Living in the Dying
Recently my wife and I attended Sunday worship at a small church in Indianapolis. We had traveled to the city for the weekend after Thanksgiving. Our busy schedules don’t allow us to see much of each other at times and the stress of the holiday had frayed our nerves; so, we turned off our phones, left the laptop at home and skipped town for a little recharging.
As is our custom, we attend church when we travel. I find myself excited for these experiences. Seeing the varying ways that congregations express the liturgy. The forms it takes, the music, the message. Both familiar and new at the same time. The bread of communion handed to me by a person with an unfamiliar face, but with the same familiar words of “body, broken for you”. I see the beauty in the differences and the sameness. We are all the church together. All the body of Christ.
Indianapolis has no shortage of Lutheran congregations, but like many cities in America, the downtown congregations fled to the suburbs decades ago, so the pickings near our hotel were a bit slim. Like a faithful millennial who has spent too many discouraging Sundays regretting having walked into the wrong church, I turned to Google. Two congregations, one in a huge building on the far edge of downtown, but with no website to speak of and confusing information about worship times and off-putting churchy language that screamed “members only” and another, older church, located in a more urban area of the city.
The website of the second caught my eye. Pictures of intergenerational, interracial families. A young pastor. A message of inclusion. I read the letter from the pastor aloud to my wife with excitement. This is the one. Tomorrow, this is the place.
As we ate breakfast the next morning we talked about what we might experience. Their website shared a vibrant congregation with ties to the community. As we wound our way through the ever-increasing urban blight we were not deterred. But, as the church came into view my spirit wilted a bit.
The church looked tired. The red paint on its brink faded pink by the sun. The landscaping wilted and overgrown. But more I was struck by the size of it. Not the worship space, but the colossal building next to it. At first it looked as if the church had nestled in next to a modest sized elementary school. The large multi-story edifice of their “Education Building” loomed over its 100-year-old counterpart like a dilapidated warehouse. It’s size speaking to a time when its floors and rooms were full of children and families. It’s windows now dark and dingy, their glass panes cracked with neglect. Then panic, wait people are already streaming in and out of the building. Are we late?! Did I read the service times wrong?
As we stepped from our car I stopped a man who was carrying the wilted remains of some potted mums to the dumpster. “Has church already begun?” His reply, “Which Church?” Wait, what? “The Lutheran Church?” “Oh, that’s us. You’re a bit early but we’re inside having some coffee. No for much longer though. We voted to dissolve last week”. I cringed. For a brief second a wave of frustration and anger swept over me, “why would you tell a visitor that?” Then, grace. I saw the pain in his face. The heartbreak. I took a deep breath, squeezed the hand of my wife, and we headed inside.
We entered into a dark space, this building, it’s labyrinth of hallways dark and ominous ahead of us, we could hear people, but we couldn’t see them. How do we get to the sanctuary? I smell coffee… What floor are we on? This was all a bit frustrating. We ascended to the top of a staircase and it opened to a small foyer. Here we found a confusing array of information from the three churches that shared this building. Lutheran, Baptist and Non-Denominational, three churches, one building. We had apparently stumbled into the Baptist church without realizing it.
Then a familiar voice, “We’re back here”. My friend with the decaying mums waving to us from the end of the hall. As we walked toward him the smell of coffee got stronger. I could hear the low murmur of polite conversation. “Come on in, I want to introduce you”. We walk into the church library to find a small group of about twenty gathered around some store bought baked goods, chatting politely with one another. “This is Mark, he’s from your neck of the woods, I noticed you had Kentucky plates”. And with that my flower pot tending friend disappeared.
Mark was indeed from “my neck of the woods”, though he hasn’t lived there since before I was born. We chatted politely for a few minutes and compared notes about how the area I lived in has changed in the last 40 years. He inquired of our home congregation and shared that he had been there once, he thought, maybe 10 or 15 years ago. My mum friend came back to my mind, so I asked Mark about the closure. As he told me about their dwindling finances and renting out the building to other congregations to make ends meet and their ups and downs for the past few years. The hope of hiring a young new pastor, fresh from seminary, and the realization that a new face the pulpit wasn’t fixing things. The same look of sadness crept into his eyes as he shared about his 20-year relationship with this community and the heartbreak of voting to close at what would be their last congregational meeting. My heart broke with him. I began to feel like I was at a funeral talking to the grieved family of a passed loved one.
I excused myself to go to the restroom before worship. As I was washing my hands I looked up into the mirror, its edges chipped with age, and in the bottom corner a small piece of paper read “If you’re the last one here, turn off the lights”. Indeed.
As my wife and I walked the short hallway to the worship space, the children from the Baptist church rushing past us and out to the parking lot, it was a strange sensation. Life and death co-existing in the same place. It was almost like seeing the ghosts of children from 40 years ago who ran the same halls when hundreds of families called this place home. I let out a deep sigh as my heart filled with sadness.
The worship space was small and beautiful, but shabby like a grand old house that has sat for too long with no one to care for it. A closer look reveals the threadbare carpet, worn pews and peeling paint. My sadness grew. I think of the hands that built this space any my heart wants to cry.
The announcements given by the congregation. A single bible study. Catechism with the church’s remaining teen, Mark’s son. The confession, with its petition for God to send us to our neighbor increasing my sadness and spilling into thoughts of frustration. I was getting depressed.
Then the song. I was surprised by the volume of it. A choir of 10 belting out the opening hymn in a way that would have put the Brooklyn Tabernacle to shame. The pipe organ stirred to life within the walls of the sanctuary and as the congregation joined in the worn floor boards vibrated with the sound of joyous praise. My heart, beaten by sadness, sprang to life and sang!
I cannot tell you what the young pastor’s words were that day but I can tell what God was saying to me. In the words of the elderly woman, who during the sign of peace offered to take communion with us so we wouldn’t feel unwelcome; to the old man whose eyes spoke the love of Jesus as he firmly placed the bread in my hand. But most of all the music. The soaring notes of the organ as its century-old pipes joined by the voices of the faithful, share their music, filling the ears of a joyful God.
They are not dead, they are alive. Beaten, broken, yes – but alive. As I left the worship space and walked by the walls with their cracks and falling plaster, I was not swayed. They are alive. The Church is alive and well in them.
There is loss for sure. And the pain felt by that loss is real and not to be discounted. But I praise God for this place. A place that God is still using to reach a frustrated doubter like me. The Holy Spirit will dry their tears. God will give them new purpose and they will continue on as part of His Church.
The building that they share together now, may one day be empty. The community they have shared scattered to join other congregations. But that is not death. The Church, God’s Church, does not die. These folks, these faithful few, will join with others in a new place, their voices joined in song, and God and His Church will be there too. Can you hear the music?
About the Author: Ben Morris is a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection where he serves as chairperson of the Inviting & Welcoming Committee. He lives in Erlanger, Kentucky with his wife, Amy and their dog, Loki. They are expecting their first child in March.