As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome my friend, Matt Rich to the guest blogging crew and his letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Matt is a husband, father of three, soccer and baseball coach, Cub Scout leader, and, by the grace of God, the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Lumberton, NC.
It was a Friday afternoon, my day off, and I had just come inside after playing catch with my son in the backyard when my cellphone rang. Despite the increasing difficulty of doing so, I’ve managed to restrict the number of people with my cell number, so I knew it must be important. I recognized the number of the local hospital and quickly answered.
The hospital chaplain, a faithful Southern Baptist minister, returned my hello with a “Sorry to bother you, Matt, but I need your help.” He began to share with me the outline of a tragic tale.
Jan had been in the hospital’s ICU for more than a week. Traveling with her husband from Virginia to Florida for their granddaughter’s high school graduation, they had stopped to spend the night in a local hotel. The next morning, as she was getting into her car, she suffered a heart attack. Her husband rushed her to the hospital and there she remained. Despite the dedication of medical staff and quality care, Jan had not regained consciousness or shown any signs of recovery.
Over the last week, the family had gathered from Florida, Virginia, and even London, England. The decision had been made to remove life support, but Jan’s husband had one request before they did so. He was not “a church-person,” but he knew that his wife had been baptized and raised a Presbyterian. While she had attended church when they were newly married, over time she gradually stopped going when he wouldn’t go with her. But now, before life support was removed, he wanted a Presbyterian minister to come and pray with his wife. So the chaplain called me.
I arranged to meet the family at 8:30 PM that night. I found them in the hall by Jan’s room in the ICU. After brief introductions, we talked quietly about the events that had brought them to this day, about the wife and mother Jan was, her other health struggles over the last few years, and some of their fond memories. Then we went into her room. Surrounded by monitors, IV stands, and equipment, I placed my hand upon Jan’s shoulder. The family made a small semi-circle around the foot of the bed. I began with Paul’s words in Romans, “If we live, we live to the Lord, if we die we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s,” and together we prayed. I prayed for forgiveness of sins, with thanksgiving for life, for peace and comfort for this family, and with the assurance of hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ our Lord. I said, “Amen,” we opened our eyes, they mumbled a few words of thanks, and we returned to the hall and talked some more. We even shared a laugh or two. Jan died the next morning.
It was a powerful evening for me as a pastor, but what most struck me that night driving home was the reminder that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is bigger than any of us know or imagine. I had not met any of these individuals before, they did not know me, and we will most likely never encounter one another again. And yet for 30 minutes on a Friday night in Lumberton, NC, we gathered as brothers and sisters in Christ in an intensive care unit to pray and bear witness to life even in the face of death.
Being a connectional church is something like that, I think. Our denominational connections have been strained in recent days and years. Meetings and conferences are held to find a way forward. Many wonder if it is even worth trying to hold on to one another anymore.
And yet, our life together in the PC(USA) does not ultimately depend on sharing a Book of Confessions or a Book of Order. Those documents provide the framework for living together, but not the foundation. More than our confessions and our attempts at order, we are and will be united by Christ’s call to be together as His church. In times of joy and times of sorrow, in worship and in mission, with friends and with strangers, in Friday afternoon phone calls and in ICUs all across this country and world, every now and then we get a chance to see and know what being a connectional church really looks like.
Dear Church … please, don’t let go of Christ or one another.