Worship for Communities in Crisis

April 25th, 2011

Early one morning I was awakened at sunrise by someone pounding on my door. I was at the Methodist Seminary in San Jose, Costa Rica, on a mission trip, and I expected this day, like the ones before it, would be filled with shoveling gravel into buckets, tying rebar by hand, and pushing wheelbarrows full of concrete up the steep mountainside to lay the foundation for an orphanage that would open the following spring. Unfortunately, today would be different.

“Call your wife right away, but it’s not about your daughter.” My worst fears were quickly calmed. But if my child was OK, why on earth would my wife be calling me on the emergency line at such an ungodly hour? Still half asleep, I called her back. “The church burned down!” she said.

During the middle of the night a bolt of lightning had hit the steeple of our historic church building, built in 1900 and listed on the National Register of Historic places, and burned it to the ground. “I’m getting on a plane. I’ll be there as soon as I can!” So began the longest day of my life.

I spent the rest of the day getting back to the United States, out of communication, playing out every conceivable scenario in my head. What was happening? How were people reacting? How on earth were we going to have worship on Sunday? What do I say to these people who just lost a building that was like a close family member? Did God seriously want me to be the leader in this time of crisis?

Planning the 'Funeral'

I arrived back home very late on a Thursday night, realizing I had 48 hours to plan a worship service with literally no resources immediately available. We’d have to borrow everything we would need.

Friday morning I hit the ground running. When I drove around the curve where I was used to seeing the quaint white siding and green shingles of the facade of our building, I saw only smoking rubble, scorched trees, and dozens of people standing around because they didn’t know what else to do. All day people talked, cried, hugged each other, prayed together, and began to ponder what to do next. My phone was ringing constantly. Since we were in a rural area without much cell coverage, the only way I could talk at all was standing on top of a cement picnic table, speaking very loudly into my phone, which must have been a strange sight.

The remains of the building were still smoldering, and occasionally small fires flared back up, so it wasn’t safe to go inside the yellow sheriffs’ tape. But outside the tape I saw a a long pile of bricks strewn haphazardly, spilling over into our cemetery. One of our older members informed me that the sanctuary had been heated by a coal-burning stove that, with the arrival of a central HVAC unit, had been removed and the chimney plastered over. He and his brothers had been charged with keeping the stove going during services as boys. Holding a brick, he remarked “Heck, I’m surprised we didn't burn the place down back then!” He trailed off, his face falling in a somber grimace. “Still, it feels good to be holding a piece of what’s left.”

“Let’s build a Wailing Wall!” I blurted out. The Wailing Wall (it’s official name is the Western Wall) is all that is left of the place where Solomon’s Temple once stood in Jerusalem. For centuries Jews and people of other faiths have come to pray at this wall, touching the stones that once supported God’s house. People also write down prayers and leave them between the stones in the wall. A tangible piece of something sacred that was destroyed. A physical point of contact that helped people feel closer to God. If it worked in Jerusalem, why couldn’t it work for us? So we got some cement, collected the bricks, and made our own little wailing wall.

Liturgy and Symbol

I had a professor in seminary who told us that liturgy gives us a way to express our feelings when we have no words. There are times when using words written by others enables us to name something profound that is happening within ourselves, but the experience is too raw for us to define it right then.

This professor also helped us understand the importance of symbols in worship. Borrowing from the theology of Paul Tillich, symbols are not just replacements or markers of some larger thing. They are elements that actually participate in the higher reality to which they point. Whether it is the water of baptism, the bread and wine/juice of the Lord’s Supper, or images like crosses, icons, or piles of brick, symbols engage our senses and allow us to more deeply experience the transcendent reality we are pointing toward than words alone can do.

I pastor in the United Methodist tradition, and we have a wealth of liturgical resources that are drawn from a variety of sources, the chief one being the liturgical tradition of the Church of England, from which Methodism emerged. This church building had been the site of many important moments for generations of families, and many expressed that losing the building was like losing a family member. So we adapted the Greeting from the order of service for a funeral, which acknowledges the grief and pain we are feeling in that moment, but also proclaims our hope in God’s ability end suffering and death, creating new life in the Resurrection.

In this worship service we were also saying goodbye, for a time, to a piece of property that was, as another member described it, “the holiest place I’ve ever known." As one of my mentors said to me, “it’s their Jerusalem." So at the end of the service we borrowed from the liturgy of taking leave of a building that is used when a congregation moves or disbands, omitting the lines about deconsecrating the space. (The complete order of worship we used can be downloaded at the bottom of this article). This provided closure for that space, but also promised a future return.

During the prayer time we took another cue from Jerusalem and handed out pieces of paper and pens for people to write prayers and stick them in between the bricks of our wailing wall. And since this time felt so final, even like a death, we closed the service by celebrating Holy Communion, again borrowing from the order for the Lord’s Supper for a funeral. Recalling the Last Supper, the darkest night of Jesus and the disciples’ lives, Holy Communion serves as a powerful reminder that even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is hope. The finality of death is taken over by the power of the Resurrection, and no force on earth, not even the awesome forces of nature, can take that hope away from us.

We've walked a long road since that day, facing the challenges of visioning for our new space and all the practical tasks required for designing and financing a new, bigger building. But that first worship after the fire stands out in our minds as a turning point, a time when we could mourn what was lost and celebrate the hope for renewal that God promises, even in the moments when hope is hard to find.

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