Closing of the Sanctuary

“With thanks to God for the work accomplished in this place, I declare this sanctuary to be vacated for the purposes of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….”

Yesterday I attended the final service in the sanctuary where I went to church the whole time I was growing up. Soon, that sanctuary will be torn down and a new one will be built in its’ place.

I was happy to be invited back to participate in the service along with other pastors who had been raised there and served there. It was important for me to go for many reason – partly just because I love that place and I am very glad to be a daughter of that congregation, but for many other reasons: I wanted my kids to have another memory in that place aside from their memories of the funerals of their grandparents. I wanted to one more time look out into the sanctuary from up front and picture my mother there, where she always sat. I wanted to see the pastors who meant so much to me and my family.

I’ve never been a part of a service like that before.  To imagine that never again would we gather there – no more church bulletins would be assembled in the secretary’s office where my mom once worked, no more sermons written in the pastor’s office, no more children would run up to the balcony to peer down at the happenings below, not another hymn or scripture or prayer would be uttered there again – it was as strange a feeling as I imagined it would be. The pastor’s voice cracked as he did the closing rite. I was glad, because that’s how we all felt: trusting that in the end, all would be well, but for now – our hearts overflowing with retrospection and melancholy.

I was asked to give a brief reflection during the service. This was what I said:

“When I was asked if I might like to do a brief reflection today, I was glad – and I thought about how so often over the years I have already reflected in sermons at the churches I have served on what this church, this congregation means to me.

Like you, at a time like this, I can’t help but think about the memories cradled within these walls. Some of my very earliest memories are right here – sitting next to my grandmother – always in the middle on the right hand side.  She often teared up at some point during the service and she would pull a tissue out of her sleeve or out of her brassiere and dab at her eyes. She taught me about the beauty of preparedness as she always had a tissue on her somewhere. It was here I began to appreciate how fun and good it is to sing together as Mrs. Guse taught us songs; I received my first assertiveness training right there in the front row as Joni Jorud demonstrated how to talk back to older brothers and their friends; Confirmation day in 1985 – the day I heartily affirmed the promises made over me at my baptism and the day I wore brand new high heels with little bows…and I became versed in the truth that life is too short to wear painful shoes.

Pastor Vetter asked me to preach one summer Sunday when I was in college and he was going to be gone on vacation. I remember walking up to the front in my pale pink suit, petrified. I think my mom was even more nervous than I was – and I couldn’t understand that until I became a mom, too. I was ordained right here in 1999 and I’ll never forget how this congregation celebrated with me and prayed for me that day. I wore my brown suit with a tiger striped scarf. In 2007 we brought our son, Jesse here to be baptized. Pastor Johnson led the whole baptismal rite and let me put that Spirit-flooded water on my baby’s head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Not long after that he let me sprinkle the sand on my dad’s casket at the graveside service…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…then at mom’s the next year. I wore my long black skirt and my red and black jacket with a black scarf. It was November.

No matter where life has brought me or how many years have gone by, the story of my history feels knit into this place.  My home church, you, my home congregation – a place and people of strength and hope and constancy. No matter what was happening or what was on my mind or what I chose to wear, here I was just clothed with the love of Jesus, gifted in his grace again and again. Of all the things I learned here, this is the blessed sum of it. I am so glad – glad for all that God has done here and all that God is yet to do here. In Jesus’ name.”

Perhaps after a morning of thinking about endings it was especially cool that in the afternoon, my boys and I picked up my mom’s friend, Norma, and we went out to the place where I grew up. Years ago, after my parents died, my brother and I sold that property to her son and his wife.  Ever since, they have been busy tearing down the old, shabby buildings and building a beautiful new home and landscaping and gorgeous trails throughout the woods we loved to explore when we were kids. They had invited us to come out long ago and finally we went. No longer is it just painful to be out there and think of all that has been lost from our childhood and how we miss our parents. Now, I can look at how beautiful they have made the place and I think, “Mom and Dad would have thought this was pretty great.” It is so good to see new life there and new memories being made.  Only one of the old apple trees behind our house remains, but new ones have sprung up all around the property. The lilac bush mom planted from clippings from Grandma’s lilac bush still blooms. They have planted lovely wildflowers in the fields and oodles of new trees, but the evergreens mom and I planted still tower over the lawn, healthy and strong. So much is new there, but traces of me and my family remain.

A pastor friend told me a story about a burial service she presided at where at the end, the family released balloons into the air. They were white balloons with white strings. As they floated up, up, up, in one large group, bending and twisting with the wind, she said, “they looked like a large group of sperm heading toward the sky.” We laughed hard, and then only half-jokingly I said, “But it’s totally symbolic, isn’t it? New life happens all the time! Right there, at the end of the graveside service, little swimmers still making their way.”  We laughed some more.

But new life happens all the time. God makes it so. Most of the time it just has to happen through endings first, that’s the hard part.

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