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.

Ashes

It’s been over four years now since the first time that I went back to our home place over by Henning after the new owners had bought it and taken down all the old buildings that were the setting for most every memory from my childhood.  I knew it would be strange and hard to go and see the place but like a magnet it draws me -If I am anywhere near those green hills and oak trees of Folden township in Minnesota then I find myself winding down the country roads toward home.

It was late afternoon as I turned the corner off highway 65 onto Lost School Road.  That was the fancy name they gave our road sometime while I was growing up.  Before that it had no name, it was just the road that the Hetlands live on or the road past the Hendricks place.  There was an old school building just past our property.  It had been decades since it was used and then a couple from California bought it and renovated it into a beautiful home.  Anyway, that’s where our old road finally got its’ name.

As I turned the corner, I caught my breath.  Every time I had turned that corner my whole life the first thing I would see was the white building at the top of the hill, about a quarter mile in the distance.  It was where we parked our cars.  The house was next to it, cloaked in trees.  There was a light post next to it that mom would always make sure to leave on if we were coming home at night.

Now there was nothing there.  My car crept closer down the road and finally to the driveway, up the hill and came to a stop right in front of where the house would have been.

It was the oddest feeling.  Haunting and solemn and sad and empty.  The sidewalk where my brother and I had played marbles, gone.  The garage with the basketball hoop where I had played for hours, gone.  The clothes line where we hung our clothes, the chicken coop where I raised the hens, the house where we had been a family, gone, gone, gone.  I was struck by how small the clearing really was now – that space where all my memories had been – it had always seemed so much bigger.  How could it possibly be erased clean now of the life we had lived there?  I found myself thinking strange things, grasping at remote hopes – wondering if the trees would remember us at least, if it could even be remotely possible that if people lived and loved and shared life together in a place –if some essence of you did indeed live on there even after all physical evidence showed otherwise. 

I noticed that on the apple trees which had been behind our house – on one side of several of the trees, the leaves were shriveled and brown.  As I walked closer I realized it had been from intense heat – and I knew what had happened.  That’s how they took down the house.  They burned it, let the ashes of the place descend into the basement below and then they covered them up.  Voila. 

It had to be done, of course.  The house was falling apart.  The wiring was bad, there were bats and mice, all sorts of disrepair.  It had been a very old house.  It needed to be torn down.  My brother and I had known that, had talked about it many times when that property was still in our names.  But we both knew that we couldn’t be the ones to do it.  Those walls had not held a perfect family – there had probably been as much tears as laughter.  But it had been our family.  And then before we knew it time went on and we buried our father and then we buried our mother and all that had been left was an empty old house that we loved, but we knew it would not be our home again. 

So we signed some papers and now someone else would make the decisions about the buildings and the future of those eighty beautiful acres.  It was good really.  I knew that.  Someone else would build a home or a cabin there.  Someone else would make memories with children and grandchildren there now.  Someone else would go sit by the lake, watch the sunrise over the meadow, listen to the breeze through the branches of the poplars and see how the noontime sun could make their leaves glimmer like silver coins.  All those things were so good.  Life was going on.

So why did it feel so much like death?

Because of course it was that as well.  I bent down and scooped up some of the dirt beneath my feet that was mingled with the ashes of all that used to be.  I wept big sloppy tears for my mother and my father and the finality of death.  I wept for my childhood home, burned to the ground, and that I’d never again be just a little girl sitting in her pink bedroom daydreaming about the future without a care in the world.  I wept the big sloppy tears that I had to cry, and then I put down the dirt and ash and dusted off my hands. 

I took some pictures then before I left – pictures of the trees that mom and I had planted in the front yard and the lilac bush we had grown from a clipping taken from grandma’s yard.  I looked one more time down toward the valley where the deer pause to drink from the pond and up toward the hill where mom used to take us sledding.  Scores of memories every direction I turned.  It would always be this way here.  I sighed and slipped back into my car and drove away.

We all have our stories of ashes, don’t we?  Mine, I think of a home that once existed – now just a memory.  Yours might be the ash and ruin you found your life in after poor choices made.  They could be the ashes of dreams you had for a relationship or the ashes of the prayers you prayed that a cure would be found or the ashes of a loved one whose body finally gave up its spirit at the end of a long life.  Ashes are the sign of something that once was – but no more.  We sweep them up and toss them away, we bury them, scatter them, or store them away and try to forget about them. 

Yet today, we are marked with them.  We choose to be marked with this sign of death and endings.  Why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because it is only through death that there is the possibility of new life.  We do it because it is only through the repentance of Ash Wednesday, this season of lent, pondering the last days and words of our Lord Jesus, and remembering his last supper he shared with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and kneeling at the foot of the cross where he hung on Good Friday and then was shut in the tomb that we can truly experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.

On Ash Wednesday I am always struck by the power of the ritual of this day.  There’s nothing quite as powerful as putting ash in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the smallest children to the oldest adult in the church and speaking the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The first time I marked a baby with that cross, the words were stuck in my throat and I had to push them out.  Ashes are a sign of endings and the blackness of sin and death, it felt so wrong to place them on the pale, smooth, perfect skin of an innocent baby – and yet, I knew that we are all born into the blackness of sin, and the only hope for any of us, from the youngest child, to the eldest matriarch or patriarch – our only hope is in Jesus Christ.

Without him, the ash places and the death places in our lives would be the end of all of our stories.  Without him, the cold tomb really is the end.  Without him, without grace, there no peace, no forgiveness, no second chances, no hope for our home beyond this one and life eternal with the ones we love.

And so we learn to love the ashes because they stand for far more than endings.  Because we find our home in the heart of a Savior who is making all things new.  Even you and me.

Blessing the Dust

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

by Jan Richardson

All those days you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face toward the wind

and be scattered to the four corners

or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial-

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched.

This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing

that lives within the ancient ashes,

that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.

So let us be marked not for sorrow.

And let us be marked not for shame.

Let us be marked not for false humility

or for thinking we are less than we are

but for claiming what God can do within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff of which the world is made,

and the stars that blaze in our bones, a

nd the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.