Sunday, July 17, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: Bethany Lutheran Church, Osburn

(Part six in an ongoing series.)

Today's visit was a bit of a cheat, to the extent that Bethany Lutheran isn't strictly a church congregation anymore. The remaining members of the Osburn church voted to disband their community in the fall of 2021 and donate their building to Lutherhaven Ministries, a faith-based service organization headquartered in Coeur d'Alene. 

Bethany, which had served the Osburn community for around 80 years, shares the fate of other old churches in the Valley that are meeting their demise as the culture shifts and aging congregations die out, with not enough younger people to replace them to keep the churches open and functioning. As I've mentioned previously, Wallace's century-old Methodist Church now hosts a nondenominational "Prayer Station" -- more on that community in a future post -- and its stately old Episcopal Church building, which was an active place of worship for 108 years, is now a museum, featuring historical photographs of Wallace and the surrounding area. 

I met Deacon Jeff Arthurs last week out in Mullan, at Emmanuel Lutheran. Deacon Jeff serves both Emmanuel and Bethany, as neither community has its own pastor anymore. We spoke briefly after today's service about how, in some ways, the days of the circuit riders are returning in rural areas like ours: Since there's not enough of a congregation left at many churches to justify assigning them a pastor, someone like Deacon Jeff has to step in to minister to who's left. Fr. Jerome Montez, as I've mentioned, is in the same situation, having to take care of three Catholic churches here in the Valley as well as two other communities to the south of us. Even the modern-day circuit-riders, it seems, are stretched as thin as can be. Yet Deacon Jeff said he believes that these dwindling communities can't just be abandoned, as Christ calls on the faithful to serve the widows and all others in need.

Bethany's remaining congregation is very small. Today, there were seven of us in attendance, and that included Deacon Jeff. All but two of us present were his family members. Accordingly, Bethany's worship service takes place in the much more intimately sized community hall rather than in the old sanctuary.

Deacon Jeff did let me in to see the old sanctuary, which, happily, Lutherhaven has plans for. But as I looked around at the empty pews and took in the utter silence of the place, I could imagine with some sadness the worship services that took place there over the years, not to mention all the weddings, baptisms, and funerals. For decades, people celebrated and mourned together, here as one, just as they praised God through hymn and prayer together. But the world changed and time took its toll, as the hairs on the congregants' heads got grayer, and the number of people in the pews thinned out, not to be replaced, until the church community officially ceased to be. The ghosts of times gone by hung heavy in that room.

And it doesn't seem likely that the trend will reverse anytime soon. In fact, I read on Lutherhaven's website that only 25% of the residents of Shoshone County -- which contains the Silver Valley -- consider themselves religious. That's far below even the declining national average, and it goes a long way toward explaining why so many churches in the Valley are withering away.  

As far as today's service went, the sermon focused on Paul's proclamation in Romans 8 that "if God is for us, who can be against us?" As Deacon Jeff put it, we're all sinners who deserve punishment, and there's nothing we can do to change our sinful nature -- again as last week, a perfectly Lutheran way to frame the discussion. But if we have faith, he went on, then we find ourselves under the loving protection of God, which is the safest place we can be, a place where no one can threaten us, because God has proclaimed us innocent by way of Christ's atoning sacrifice, doing for us what we couldn't do for ourselves. 

The deacon's wife operated a projector to show the calls and responses throughout the service, and during the sermon, she projected a visual on to the wall that I thought summed up the essence of Reformed theology perfectly:

On one side of the chasm are sinful humans. On the other is holy God. In between, bridging the chasm, is the cross. Those who have faith will embrace the cross and pass to the other side. But if you reject the cross, you can't reach God. You're helpless to do anything.

The inevitable takeaway from this viewpoint is that we can never be transformed internally by our experience with Christ but are rather just "clothed in his righteousness," as the deacon put it -- again reflecting Luther's firm belief in the idea of irredeemable human depravity. We can never transform the piles of excrement that we inherently are; at best we can only become snow-covered dunghills, with our innate filth draped over by Christ's pure righteousness so that God can bear to look upon us and welcome us into heaven. 

Theologians here speak of the difference between infused and imputed righteousness. The Catholic and Orthodox churches preach infused righteousness, which is essentially the idea that through Christ, we experience an inner change that makes us holier, more like God, as our faith deepens. The author of the second epistle of Peter called this process "partaking in the divine nature"; the Orthodox call the ultimate goal of this process theosis, a mystical union with God. Protestants, on the other hand, tend to preach imputed righteousness: Even after we put faith in Christ, nothing about us ever changes inwardly, because it can't, because we're so utterly depraved -- and to think that we could change is an example of the "works-based salvation" that most Protestants vehemently reject. To put it in symbolic terms, infused righteousness is Christ helping us clean our dirty clothes, while imputed righteousness is Christ putting a new, sparkling robe over our dirty clothes that we can never hope to launder clean. Or, in Luther's terminology, it means we're piles of dung whose foul natures can only be concealed but never changed for the better.

If it sounds like I'm being critical of Luther's theology, well, let's just say that I've never been his biggest fan -- but understand that I'm only repeating his own words. Lutherans, on the other hand, I like just fine. Deacon Jeff seems like a genuinely nice guy, for example, and Lutherhaven is doing good things for the community. So no complaints there. Deacon Jeff even let me, someone who's never been a Lutheran, partake in communion. The bread that I took from the plate he extended to me was in the shape of a wafer imprinted with a cross, which imparted a welcome feeling of reverence, not to mention some pleasant familiarity for someone raised Catholic.    

As for Lutherhaven, it's been around since 1946, when a group of Lutherans from congregations in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington had a chance to purchase a parcel of land on Lake Coeur d'Alene. From those simple beginnings emerged an organization that offers camps and retreats for kids and adults alike and also engages in community service and faith-building activities and programs. Lutherhaven's goal for Bethany is to convert it into a community center by the end of 2024, with space to house volunteers year-round and serve those in need in the Silver Valley, as part of its Idaho Servant Adventures program that has its young volunteers do everything from visit elderly folks to help with property repairs.

So as one chapter winds down for Bethany, a new one lies on the horizon. I hope it's a future that helps Lutherhaven grow and benefits the Valley in positive ways. 

No comments:

Post a Comment