Yesterday afternoon (December 3) I attended the memorial service for the Rev. Dr. John (Jack) William Lancaster at First Presbyterian Church in Houston. After graduating from Austin College and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and then earning an additional Master’s degree from Austin Seminary, Dr. Lancaster served three congregations in his ministry -- First Presbyterian in Bay City, First Southern (now Central) Presbyterian in Austin, and First Presbyterian in Houston.
The prelude to the memorial service consisted of a medley of great hymns of the church. As I sat in the sanctuary where I had been a member as a teenager for four years, I thought about Dr. Lancaster and other ministers who had served that church and with whom I had been acquainted: Dr. Charles L. King, Rev. John S. Land, Rev. Thomas Talbot, Rev. Otis Moore. There were others, but they were ones whom I had had the honor of meeting and knowing.
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental or desiring to whitewash history, I thought of the love those ministers had for the church. There were social issues in those days that affected the church as an institution, not the least of which were the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, there was a sense not only of the church’s importance, but that the gospel the church proclaimed and tried to live had something important to say to the world, that the church was an earthen vessel that had been entrusted with a treasure that could speak to all persons and all situations.
In my mind, at least, there was never any talk of giving up on the church or that the church and the gospel were somehow irrelevant or that leaving the church was ever a good thing. Signs of change within the church began to emerge in the 1960s (e.g., the ordination of women to church office and the departure of many persons for the newly-formed Presbyterian Church in America), but the Presbyterian Church was still considered strong, both in numbers and in conviction.
The gospel found different expressions in those days -- such as Episcopalian priest Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running with Me, Jesus? and the translation of the Bible into more contemporary language (Good News for Modern Man and J. B. Phillips’ translation), but those were seen as signs of strength; indeed, new expressions of the gospel continue to abound.
As we make history today, we do well to look to and learn from those who have gone before us and be grateful for their ministry. The church is not in the business of preserving its own life, but rather of giving its life in service to others. Pope Francis gets it right when he says that the church needs to get its hands dirty and bruised rather than trying to preserve its own survival. Jesus said it best: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).