For one young minister, a baptism of fire

It was 25 years ago this Easter Weekend that the church in Lincoln burned to the ground. In the middle of the night on Good Friday, hours after the last candles had been extinguished following the Maundy Thursday service, old electrical wiring ignited a part of the propane gas line, and within moments the sanctuary — built in 1863 — was ablaze.
The minister, a 29-year-old pastor named David Wood, who had been in town less than two years and was still getting to know his very first congregation, sprinted the few hundred yards that separated the parsonage from the church, arriving just as the tall, elegant stained glass windows blew out into the night air.
The old building was already a raging bonfire, and so the volunteer firefighters worked hard to save the nearby houses and barns — including the 1898 Victorian I live in today that sits right next door. By sunrise, the small mound in the center of the village on which the church had resided for well over a century held only an empty shell: a dispiriting heap of smoldering ash in the midst of a cluster of charred and blackened 10-inch timbers. The pews and the altar table and the chairs in the choir loft had fed the flames and now were long gone; the hymnals and Bibles had probably been consumed in the very first minutes.
Today, a newcomer to Lincoln wouldn’t suspect that the village church hadn’t been here a century or so. But the church that I view as my church has only been here since November 1981. Before that it had sat unused, not quite a mile farther east on the Lincoln River Road. Coincidentally, it too had been built in 1863.
Wood recalls that in the days after the church first burned, people who didn’t know him well would ask him if he was going to leave. They would speculate aloud that this was the end of a church in Lincoln. “I didn’t know what the future held,” he recalls, “but I certainly wasn’t going to leave.”
That Easter the congregation worshipped in the town hall across the wide four-corner intersection in the middle of town, and through the windows could see the cinders and blackened rubble across the short stretch of asphalt. A week later when the worshipers gathered at the vacant Assembly of God church, one deacon used a motorcycle helmet for an offering plate and another used a glass punch bowl. And while there were certainly parishioners who cried that spring, Wood also felt a palpable energy.
Easter itself is like that. A day of despair and fallen hopes on a Friday some 2,000 years ago, when the man a small group of optimists believed was the Son of God was crucified and entombed, followed three days later by the power of a resurrection.
In addition to moving and repairing the church that has been in service ever since, the Lincoln congregation also launched the senior citizens housing project that helps anchor the village today. Everyone who was involved with the restoration of the church and the construction of the apartments for the elderly feels that the work helped to invigorate the congregation. Wood is still pastor of the Lincoln Church, and a study in good humor and quiet resolve — a role model for me in many ways.
There are a variety of reasons why I’m a Christian and savor Easter Sunday, but sometimes it’s a faith born in the ash. Among the few objects that survived the conflagration in 1981 and were pulled from the charred rubble? A weathervane that once more sits atop the church steeple. A pair of candlesticks that again are used on the church altar. And a brass cross. It had been bent double by the heat of the flames, but it survived.
And, today, it too is back on the altar.
Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Peace.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 16, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.