Ch. 13 Re-Membering the Future1
New Dublin Presbyterian was founded in 1769. As you might expect from such a historic church, we have about one thousand, seven hundred and sixty-nine traditions. Some are fairly recent, such as singing “God Bless America” on the Fourth of July at the request of a long-time member. Other traditions go back beyond the memory of the living. We do certain things because, “That’s the way we’ve always done them.” Some of my colleagues lament this familiar refrain in their churches, but I appreciate the history of New Dublin. I have discovered that many of these cherished rituals occur around holidays, such as Holy Week. Based on the etymology of the word, it is fitting for “holy” days to include activities that are “set apart.”
I grew up with the tradition of washing graves on Good Friday. Traditionally, Moravian tombstones are squares made out of white marble. Each one is the same size, shape, and color. On Good Friday, families scrub away a year’s worth of dirt so that the marble will shine like polished pearls for the traditional Easter sunrise service.
The historic cemetery at New Dublin contains graves of all different shapes and sizes. Many are beautiful in their own right; sadly, a few are in disarray. We do maintain a special bank account as our cemetery fund, but unfortunately, the interest derived from this account does not even cover the cost of professional lawn maintenance. So we save money by hiring an older youth in the church to cut the grass every week. Our church property covers more than nineteen acres, so this is a tradition that also constitutes a demanding rite of passage! But the upkeep of the graves themselves is left to individual families and only a few are willing and able to commit the time and energy necessary for regular maintenance.
Easter, however, is different. All week, the little road to the cemetery hummed with cars kicking up dust clouds, as families made the pilgrimage to the graves of their loved ones. Many of these pilgrims did more than scrubbing and cleaning. As my dog and I strolled through the cemetery, we saw all kinds of items left beside the tombstones: wreaths, flowers, crosses, ceramic angels, even Christmas lights. My dog discovered a ham biscuit left lying on top of a tombstone. I do not know if this represented some kind of offering, but I know for a fact that my dog approves of this practice and hopes it becomes a regular tradition!
When I wasn’t trying to keep my dog out of the cemetery, I happened to read an article by Lauren Winner about a spiritual discipline she terms, “dislocated exegesis.” This rather sophisticated terminology relates to the simple premise that, “Where you read changes how you read.”2 The idea is to move out of places and situations where Scripture is commonly read, such as a church or private study, in order to understand a text in new ways.
During Holy Week, I tried reading the lectionary passages in the cemetery. As I walked around, I read about the women who went to anoint Jesus’ body. They, too, brought gifts for the dead, which caused me to think differently about the little memorials scattered among the graves. I watched modern day pilgrims planting flowers as I read about Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Jesus for a gardener. I discovered that reading the Bible helped me fully enjoy the beauty of our cemetery. Since Easter was relatively late this year, the flowers were in full bloom in the mountains of southwestern Virginia: white dogwood blossoms, yellow forsythia, blue hydrangeas, and redbud. Such brightness and beauty brought to mind scriptures that praise the Creator. As I walked past our memorial butterfly garden, I read, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps 8:1). I stopped at the top of a ridge overlooking the entire church grounds and read, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24). Dislocated exegesis put a new perspective on cherished and time honored lectionary readings. The practice breathed new life into the tradition.
One of the most sacred traditions at New Dublin is the Easter sunrise service. This year, I raised a few eyebrows when I changed the format and began the service in the sanctuary. In light of my experience with dislocated exegesis, I wanted to gather our community in the darkness like the women did before visiting Jesus’ tomb (Mark 16:1–3). I read the account of those pilgrims’ first journey as we processed from the sanctuary to the cemetery, crunching along the gravel parking lot and smelling the freshly cut grass. We stopped at the top of ridge that overlooks the cemetery. Then we read the following from Psalm 113:
(Leader) Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
(All) From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord be praised.
As if on cue, the sun peeked out from the far horizon. Every grave looked holy in that light.
New Old Traditions
Traditions develop during Holy Week because Easter happens every year. Yet if the biblical accounts of the resurrected Jesus are any indicator, the resurrected body confounds all expectations, traditional and otherwise. Mary Magdalene walked and talked with Jesus. How could she not have recognized his face? If people who personally knew Jesus could not identify him, then we must surmise that the resurrected body is somehow different. This may seem obvious.
However, we routinely compare Easter to spring. We have a tendency to think of the resurrection in familiar terms, such as the blossoming of flowers. In so doing, we imply that the resurrection is a seasonal event. In faith, the opposite is true. The resurrection breaks the seasonal cycle of life and death. Specifically, the resurrection was a dramatic in-breaking of God into the world. The real beauty of Easter is that God has done something entirely new. While this may also seem obvious, it is a message too often lost.
