This audio clip has become part of the Mayhew family Christmas. I’m indifferent about Paul Harvey, but I love this simple parable that explains the the joyful reason for the season.(The actual story begins at about 1:05)
Buck scanned the remains of the sanctuary, and then settled his gaze on the communion table. “Church was on fire,” he said simply.
“We were insured. Hopefully we can find a place to meet until we rebuild.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Buck. “The building burned down. The church was on fire. You didn’t notice?”
“I’m not sure what. . .”
“Some of these folks haven’t been that close since,” he gestured toward the table, “…well I don’t know. I never seen Thelma Kaiser and Mary Criswell stand next to each other like they did today. They held hands during the prayer.”
“It’s amazing what can happen if….”
“Y’know what I think? I think we had all we needed today. We had bread, a cup, a table . . . and we had each other. The Good Lord showed up, too. I don’t think you’ll rebuild this church any better than it was today. Fire burned up the building. It built the church.”
The reverend Turley was silent.
Buck reduced the ashen pages of a hymnal to powder with the toe of his boot. “Gordon, it’s bothered me for years,” he said. “I keep readin’ and readin’ in my Bible and I can’t find most all the stuff we did in this place. Somebody’s house or even the back room of my store seems to fit better what I read about the church.”
“Well, Mr. Dearborn,” Turley began defensively, but Buck stopped him with a glance.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and turned to go. Then, almost as an afterthought, he came back, and slipped a matchbook into the pastor’s hand. “Couple’ a verses there,” he said. “Jotted ’em down at coffee this morning.”
The Reverend Turley felt he should have known the verses by heart, but he had to wait until he got into the car to look them up in his Bible. He turned the tissued pages until he found the place. “You are fellow citizens with the saints,” he read. “Christ is the corner stone. . . growing into a holy temple . . . built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” He turned the page to Hebrews and read the second verse: “For our God is a consuming fire.” Gordon Turley went home and sat quietly in his living room in front of a dark fireplace. It occurred to him that he hadn’t built a fire there in a long time.
Reverend Turley called the bewildered congregation to the scarred altar table. Ed removed the bread, the juice, and the chalice from the grocery sack and laid the elements before the people. Some wept. A few spontaneously held hands. Most just stood quietly as the pastor prayed. It was a quiet, forlorn little prayer, very unlike his usual expansive style. The words he had originally prepared no longer mattered, no longer fit.
“Amen,” said the pastor.”Amen,” murmured the people. Then he gave thanks for the bread and started the paper picnic plate around. He gave thanks for the juice, and since they had no little plastic cups, they the filled the altar chalice and passed it around as well.
It was Clara Ernst who first lifted her quivering voice in song. “Amazing grace . . .” she began, and within moments the rest had joined her. “How sweet the sound . . .” By the last verse, even some of the gawkers from town, who had kept a respectful distance from the impromptu service, were singing. The familiar hymn faded into a prolonged, ‘Amen.’ The congregation fell silent. They turned to view the ruins once more and then, amidst the rustle of conversation, headed slowly toward the cars.
Reverend Turley remained until the end. Having spoken to the final member of the elder’s board about an emergency meeting Monday night he waited for the drone of the last car engine to leave him in silence, then. Turning toward his car, he suddenly realized that he was not yet alone. An older man stood in the midst of the burned building, scuffing his work boot against the concrete slab. Turley knew him. He was a fairly consistent attendee, although he generally kept to himself and avoided involvement. He was a rugged looking man who seemed to have been in his sixties all of his life. His name was Clarence Dearborn, the owner of the town hardware and sporting goods store. He was not only a hunting enthusiast, but also a popular figure among the town’s outdoorsmen so it was not surprising that all who knew him called him “Buck.”
Reverend Turley waded into the ashes. “Thanks for coming, Mr. Dearborn,” he said.
Buck did not look up. “What’s ‘G.’ for?” he asked.
Turley was confused. “I beg your pardon?”
Buck nodded toward the charred plywood sign that lay a few feet away. “It says your name is, ‘G. Robert Turley.’ What’s it stand for?”
“Oh. Uh, it’s Gordon. That’s my first name.”
Buck studied the pastor through the lower half of his bi-focals, grunted and said, “Gordon, huh? That’s a good name. My uncle’s name was Gordon.” He scanned the remains of the sanctuary, and then settled his gaze on the communion table. “Church was on fire,” he said simply.
It had been a little before 1:00 A.M. when Larry Carson, the captain of the volunteer fire department, had called the Reverend Turley with the—news. By the time the fire truck had-reached the church the roof was already burned through. The crew had tried heroically, some even said foolishly, to save the furnishings, but all they had been able to salvage was the communion table. Four of them had wrestled the heavy table from the platform and out the back door minutes before the joists in the ceiling let loose releasing an avalanche of flame into the sanctuary. Searing heat belched through the back door, windows exploded from their frames and the fire gulped the night air. The fire fighters left the table where it was and drew back to watch helplessly as the ravenous blaze fed on the aged pews. In a matter of 15 minutes the roof caved in and within half an hour the last wall toppled over in a swirling cloud of orange sparks. “That’s the way it is with old buildings,” Carson had said. “They burn fast, hot and don’t leave much behind.”
Reverend Turley stood quiet and alone before rubble that had been his church. There was not so much as a wisp of smoke. The charcoal skeleton was cold . . . dead. Beyond that blackened desert the communion table sat on a little grassy hill. The side facing the building was badly scorched, the carved words, “IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME,” were stark against the blistered varnish.
News of the fire had traveled fast. One by one church members and curious townspeople began to gather. There were no suits and ties this morning, no clean dresses, no white gloves and polished shoes. People milled about talking in low tones, astonished at the devastation, wondering what would become of the congregation.
It was Ed Van Slyke that reminded Reverend Turley that it was communion Sunday. Ed was the head usher. It was he who made sure that bread and grape juice were available for communion and so, he said to the pastor, it made sense to him that as long as all the supplies were bought and he’d polished the altar cup—everything was in grocery bag in the back seat of his car—they may as well take communion. Anyway, the table was all they had left.