In the South there are certain rituals we participate in almost without thinking: weddings, funerals, and Friday night football to name a few. Because of these beautiful and strong traditions one can expect a certain response as a son of the South at the passing of a loved one. Our family (the Woodward family–I am speaking here as a son of Dr. Charles Alan Woodward) was reminded in a profound way this past weekend that some rituals, or at least on some occasions, our rituals can move beyond tradition to the incarnational reality of the church being the hands and feet of Jesus. When Dad transitioned to eternal glory last week there was no question in our mind that we would celebrate his life at the church where the majority of his ministry occurred: FBC Ellisville. As we pulled up to the church Friday night for the visitation, we were ushered into a fellowship area where dear friends had prepared food for us and greeted us with great concern. Then for over three hours person after person expressed concern for mom, the three boys, and the grandchildren, with particular concern our having lost dad at a relatively young age by today’s standards (66). Then we were taken to a friend of the family and member of the church’s home, where more food and care awaited us. On Saturday morning we could barely get out of the vehicle when loving folks came to embrace particularly mom as we moved toward the sanctuary. I am purposefully only mentioning two names to give honor to the sacredness of service others provided. The gracious pastor, Dr. Brashier, gladly opened the church to us during this difficult time, and Bro. Robert Fennell, a mentor to all three Woodward boys and long-time friend of the family, carefully provided every need for the worship celebration. After the graveside service, we were invited back to the church to the comfort of food and fellowship. I watched other ladies of the church, again long-time friends of our family work tirelessly to serve our family.
One of my favorite comments that was made regarding Dad’s legacy, which came particularly from guys my age, was that Dad as pastor at First Ellisville, helped bring us to together as a community built on something beyond ourselves. Truly, the church is a picture of this reality. My friends were right in saying we needed this as preteens and throughout our developmental years. But now I am learning through experience that we need it just as much as big boys as we face tragedies. Please don’t misunderstand my meaning here: Theologically, the church is a concept that was birthed in the heart and mind of God that expands the seminal institution of family, namely the family of Israel, to all who have sincerely accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is the institution uniquely designed by God to care for our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. (Don’t read too much into physical although historically the church has rightly led the way in this category pretty much since the Resurrection.)
I offer this theological definition to say we can understand the concept of the church and even experience it over a lifetime and yet be blown away during the care of the beautiful bride of Christ during our darkest hours. And as the conceptual idea of church becomes incarnational reality may we recognize the beauty of the church and give God the glory. May we say to ourselves and our family members as instruments in this body: It Matters. Our role in the church matters. From the ladies who help change diapers, to the 5th grade Sunday School teacher (Mr. Copeland in my case), to the consistent servants who make sure the baptismal details are in order, to the servant-teams that provides meals at funerals, to the evangelism teams that go out in various ways, to the choir members, to the ushers, to sound tech guys, and deacon’s wives . . . it all matters.
And as perfect as the handling of our delicate situation was carried out by the fine folks at First Baptist Ellisville, I am starting to figure something out as old friends from Highland Baptist Church in Metairie, and new friends at First Baptist New Orleans and Crosspoint (brother’s Jon’s church), and friends from past churches like First Baptist Helen and First Baptist Havana, and the wonderful folks at First Baptist Brandon (brother Charlie and mom’s current home church), and pastors/staff from a myriad of churches express concern in person and through social media–I am starting to figure out that this church thing is not unique to one place or time or culture. When we do church the way Christ intended for it to be done, according to the NT, the church truly becomes the greatest caring institution in the history of the world, and much more than that as the Lord uses His church to fit us for heaven.
It is exactly the church that causes me to know that my mother will eventually settle into a healthy rhythm and routine on the outskirts of Brandon MS. There will be the precious folks from her Sunday school class, checking in on her and precious ladies from her church who have walked the same path who come along beside her. No doubt this is part of what Paul yearned for when he said again and again in his letters that he wanted us to attain full maturity and knowledge in Christ. The knowledge does relate to theology but it is also a working knowledge of how the church family is to love each other. So the next time you are tempted to say to yourself, does this small thing I am doing in my local church really matter? Rest assured based on the principles of His Word and the time-tested realities of the hands and feet of Jesus that it matters. It really, really matters.
Thank you so much First Baptist Ellisville, thank you First Baptist Brandon, thank you First Baptist New Orleans, thank you Crosspoint Church in Gulfport and thank you to the many others who have connected to Dad and mom or their boys along the way for your tremendous love expressed in word and deed.
On behalf of the Woodward family,