I got to the top of the stairs at the New York region office and realized my wedding band was gone. For nearly 23 years, it had been around my left ring finger.
I had just finished washing my hands, so I returned to the sink and took the pipe underneath apart; the ring was not there. The two women with whom I work seemed to be more concerned about this loss than I was.
The ring had deep meaning for me, but it was not irreplaceable. I had not lost my wife; the marriage was still intact. Debbie and I could go together to buy another ring and create for ourselves a new memory.
I found the ring that evening in a glove where it had become snagged. It now, once again, rings my finger in gold. It has sentimental value, but it is not irreplaceable.
Both my parents have died within the last year. I have a painting in my house that hung in their breakfast room for the last several decades of their lives.
Many times when I was home to visit, I would sit at the table and talk with my parents as I ate my breakfast below that painting.
They had grown hard of hearing and were accustomed to shouting their conversations; they did not realize they were shouting at each other.
I would turn the volume on the TV down each time; for me it was too early in the morning for both the shouting and the TV.
That painting is now a daily reminder of them and those loud conversations over Cheerios and coffee. I cannot have any more of those conversations; I cannot make any new memories with them.
That painting keeps fresh for me something that is irrecoverable, thus the painting is for me irreplaceable.
Church buildings are a bit like that painting. They are the repositories of memories. Weddings, funerals, Christmas pageants and baptisms – they carry emotional echoes of these important milestones in our lives.
The pews, windows and walls make palpable the presence of bygone joys and sorrows, of deceased friends and family.
The nursery is the place where, perhaps, we first entrusted our newborn child to someone else’s care. The Sunday school rooms are, perhaps, the places where we made our first friends.
These buildings ring of a time when our lives were expanding and life was more potential than past.
The people and experiences that these buildings mediate to us in feeling and thought are irrecoverable. Thus, these buildings are irreplaceable.
Sometimes congregations come to a point where they must leave these structures behind. It becomes impossible to continue to bear them any longer.
You cannot take all things on all journeys; sometimes we must leave some things behind.
However true this might be, we must not dismiss these powerful places as simply structures of brick and wood that can be easily swapped for another.
They are irreplaceable because they mediate to us the remembrance of things that are irrecoverable.
Gil Rendle wrote that we don’t resist change; rather we resist loss. So how do we process the sometimes necessary loss of these special spaces?
Gratitude is a good aroma to mingle with our grief. We can give thanks for what happened in these places, how we were formed and supported and loved and renewed within the embrace of their walls.
We can remember how they animated our lives and gave song to our joys and comfort in our losses.
And those of us who were not there can listen to, appreciate and learn from the stories these buildings evoke from those who were there.
These buildings are irreplaceable places because of what happened to us within them. In letting them go, grief and gratitude are appropriate.
The significance of a building or monument in marking a meaningful experience is clearly seen when Joshua gathered 12 leaders from each of the Israelite tribes at Gilgal to remember their crossing the Jordan River.
“Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever'” (Joshua 4:4-7).
Our buildings tell stories. We would do well to listen to those who remember them.