The Past and the Future
I grew up in Paoli, a town of around 3,000 people in southern Indiana. A woman there has become a kind of archivist of local history, collecting memorabilia but also photographs of the town square, which she posts online—mostly in black and white, sometimes a bit blurry, but clear enough to reveal the names of the businesses that once thrived there. A photo in particular struck me, it was taken in 1957, when I was four years old, but—though the cars and trucks were replaced with newer models—the activity on the square remained the same well into the 1960s. This was downtown Paoli every Saturday. People of all ages came to town in the afternoon, and lingered on into the evening, to shop but also just to walk and visit for a while with anyone they met along the way. See the double-parked vehicles? When there were no open parking spaces, people would just park behind another car, leaving the key in the ignition in case the person in front needed to move it. I have so many happy memories of that time: the jars of huge, penny gumballs in Wilson Roberts’s Variety Store (Motto: “We’ve got it if we can find it!”), the smell of leather and polish in Mr. Misho’s dark, little shoe store, the fountain cokes at the Ben Franklin Drugstore counter, the ever-present smell of newly ground coffee in the small A & P grocery. So very long ago. So many changes since then. Now, most of the factories are gone, as are many of the working farms—and along with them, the jobs that enabled people to feed and house their families. At any given time, half of the storefronts are vacant. The only grocery store in town is the Walmart.
Yes, I’m nostalgic for those days. I’m 67 years old now, and—as with so many of us as we age—those memories become more and more dear to me. I suspect that you, too, may be feeling some nostalgia right now, regardless of your age. The COVID epidemic has changed our world so drastically that memories of even last Christmas are made sweeter by the fact that this year, most of us won’t be gathering with our extended families. Gone—at least for now—are the days of Christmas shopping in stores decked out for the holidays and filled with people. There are no Santas' laps for the children, no carols sung in the nursing facilities. No Hanging of the Greens. No “Silent Night” at the end of our candle-lit Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary.
The church will be dark. And how we will miss it! Though many of us are using technology to stay in touch with our church family—participating in worship on Sunday mornings, Zooming with small groups and ministry teams throughout the week—it is certainly not the same as joining together in the sanctuary. Not the same as singing praises to God together in our sacred space. Not the same as passing the peace through handshakes and hugs. Not the same as receiving Holy Communion from the hands of our pastors and elders. It is not the same. And all of this is made more painful by the fact that we don’t know when this difficult time will end. We are hopeful for the vaccines that may soon be available to those most susceptible to the disease. And we are truly thankful for all the ways in which we are able to stay in touch. But we are also weary. And winter is coming. It is entirely human to feel the losses right now, to become nostalgic for what was. But God calls us to look to the future, to plan for the time when we will once again be together, worshiping and serving, in a world that has changed. Our Session and ministry teams are working hard, not only to keep the church alive now, but to ensure that we will be strong in the days ahead. I am a member of a group working under the direction of our Presbytery, the FPCV Vibrant Congregations Leadership Team. The other members are Pastor Kim, Doyll Andrews, Jim Hubbard, Linda Long and Christine McAloon. We are being led by a woman many of you will recognize for her previous, excellent work with our church, Jessica Young Brust. As you know, in becoming a Matthew 25 church, we have committed to three tasks: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty. Congregational vitality is the focus of the Vibrant Congregations Leadership Team. What does that mean? Our task is to acknowledge who we were in the past, recognize who we are now, and, most importantly, live into what God is calling us to be in the future. We have no authority to make changes of any kind; rather, we are a visioning team, seeking God’s wisdom for our church. It would be so easy to simply say that we want to go back to what we were. But if we desire to be a church energized and excited about tomorrow, we can’t be led by the past. No matter how much I wish my hometown could go back to being the vibrant community it once was, it will never be the same. The world has changed. We have changed. And the only way to move forward is to start from where we are now, not from where we were. It is human to romanticize the past, to remember the good things—the gumballs and coffee, the hugs and smiles and tears of joy. We can and should acknowledge and honor our past. But we must live into our future. This present time will pass away. May we all be excited to see where God will lead us in the future! May we always claim the promise of Jesus: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Christmas blessings to you and your families, Lou Ann