Lent calls us to reflect on what is dying and rising in our church today

February 28, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Dying is part of transformation, of course, and 2016 was full of it. The deaths of public personalities seemed to hit us all almost weekly: Prince, David Bowie, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, John Glenn, Gwen Ifill, Florence Henderson, fellow Demon-Deacon and legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, fellow Louisvillian Muhammad Ali, holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, among many others.

One that struck me particularly hard was the apparent suicide death of Larry DeLong, pastor and head of staff of Valley Presbyterian in Green Valley, Arizona. Sixty-years old, Larry was a member of our Seminary Support Network and a commissioner to the 2012 General Assembly. He left a wife and two teenage children along with his congregation and community.

The other death that hit me hard was that of my Uncle Daniel Hoyle. Married 45 years to my father’s youngest sister, my Aunt Joyce, Uncle Dan would have been 70 in November 2016 but he died in June. He stood over 6’5” in his younger days but when cremated only amounts to about 8 ½ pounds of ashes inside a plastic urn of 8 x 5 x 4 inches. Those ashes, as he wished, await burial alongside and at the same time as his wife when she dies, because they never wanted to be alone.

In November 2014, we moved my Uncle Dan and Aunt Joyce to Louisville where I serve as their Power of Attorney. Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Louisville including me when Muhammad Ali died in early June 2016. Barely a half-dozen gathered for my Uncle’s memorial service just a few weeks later. The thousands lined up for Dan came earlier in his life, the ones with drug and alcohol addictions that he, and the dozens of other counselors he trained, helped to manage their diseases. Both Dan and Ali were baby boomers, one of the largest generations our country has ever seen. Anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 baby boomers die daily and will do so for the next 35 years. Many of you have and will be presiding over the burial of these folk, many who are and will be lay and clergy leaders and friends. In 2016, the Pew Research Center said the population of Millennials surpassed Baby Boomers.

This all makes me think that “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” said on Ash Wednesday is pretty heavy stuff… even heavier than 8 ½ pounds!

The weight I am carrying daily as well as my often prayed prayer of transformation relates to the realities described above. Over 80% of the currently active ministers of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) will be eligible to retire in the next 13 years. These are our baby boomer pastors who serve us well. Many of them have already retired. Most have mentored new pastors. I wonder will there be enough pastors called into ministry and prepared for service to fill the pulpits and positions they retire? Will those positions still be there?

Frankly, I’m not sure about either question. I am convinced we need to be prayerfully and strategically asking these and other corollary questions together. Maybe this Lent, through the resources our seminaries and other provide and gatherings of Presbyterians like at the NEXT Church national gathering March 13-16 in Kansas City, we will find time to reflect on what is dying and rising in our church today.

The city symbol of Debrecen, Hungary is a Phoenix rising. It is a reminder that they have risen up after invasion after invasion for centuries, including invasions by the Soviets, Germans and Austrians. My prayer is that we all may rise from the ashes this Lent toward the new life God is providing.