Eulogy for Bethel: Light That Endures
Two weeks ago I received a letter from the district superintendent of Bethel United Methodist Church, in whose congregation I grew up. The country church is being closed January 1, 2017, and I was asked where I would move my membership. I was given a few choices.
My Irish great grandfather Richard Damery was one of the founders of Bethel in 1870. He and most of my ancestors on my father’s side are buried around the church. As children we played “ghost”, a variation on tag, in the cemetery. My childhood social life revolved around Bethel.
A few years ago an ambitious, if misguided, minister attempted to combine Bethel with a church in town, splitting the congregation. The ones that stayed slowly dwindled until it became very clear that the church needed to close.
This Christmas is the last Christmas in Bethel. Although I will not attend (I live in California; Bethel is in central Illinois), I know in my heart what the Christimas pagent will be. In fact, each year in this dark time, I remember the cold, snowy nights we attended church and the light that comes when all is so dark. In the end, Bethel, “House of God” endures in my heart.
The following is a blog I did several years ago telling my own Christmas story about Bethel.
Abundant Life: A Christmas Story
My departure from organized religion began when I realized “eternal life” was “abundant life”— spiritually abundant. At the moment of epiphany I was sitting on the stage near the altar of our old country church, drafted to play the part of Virgin Mary in the annual nativity pageant. As every year before, the main players, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus (the newest born in the congregation), some shepherds, wise men, and an angel, had paraded down the center isle of the candlelit sanctuary to the stage, now bedecked with evergreens and a back drop of the star-studded skyline of Bethlehem, painted by my mother several years before. We were accompanied by the voice of God: the deep, booming voice of Bill Sheppard, a good friend of my parents and distant relative, reading the Christmas story from the balcony:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled… And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, for there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2: 1-7).
My revelation was not well received by everyone in the church. (Of course, I couldn’t keep it quiet!) I remember one of the more fundamentalist types telling my mother that this is what happens when you send a kid to college. Although my mother was raised Baptist, she was also educated and liberal minded and buffered a lot between us kids and some of the more conservative members of the congregation. I know she also worried at my increasingly liberal views of Christianity, even up to the time of her death.