Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 (NRSV)
3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
Ben Gibbard, lead singer for Death Cab for Cutie (one of my favorite bands of all time!) said it best in his song “What Sarah Said” when it comes to hospitals and hospital waiting rooms:
‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads But I’m thinking of what Sarah said that “Love is watching someone die”
I stood in the hallway of Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City three weeks ago. Two parishioners were there, and had been visited by our senior pastor, myself, and our Director of Outreach. I was headed there to visit again and follow-up, and to pray for them.
These two parishioners were separated by only three rooms in this hallway, but their places in life and their conditions could not have been further apart. To my left, a young man in his twenties, recovering from a corrective surgery for a recurring spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung). To my right, a woman in her seventies, hospitalized once again for recurring cancerous tumors. As I arrived at the hospital and was making my way to that hallway, I received two notifications on my cell phone. The first was that the young man was being discharged. The second was that the woman had just died.
My mind immediately went to the place that many pastors’ minds go to at a time like this:
If I had only left earlier, I could have been there before she died.
This, of course, is a mental and emotional trap. There is no way of knowing when we will find ourselves on this side of life or the other. It is hard, however, for pastors not to be their own worst critics and, as Paul said to Timothy, “of these sinners I am the worst.”
I stood in the hallway, not knowing what to do or how to feel. I visited the young man first, as he had filled out his paperwork and was preparing to leave. We celebrated good health and recovery, and we went our separate ways – he took a lap around the floor to test out his patched lung and its capacity, and I headed down the hall to the woman’s room.
As I entered the room, I immediately noticed how small it was. Her son stood at the window to the left of the bed, and her brother sat in a chair to the right. Both were calling family and friends to inform them of her passing. I sat silently by the bed and prayed for her transition into what Karl Barth called ‘the very sphere of God.’
I walked back down to the lobby and sat there for an hour. Having to celebrate a clean bill of health and mourn the passing of a beloved woman of faith in our church and community took its toll on my heart, mind, soul, and strength.
As a local pastor on his way toward commissioning and ordination in the United Methodist Church, I stand with a group of friends and colleagues who are in a phase of spiritual, emotional, and vocational growth and preparation. We are in discernment about our call to ministry, we are defending that call, we are celebrating that call, and working with colleagues and mentors to cultivate and nurture that sense of calling. It is seasons of growth and preparation, I believe, that we are keenly aware of the seasons Qohelet – the writer of the above passage in Ecclesiastes – describes: life and death, breaking down and building up, plucking and planting, killing and healing.
I struggled to know how to feel in that hour, and suddenly these images rushed into my mind.
These are images from the consecration of our church’s new Christian Life Center, and the blessing of the new pulpit.
My local church is in a season of growth. We planted a church, began a new worship service, ran a successful capital campaign, and built a new building for mission and ministry that is filling up and sending people out. We didn’t follow an “If you build it, they will come” model, but rather we have committed to using the building as a mission outpost where people pause for essential experiences of worship, fellowship, study, and service before they go back out into the community again. Walter Brueggemann calls this method “making outsiders insiders” who in turn make other outsiders insiders. It means stirring up the stagnant waters of baptism. It means turning ‘forgetters’ of the Good News into ‘rememberers’ once again.
However, when there are new things happening, when there is change, local churches become keenly aware of life and death, breaking down and building up, plucking and planting, killing and healing.
“Is my ministry safe?” “Are our traditions staying?” “Will the ‘new’ completely overtake the ‘old’?” “Who are these strangers and why are they leading in my church?”
Last year, we held a consecration service for our new building. All three of our worshiping congregations and some members of our daughter church gathered in our sanctuary, and then traveled together into our Christian Life Center to consecrate the space for ministry and experience our first Great Thanksgiving and Holy Communion in that space.
It was a holy moment for us all. But the reason those images flashed before me in the lobby of Southwest Medical Center was the pulpit shown above. New pulpits consecrated for worship spaces are carried in like coffins, and then erected on a chancel to liturgically display what the preached Word can do in people’s lives – bring new life out of death. And, as Protestants, we have a distinct theology of preaching in that the resurrection of Christ is made known through it.
This particular pulpit was sitting in the garage of a parishioner’s house. It came from the Dill City United Methodist Church, a church that disbanded and closed its doors in its 99th year of ministry. The parishioner refurbished it, and we brought it into the new Christian Life Center on that day of consecration. I now preach from that pulpit every Sunday. Tearing down and building up. Plucking and planting. Killing and healing.
As the pulpit entered the Christian Life Center, the worship band was singing these words:
When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my help and stay
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand
My senior pastor once told me that “grief is a strange visitor, in that it greets us all differently.” I am inclined to believe it. And as it has come and gone, I have come to see that seasons of growth do indeed include times of “pruning the branches” to bear more fruit. We celebrate life and we mourn the loss of life. We welcome in a new ministry and strengthen an existing one, and we say farewell to another ministry whose end has come. Life and death. Building up and tearing down. Plucking and planting. Killing and healing. Being discharged and dying. Laying the pulpit to rest and reviving it for new preaching.
We often find ourselves standing in the gap between one event or life experience and the next. We often find ourselves standing in the hallway between life and death, a mere three rooms apart. And, when all around gives way, we look for a rock to stand upon.