By Layne Smith
I drove up to the small, country church to attend the funeral of the grandmother of one of the church members where I currently serve. The temporary sign on wheels announcing the Easter cantata greeted me from the front lawn as I parked my car on the dirt lot. As is often the case at these rural churches, several of the men stood out on the steps of the sanctuary visiting with each other. As I walked into the tiny foyer, the funeral home employee handed me a bulletin with the order of service. On the back was the ubiquitous Psalm 23, the source of comfort and strength to so many in times of grief and need.
As I stepped into the small sanctuary, I walked into familiar territory. It was the church of my past. The open casket was there at the front in place of the communion table. The American and Christian flags framed the choir loft behind the pulpit. Behind the choir loft was the baptistery. The painting on the back of the baptistery wall was a river scene. There was no organ, just an out of tune piano. The modest stained glass windows had center cameos of the Baptism, the Birth, Gethsemane, Jesus teaching the Elders, the Woman at the Well, and the Crucifixion, all familiar to those raised and steeped in the rural churches of yesteryear.
There was a quiet buzz of conversation. These modestly dressed folk knew each other. It felt like community. They greeted each other quietly, yet warmly. It reminded me of a story I read years ago about Sam Rayburn who was the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States for seventeen years, the longest tenure in U.S. history. If the story isn’t true, it’s one of those that ought to be true.
The story is told that “Mr. Sam” as he was known, became ill with pancreatic cancer. It became necessary for him to resign as Speaker of the House. He decided to move back home to Bonham, Texas. Someone asked him why he didn’t stay in the DC area or perhaps go to New York to get the latest and greatest treatments. “Why in the world would you go back to a little place like Bonham, Texas?” the person wanted to know. “I want to go back because in Bonham, Texas,” he said, “People know when you are sick, and they care when you die.”
“In Bonham, Texas, people know when you are sick, and they care when you die.” That’s what it felt like to attend the funeral that day. What would it take for our modern day, sophisticated churches to create an environment like that? I think it’s worth considering.
Layne is Region 4 Director for CBF Peer Learning Groups, an intentional interim minister and Interim Ministry Educator for the Center for Congregational Health.