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Bill Sanford: Church services that stand out

Bill Sanford

Question: I've read that you are getting up in years and I know you're a retired minister, so I conclude that you've attended a lot of church services. My question is: Can you recall one that stands out as especially moving and memorable?

Response: People who are regular churchgoers run up some pretty big numbers if they live long enough. Let's be hypothetical for a moment. Suppose a person starts attending church at age 12. Suppose he or she averages 50 Sundays a year for 50 years. At age 62 that person would have been present for 2,500 worship services. Wow! What a bunch! At 78, I imagine I'm well past 2,500. And yes, to respond to your question, I do recall one particular service that stands out in my mind above all others. Thank you for the opportunity to tell about it.

My most moving and memorable church service was in Crescent City on August 8, 1971. I was then in my 40th year, and beginning my fourth year as pastor of the United Methodist Church of Crescent City.

Here's what happened: By Thursday, Aug. 5, I had the service for Sunday all planned and the secretary had mimeographed the bulletin. On Saturday, Aug. 7, I got a phone call at the parsonage shortly before supper. It was bad news. A member of our congregation had died several hours earlier following a recreational parachute jump in the Sacramento area.

George Pope, dead at 27! It couldn't be. My immediate reaction was denial. But the caller pressed the reality of the tragedy by supplying some details. He explained that when George's parachute opened, a buckle, which should not have been so loose, struck his chest hard. Ordinarily, the blow would have caused no more than a bruise, but George had an enlarged heart. He died on the ground within an hour of the jump.

George's death pained me deeply. I counted him among my closest friends, a closeness arising from many activities we shared inside and outside congregational life. We had, for instance, taken a number of hikes together. Others counted George a good friend, too. And now I had the task of telling of his death at the Sunday morning service. As I shared what I knew, there was a murmur of and shock that ran through the congregation, but as the service continued, we found it spoke to our grief in the most extraordinary way. I was touched initially by Gail Perlee's beautiful soprano solo. Gail had chosen "O Divine Redeemer" by Charles Gounod.

O, Divine Redeemer! I pray Thee, grant me pardon. And remember not, remember not, O Lord, my sins! Night gathers round my soul; fearful I cry to Thee; Come to mine aid, O Lord. Haste Thee, Lord. Haste to help me. Hear my cry, hear my cry! Save me, Lord, in Thy mercy . . . Come and save me, O Lord.

The words reminded us that none of us dies sinless. We're all utterly dependent upon the grace of God. Aid, help, now! Key words any of us would pray with our earthly hours numbered. Urgent petitions George must have presented to God as his heart faltered and failed. "Come and save me, O Lord." Further on in the service, we read in unison a prayer by the late Professor William Barclay of Glasgow, Scotland. Had we expressly commissioned it for the occasion, it could not have been more fitting.

Help us always to remember: That you gave us life, and that it is not ours to do with as we like; That life comes to an end, and that we must not waste it when we have it; That we cannot tell what a day will bring to us, and so we must not put things off until tomorrow, in case tomorrow never comes.

Happily, George had not wasted his life. George had earned a degree in forestry and he relished the beauties of God's world. He had served as a counselor of our youth fellowship. He had grown spiritually through participation in a home-based fellowship of about twelve persons we called a "K-Group." Less than four months before, George had had a special experience of closeness to God at a Lay Witness Mission.

The prayer's next lines seemed to us to fit perfectly the way George had lived.

Help us: To use life wisely, and not foolishly; To use life generously, and not selfishly; To use life strenuously, and not lazily; To use life with discipline, and not with self-indulgence; To use life in the constant memory that one day we shall give account of it to you. ("Epilogues and Prayers," Abingdon Press, 1963, p. 156).

We came to our closing hymn. It had been chosen early in the week by our choir director, John Starets. It, too, addressed our need uncannily. It imparted comfort and hope in a profoundly helpful way.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side; Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to thy God to order and provide . . . Thy hope thy confidence let nothing shake; All now mysterious shall be bright at last . . . Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, All safe and blessed we shall meet at last. (Jane Borthwick's translation of a text by Katharina von Schlegel).

By this time I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I could scarcely muster voice to pronounce the benediction. How could all this be?

Days before George's death -- which none of us could have anticipated -- Gail had selected her solo. I had chosen Dr. Barclay's prayer, and John had picked the hymn. On Sunday morning, when we needed these texts, they were there, speaking to us mightily and memorably. I found myself wondering: Who planned this service anyway?

Bill Sanford responds to "real questions of real people" every other Saturday. He is a retired United Methodist minister living in Atwater. His e-mail address is: