The diagnoses are grim. Fervent supporters and ardent critics of religion both point to your decline. An urgency, if not an all-out alarm, fills the air. There are those who hope beyond hope for your renewal and transformation. Others stand steadfastly by your side as they "wait and see." Still others wipe their hands of the whole ugly mess and leave you to your ever-more-inevitable demise.
I'm not sure what to do. But I know I love you.
I know that you have grown weary in a bewildering, fast-paced world less inclined to pause and listen in. I know you have clung to models of leadership, governance, and programming through which you reached prominence, but now seem sluggish in the world today. I know you have tried new methods and "relevant" techniques for attracting new life, but they did not pan out like you dreamed. I know you have been let down by ministerial leadership, and not just in the pulpit: in the boardroom, in the choir lofts, in the denominational office. In this time of shrinking attendance, recycled ideas, and diminishing resolve, I'm not sure what the magic cure is. Or if there ever was one. But I know I love you.
You left groceries on my family's doorstep when my parents could not make ends meet. You carried the weight of my family's grief when my sister drowned. You encouraged me when I felt so alone and afraid. You challenged me to live beyond myself and for those who are so often ignored. You surrounded me with gentleness and love on my wedding day. You gave me time-worn words and melodies to express the joy and lament of my spirit. You pointed to a holy feast big enough to include all of humanity, and you set a place at that table for me.
You introduced me to God.
I remember warmly how you shared with me from an ancient letter that faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
Love abides in me, dear friend, and yet you are dying still. Love and death. Those words are so hard to say together. And yet, many years ago you proposed they belong together. You proposed that the mystery of life twinkles at the intersection of love and death. You read to me a sacred story that twinkled with such a light, and it has never left me.
I'm not sure what I can do for you. But I know I'm not alone. Neither are you. We shouldn't let each other forget that.
So maybe I'll do the only thing I know how. I'll sit with you and listen. And when you can't recall the twists and turns of that sacred story you love, I'll tell it to you. I'll remind you of who you are and why you hold that storybook so close to your chest, with that wrinkled grip only hope knows.
I suspect my telling of that story will not reverse time or your fate. Perhaps it will ease your troubled mind and your frightened heart. Maybe someone will overhear me telling your sacred story and find it just as breathtaking as I did. I am sure that would make you smile.
As you relax into your final breaths, I'll hold your hand, dear friend. I love you. I won't forget all that you mean to me, all that you've done for me, nor your sacred story. It will live in me. And maybe, just maybe, we'll share a glimpse of that twinkle you proposed so long ago.
Grace to you and Peace,
Michael Swartzentruber is the youth minister at Middletown Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. Follow him on twitter @mswartzentruber