration and travel adventures. The faithfulness of Doris Bryant, always attending worship with Tom, a member for over 50 years, a Sunday School teacher, member of the United Methodist Women and a circle leader. One of the first to arrive and last to leave the first worship service, Vickie Foley was always conveying to me a life-giving spirit of infused joy and appreciation. The light in her eyes along with her expressive smile lit up the sanctuary, staying with me throughout the week. Forever etched in my heart is the way her grandchildren clung to her throughout the morning, a picturesque reminder of how Jesus blessed the little children. And of course, my good friend Madeline Nicely, always meticulously dressed, blessing me with an encouraging and much appreciated word of love, grace and friendship as I rang the bell attached to her rolling walker. On her walk-out of the sanctuary, we always celebrated knowing an angel had received their wings from the ringing of her bell. Wisdom, grace and spunk were held within each step of her gentle and assuring way.
A biblical text I often turn toward for consolation, strength and renewal in times of death and mourning, is from Paul’s writing to the Romans. He writes: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14: 7-9). In a way, this is a proclamation of our knowing God’s claim upon us in both life and death. In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-53, he expounds on the mystery of resurrection and new life noting: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” As we contemplate the great mysteries of life and death, thank goodness, we have the scriptures, a redemptive relationship with God through Christ along with the ministry of the church to comfort us during difficult circumstances.
If I could describe an open wound of grief lingering from the pandemic, it would be the heartache shared within many families, along with difficult personal decisions made regarding the arrangements on behalf of our loved ones during the exilic period of the pandemic. A few weeks ago, June 3rd, marked one year of my experience. I have much heartache and regret of not being able to see my mother in her last days or to be with her when she died. I simply missed out on all the natural responses when death comes to a home. The ritual and consoling words of a funeral and burial, along with all the things you think about in advance when that time eventually arrives. And so, when the day of her death eventually came, nothing of what I had ever imagined regarding her death and bereavement experience was able to unfold. The experience still looms as being empty, a “missing piece,” as if there were no end to a movie. As cold weather arrived and the pandemic continued to manifest itself toward a holiday “surge,” making a decision not to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with family compounded and lengthened the lack of a consoling touch. However, there was one small morsel of consolation. Using my mother’s fruit cake recipe, my sister baked her fruit cake, leaving a few slices on her front porch for me to pick-up as “take out.” I received that spirit of consolation as a gift from the Divine. Having an opportunity to taste ingredients from mom’s recipe provided a sense of solace. In a profound yet subtle way, it gave me a new understanding of the mystery of communion. An experience of taking something into your body, an element you hold from a beloved memory of spirit so inextricably woven into your life. In our consolation toward each other, my sister and I were not able to share a hug with each other until a few weeks ago. Moments of consolation with her, are now occurring in bits and pieces.
And certainly, I missed the hugs and embraces from the people who knew my mother. Members from her church, long-time family friends and my cousins. I also yearned, for what I know would have been the consolation of warm hugs and embraces from our Chestnut community, shared with me either around the office, in the hallways, out in the parking lot, around the coffee pot, or after a Sunday morning worship service. Looking back, I sincerely believe, the lack of any physical touch toward an expression of consolation during such grief, added much disarray toward a normal grieving process. Something remains missing from not having been able to experience the natural sense of touch and expression of support. I remain ever grateful for the expressions of outreach and care from cards, telephone calls and notes from our Stephen Ministry.
Undoubtedly, many stories and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually unfold. What will be said throughout our congregational history of who and what we lost during our fifteen-month exile of 2020-2021 remains for us to share and interpret. Meanwhile, Christ like gentleness, kindness and grace will carry us a long way. And all shall be well, if we listen to the voices of our deceased loved ones and friends who sat in the pews with us each Sunday, before evening came to take them home. In the spirit of Christ’s resurrection, they do remain with us, even if their seat in the pew is empty.