To My Church on the Day it Dissolves
Words by Théa Rosenburg // Image by Evelyn Sutton
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I planted four beans in a water glass. They were pink-speckled brown beans, saved from my mom’s garden, and we pinned them against the sides of the glass with a damp paper napkin. We wanted to watch what happened as they grew. Here is what happened:
First, the root tips pierced the beans. Over the next few days, the roots crept downward, weird and white, then they branched out and tangled with the roots of other beans.
Next, the beans split in two. I had assumed the shoot would come from the top of the bean the way the root came from the bottom, but no: it emerged from the center, peeling back the halves of the bean and craning upward until, days later, the beans’ brown skin dropped away and the shoot stood upright, crowned with two true leaves and bearing those halves on either side like stumpy arms.
Here is what I did not know about those bean halves when we started, but that would become the most significant part of the experiment for me: they are called cotyledons, and they are not leaves. They look like leaves when they first appear above ground in a garden, but they do not convert light into food the way true leaves do. Cotyledons feed the growing plant from their own cache of stored food; they keep that plant humming along until the true leaves are broad enough, and the roots deep enough, for the plant to go on feeding itself. After that, the cotyledons wither and drop from the stem.
* * *
The vote two weeks ago was nearly unanimous: today our church dissolves. When we began 14 years ago, this was a place of rapid, tangling growth, but now, at the end, we have watched ministries dry up, chairs empty, and needs go unmet. Everything good and green about us seems brown and withered now. We are not what we once were.
But what if we are what we need to be?
Maybe we have been mistaken about our church’s purpose. Maybe we have considered our church a whole plant, complete in itself, and we have grown frustrated by our lack of fruit. We have bent toward sunlight we cannot feel and despaired because we no longer multiply the way we did at first. We have felt our energy and strength going out from us and we have wondered at times, For what? Where is it going?
We have wondered: If God gives us sunlight, water, and soil, but we do not bear fruit, what are we doing wrong?
I considered this question one night while washing dishes, and maybe I wept. I glanced at the windowsill and saw the beans, striving upward while I scrubbed, and I understood: our church is not a complete plant, dying for lack of fruit. We are like the cotyledons, those little packets that nourish a bigger body. Or if we push the metaphor further, we are the nourishment within the cotyledons, and our church is the husk withering on the stem, its purpose almost fulfilled.
* * *
The world around us measures success by numbers—by building capacity, attendance, baptisms, bustling ministries. But our Lord tucked himself into the ground like a seed and died. He confounded the world by dying, and that must have seemed to many at that time like a failure.
But in dying, Jesus defeated death, just as we, in dispersing, defy discord. We are not breaking apart in disunity, but continuing the work God has done in sending so many of our members out into ministry, missions, church plants, and other church bodies. Not everyone has left on such good terms—some have left because we, in our carelessness or pride, hurt them. But in every departure, God has continued to work out his plan for the Church, that garden that crosses borders and spans oceans and everywhere bends toward his light.
Even so, these last few years have not been comfortable. We watched decay crinkle the edges of our church and worried that we were failing. We worried that some unseen sin withered our fellowship. But perhaps that decay is the means through which God weans us off this church before handing us gently on to the next. Through it, he trained our affections toward him and taught us to trust him when we know only the very next step, but not the one after it.
* * *
For many of us, this is the only healthy church we’ve known, and it is hard to imagine beginning again where no one knows us and where we don’t yet know how to belong. We mourn the loss of our pastor’s care and teaching; we mourn the loss of our community; we mourn the loss of the church we have suffered for and loved.
But let us also rejoice, for God has worked through our church in ways that may not bear fruit for generations yet. He has grown missionaries in this church; he has shaped pastors. He has trained parents here, pruned marriages, and called the smallest disciples. He has ministered to our family through many of you: you left meals on our porch, loaned us a car when ours was stolen, carried our boxes from home to home many times. You fed us, discipled us, corrected us, and urged us on.
May our children one day love others the way you have loved us.
* * *
I have thought a lot in these past weeks—not only about beans, but also about endings. And about how seldom, in the created world and throughout Scripture, they are final. Seeds dissolve and release young plants; the world withers each autumn only to burst forth singing in spring. God brings the Israelites to a dead end at the edge of the Red Sea, only to cut an improbable path through it. The temple is built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, and remade in a Man. Jesus himself dies and rises three days later, our salvation and a reminder that not even death is a sealed door.
The votes, the closing service, the allocating of funds, the dispersing of our fellowship into other churches—these seem so final. But we are still standing at the edge of the sea, waiting to see what the Lord will do next, where he will send us. He is not through with us yet.
* * *
Our pastor has said—and this has been quoted many times in the past few weeks—that he would rejoice if one day he came to church and found it empty because every one of us had been sent out to do God’s work elsewhere. Next Sunday, our church will sit empty because today we gathered and for the last time, sang the Doxology together. For the last time in this church body, we took communion. And many of us wept as we broke the bread.
We lingered in the foyer and on the front porch as the long-suffering cleaning crew swept crumbs from around our feet. We tucked small arms into coat sleeves and gathered fallen bulletins. We kept stopping to hug one more person, thank one more friend, and to look one last time into the sanctuary, filled for the moment with light and sound and laughter.
This article is published in Issue 14: The Church. Order your copy here!