Sunday, May 19, 2013
Let us pray: May these words be yours not mine, O God. Amen. Betsy stood and watched, tears flowing down her cheeks – just as they were for everyone who stood there – at a safe distance, but still close enough for the cooling effect of the flames – even though the heat was intense. Cooling because almost a century of memories was going up in flames. It was a strange feeling to have such a sense of heartbreaking loss tied so closely to the warmth of dancing flames.
This is not what they had in mind in all the planning for the wind and fire of Pentecost. It was supposed to be a suitable party celebration – complete with red cloth draping the chancel area, and streamers strategically placed by open windows and forced air vents to accentuate the image of wind as they danced and fluttered to bring life to the worship space.They had been in the church building just the night before. Was it something they had done, or not done? Had they left a door open for a fire-curious intruder?
Those were all questions that would have to be answered in the days and weeks to follow.
Some of the congregation members who lived closest to the church building had heard the sirens and looking out their windows as the sirens got closer, were shocked to see flames shooting out through the roof. Quickly the call had gone out – “our church is on fire” and soon just about everyone who would have gathered there only a few hours later was standing and watching as the firefighters tried their best to save the building. It soon became apparent however, that this was going to be an exercise in protecting other buildings in the neighbourhood because the church building was already too involved to hope that it could be salvaged.
And so Betsy and all the others just stood and watched as the place where children had been baptised, the offspring of marriages that were also celebrated in this beautiful church sanctuary, and where countless community gatherings had taken place. This place was full to overflowing with memories and holy moments. And they were all going up in flames.
St. Luke’s had always been a place of energy and creativity. In the bustling 50’s it was the place where numerous community organizations had found their start. Some were faith based, but others had simply used the space provided by St. Luke’s for their organizational meetings. Many generations of children in the community had attended day care and play school within its walls. A couple of decades ago it had bucked the trend of dwindling congregation size with programs designed to bring people in – for yoga classes, English as a second language class, computer classes for seniors and send them out – with the original food bank in their community, a self-help program for new Canadians and the local chapter of Kairos – the inter-church social justice and development organization. Several key members of the local Amnesty International committee claimed St. Luke’s as their spiritual home, and you could not go around the town without running into busy people who would run into other busy people all claiming St. Luke’s as the place where their passions were fed, their love for humankind was nurtured and their desire to be faithful servants in the body of Christ was affirmed.
Lately, however, it had fallen into some of the same patterns that churches all across the country were facing. Increasing costs to maintain the church building along with fewer contributing members. Some of the key people from previous decades had retired and while the financial support of the congregation was still relatively strong, fixed incomes and a lower influx of younger members meant that the budgets were always a bit tighter every year. In addition, a community that had spawned so many important leaders in the town outside the church walls, was starting to see a change in their own leadership. It was just a bit harder to find people to fill the positions. They had actually had good natured elections in the past for some of the key board positions. No hard feelings, but there had been some competing ideas for church direction that had played themselves out at an annual meeting with friendly rivals seeking to further their vision as board chair.
They were nowhere close to packing it all in – that decision was still a few years away. Some people refused to believe that they would ever be there – yes, there were some depressing trends, but they had weathered bad times before. Yes, the church as a whole was experiencing hard times, but St. Luke’s had always been different. Many of them believed that determined effort, focussed programs, courageous outreach and their strong history would help them going forward. And most of all they were a community that believed in hope – the hope that God promised, and which had always been there before. All of this was mostly an unstated backdrop as the gathered community watched the symbol of their community go up in flames. They watched as the firefighters focussed their efforts on the houses to the south side of the building as the flames and embers, blown by a healthy wind, threatened to spread the fire across the street. Occasionally, someone, through their sobbing tears would conjure up memories of some important event – a Christmas Eve service, the day that the congregation had welcomed their sponsored refugee family to Canada, the big party when they had unveiled their outside public art as they celebrated becoming an affirming ministry.
Even on the day they lost their church, there were growing murmurings that the church was not a building, but the people. They had gathered later that day for a hastily arranged service of thanksgiving – yes, thanksgiving – no one had died. No one was even hurt. No other houses were lost to fire. And they had insurance. Thank goodness for wise management that had made sure of that. The task now was to consider what the future would look like. The first chorus – with quite a few members joining in – was to start rebuilding as soon as possible. Make it similar to the old building, but with lots of modern day additions – fire suppression and energy saving and energy generating ideas. Some of them were already imagining what an array of solar panels would look like on the roof and what no-water and low flush toilets would work like in the washrooms.
Others, however, wanted to seize the opportunity of an unfortunately provided reset button to completely re-vision the ministry and presence of St. Luke’s in the community. Perhaps they didn’t need a building – they certainly weren’t going to have one for a while anyway. Maybe the forced occupation of rented or donated space would give them an idea and a vision of something completely different.
Some of them recalled wistful conversations from recent board meetings that were now made more urgent – conversations about congregational retreats to consider their future and mission, conversations that were sparked by their participation in the review that the whole church was doing.
Well, I wish I could tell you what happened at St. Luke’s, but I can’t. The church is always a work in progress – and some time the work is what’s important before you can see any progress. What I do know is that a Pentecostal fire taught the people of St. Luke’s some important things – it taught them that their reach in the community was much wider than they had ever thought. They were impressed beyond measure by the range and depth of assistance that came forward after their fire – from people making offers to help them in so many ways – from every walk of life, with every skill and ability. This was critical in their rising to new life in the community – they made a determined and well planned effort to make sure that community needs were considered as they made their plans to rise again. They realized that they could not stop at polling congregation members and adherents – that many more people considered St. Luke’s to be their church – even though they had never said so, and probably never would have said so if not for the Pentecost fire. And the St. Luke’s people – the ones who were there on a regular basis – made sure that they included those “other” St. Luke’s people as they developed a plan for the future. The one thing they did agree on, and that was a name, a name that told of their connection with the past, but also about their future, in whatever direction it took:
The St. Luke’s Centre for Spiritual Health and Justice: A community of caring and faith.
Let us pray: O God, may the wind and fire of your presence blow through the church – that we may be able to learn who and what we are and who and what we should be and that we should learn – even, if necessary, in the hard way that the St. Luke’s people had to face – but that we should learn the path you would have us walk! Amen.