Life and hope rise out of empty places
Written by Rev. John H. Thomas
A pastor attending a retreat for local church leaders in the South Dakota and Northern Plains conferences spoke poignantly about the challenges of ministry in rural America. "How," he asked us, "do you minister in a community where the number one goal of most teenagers is to get out?"
Ministry in small towns and rural communities across the United States requires a particular commitment, and we are blessed with many pastors who serve faithfully in these important but unheralded places. Yet the pain of his question is very real, betraying the fears of many communities that they are slowly being emptied of life and meaning as their young people move away. Who will care for the aging? Who will remember the families that established and sustained the farms before corporate interests took over? Who will support the church? In a world that values growth, size, activity, and youth, there is a frightening "emptying" occurring in many rural places where "getting out" and "getting away" rather than "settling down" and "raising up" is the reality and often the goal.
Another experience of emptiness led a weeping Mary Magdalene to pour out her grief on Easter morning. "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." The tomb is empty; the last vestige of the remarkable vitality that was Jesus of Nazareth apparently gone. But it was in this empty place amid empty circumstances that the risen Christ was revealed. Not at the busy temple, not at the prestigious palace, not in the bustling synagogue, not amid the crowds, but in a lonely, empty place Mary meets life and hope. Yes, the crowds of Pentecost are soon to come, and Paul's preaching will take him to the thriving urban centers of the empire. But the story begins in a place of emptiness with a woman unafraid to confront the painful realities of the empty cross and the empty grave.
Easter will once again be celebrated this year in crowded churches. Full sanctuaries will grace our television screens. But Easter will also be celebrated with joy in the nearly empty places of our land. And herein lies the Good News that my friend, the rural pastor, announces week in and week out: Our destiny does not ultimately rest in the success of our institutions, or the preservation of our traditions, or the survival of our communities, but rather in the presence of the risen Christ who was willing to empty himself on the Cross, that we might receive life at the empty tomb.
How do we minister in a place where the one goal of most teenagers is to get out? The same way we minister anywhere: with courage, passion, grace, creativity, love, and above all with the remembrance that the Gospel came first to a grieving woman in an empty place. Christ is risen. Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is the sixth president of the United Church of Christ.