I’ve been thinking about tradition.
Our family is big on that. Perhaps like you, we do certain things to mark certain events. Singing “Happy Birthday” to anyone is almost always followed by my stirring rendition of the birthday song from a TV show of my childhood…T Bar V Ranch Time starring cowboy Randy Atcher and his rodeo clown buddy, Cactus. (A tradition our kids have pretty much grown to despise over the years!)
Another family tradition that Harry and I started was watching both Charlie Brown and The Grinch with our children on Christmas Eve. We watched it for so many years that we have most of the words memorized. And while this particular tradition has gone by the wayside because our children are now adults with their own lives separate from ours, I look back at those Christmas Eves with great fondness.
It’s human nature, I think, to sentimentalize the past.
And so it is with congregations.
When the church we now call home was built, I’m sure that the members felt both excited and sad. Excited about what the future might hold in a new, larger building. Sad about leaving behind a place that had been their spiritual home. So they brought pieces of the church with them. The stained glass in the space where the CE wing and the narthex intersect came from the old windows, as did the glass built into the table that sits in that spot. There were other, physical things that made the move, as well as traditional practices like Hanging of the Greens and candlelight Christmas Eve services.
We sometimes need those tangible reminders of who we were and where we came from—particularly in periods of transition.
Periods like the one we’re in now.
It’s been a long year since COVID first began to change our lives—both private and corporate. I doubt any of us believed that this particular battle would be so prolonged. If you’re like me, you thought, “Okay…we can put up with this virtual stuff for a while. Because after all…it’ll only be a few weeks, a few months at best.” Now here we are, over a year later, just beginning to open up the church to small groups, just starting to worship in person in the pavilion.
Some of us are impatient. Some of us have had enough. We look at other congregations in our community and see that they have been meeting in their sanctuaries for a few weeks now. And singing!—though through masks. Why aren’t we doing the same? Have we become too comfortable with online worship, Zoom meetings, virtual coffee hours? Are we in danger of becoming a church family that no longer needs or wants handshakes, hugs, person-to-person smiles and good wishes?
It isn’t hard to understand the impatience. But.
The caution that our leadership has used in developing a plan to return to the sanctuary has been for our welfare. Those serving on the Community Taskforce, as well as the Session, the pastor, and the staff miss that personal contact as much as we do. But they have followed the guidelines from both the Presbytery and the CDC because their responsibility is to care for us! Not because they’re on a power trip. Not because they have stubbornly dug in their heels. And certainly not because it’s easier to manage things online!
They know how much we long to gather—to regain some sense of “normal”—because they have the same longing.
It will come. We grow closer to returning to the sanctuary every day. And when we are able to return, what might we carry with us? Are there things we’ve learned, practices we’ve developed, that can become new traditions, enriching our spiritual lives in the days ahead? Things that, like the old stained glass, will become part of our shared history, reminding us of who we were during the COVID diaspora, and helping shape who we are, as we move into the renewed life of the church.
Consider practices like our joyful Palm Sunday parade on the walking path across from the church. Small group activities like the Poetry Journey, continuing online because it’s so much easier and requires less of our time. Virtual services that give people who would never have entered the church a space to worship, perhaps to find God. Special services like our Wednesdays during Lent, which felt intensely intimate and spiritual, in spite of—or perhaps partly because of—their being virtual.
Yes, it has been a long year. Yes, we miss personal contact. But friends, this has been only one season in the life of our church—a season that will come to an end in due time. As we look forward to meeting in person once again, let us also be thankful for the opportunities we’ve been given to continue as a church through technology! Unlike many other churches, we have been able to offer beautiful, spirit-filled services as well as enrichment opportunities. Our spiritual lives—individually and as a church family—have not stopped growing.
We can continue to learn and to grow our spiritual lives, we can continue to be transformed both individually and as a community, we can continue to cherish old traditions while developing new ones. But we must be patient.
The Love passage from First Corinthians is most often heard in the context of a wedding. We’re all familiar with it. But I ask that you read it now from a different point of view…not as someone about to begin married life, but as a member of First Presbyterian Church of Valparaiso, seeking to live into our calling to love one another as God loves us.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)
Our greatest strengths are represented in both our old traditions and our new.
Our greatest hope for the future lies in the promise that it is God who leads us.
Our greatest calling is to love one another. Always!
May it be so for each one of us, today, and in the days ahead.