As part of our vacation to Scotland, my family had the opportunity to visit a Scottish Presbyterian church. This little rural church was designed much like mine back in Virginia. It had a raised pulpit in front and a balcony in the back. But instead of pews like New Dublin, the first floor was neatly arranged with modern chairs adorned with soft cushions. When I went upstairs to the balcony, however, I saw the traditional wooden pews. No cushions here! Most likely, this Scottish church is not packing people up to the balcony every Sunday. Perhaps they could not afford to refurnish the entire worship space, but I also think that they could not bear to part completely with tradition, even if some of the old ways had to be regulated to the balcony. It is a challenge to stay true to the past and yet relevant to the present.
I appreciate tradition. I realize that change is difficult. But change can also exceed our expectations. As was the case on the first Easter morning, the new thing that God is doing can be grace. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early in the morning, she intended to mourn the past. As soon as she learned that Jesus’ body is missing, she wanted to know where they had taken her Lord. She wanted things to return to the way they were, even if that included death. From Mary’s frantic search for Jesus’ body, we can learn that, even through a period of instability, we can discover God’s presence with us. For Mary could not have possibly come to the tomb early enough; God was already waiting for her. The Easter message is about change: death is changed into life.
While the Easter message is a gift, I recognize that such change is also a challenge for churches from Scotland to New Dublin and everywhere else. We must push our assumptions of what it means to be Christian. We may think we know what Jesus looks like, but we should allow ourselves the surprise of new revelations. And so I come back to this idea of dislocated exegesis. Just as visiting another church can yield insights into our own context, new experiences can show us another side of our faith. Instead of automatically falling back into familiar patterns and rituals, we need the courage and the faith to look for new ministry, just as we look forward to new life.
This willingness to change, however, contains a risk as well. Perhaps now more than ever, we are in danger of making an idol out of novelty. I once saw a television commercial that depicted a woman buying a brand new phone, only to walk out of the store and see a billboard advertising an even newer phone! Likewise, we can think that new traditions or services are “must haves.” If the only goal is to hear or to do something new, then we have made an idol out of novelty.
Along these lines, Bruce Reyes-Chow, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), wrote a blog entry entitled, “Why Churches Should Stop Making a Big Deal Out of Easter Worship.” He observes that many Christians only attend church on Easter and writes, “The problem I have is that we too often put on a ‘show’ for visitors rather than invite them to experience the community that is the church. How powerful would it be to have an Easter worship service that is inspiring, energetic, moving and transformative and be able to say to a visitor or infrequent attendee, ‘If you have experienced something profound today, do come back, because this is what is like every Sunday!’”3
I think Reyes-Chow makes a great point. Easter is a special day in the life of the church, but even more importantly, Easter points to God’s steadfast love that is available to every person, every day of the year. On Easter morning, we are not looking to do something new any more than we merely desire to entertain people. The meaning of Easter is not found in the hoopla or pageantry of our worship services. While we are challenged by the message of change, Easter is only a “big deal” because it is the promise that God is faithful. This is the same steadfast hope, whether Christians confess this belief in 1769 or 2011.
During this year’s Holy Week, I had yet another profound experience of dislocated exegesis. Joel is a retired man with a full-time hobby. One afternoon, he showed me his elaborate model city in the basement of his townhouse. There is a drugstore, a school, a church, and model train tracks encircling all these buildings. Joel can operate several locomotives at once, skillfully guiding them to avoid a collision. Part of me wishes that life could be as easy to control as it is in Joel’s basement. I would love to direct New Dublin into the future, but sometimes it seems as if the love of tradition and the necessity of change are on a collision course from opposite ends of the same track.
In real life, Joel has endured his share of pain and loss. He has not created this model city in order to escape from reality. He explained to me that his father loved steam locomotives. His interest in model trains began as a way to bring back memories of his childhood with his dad. In his basement, Joel has created something new in order to remember the best of the past as comfort and as inspiration for the future. He teaches me that traditions can be open to change. Like building a model city, we can add new layers of meaning to existing rituals and ideas. In this process, our remembrance of the past is strengthened, not negated. Perhaps this is a model for the church.
1. This terminology is indebted to Paul Galbreath who writes of “re-membering the body of Christ” (Galbreath, Leading from the Table, 35)
2. Winner, “Dislocated Exegesis,” 14.
3. Reyes-Chow, “Why Churches Should Stop,” lines 33–37.