Last Sunday, I attended the retirement celebration for the minister with whom I worked when I was a student minister while in divinity school, and then after I graduated, when I became the church’s assistant minister. My friend, and former colleague, will be retiring soon, after more than thirty years with the same congregation.
The celebration involved regular Sunday worship and then a nice lunch. In order to get there to share worship with that congregation which was the first congregation where I served as pastor, I had to use my phone for navigation help, since I had been there only once before, and that was several years ago.
Sound like a strange riddle?
Several years after I left that congregation, which was already a merged congregation of two churches in Cambridge, Mass., the church merged again, with a small church in Medford, Mass. The church building in Medford became the church’s home.
When I was successfully delivered to the church building and got inside, I was immediately thrust into a world that was both strange and familiar. Although the building was new to me, and different (and it took a moment to figure out where important things like the rest rooms were), I was a bit overwhelmed to find myself face-to-face with so many familiar people. It was great to see so many people I knew so well—a few I hadn’t seen since I left the church in 1997.
I’ll admit to feeling like the rug had been snatched from under my feet at the sight of one particular man holding a baby and realizing that the man was once in the youth group I led.
While it was strange to be with my old friends, companions in the faith, in what was for me an alien environment, I also felt like I was right at home. The building was different. The sanctuary, very different. Yet, it was familiar. It was the church I remembered.
There were plenty of new faces, too, among the familiar ones, as well as familiar faces belonging to people who are no longer part of that church community. It was especially fascinating to meet and chat with the person who now fills the shoes that I once wore, and in much the same way, beginning as student and then moving into a larger role after graduating from divinity school.
I was struck with many thoughts during my extended visit, but I was especially drawn to thoughts of the resiliency of the church and people of faith. North Prospect Union Church not only survived, but has thrived through thoughtful and faithful practice. It’s not an easy thing to be open to the changes that the church has faced (though it’s a little easier in a place where real estate is so valuable and church buildings and land are relatively easily sold—which is a very different situation than where I now serve). Still, the church continues. It is new and familiar at the same time.
It’s a reminder of what church ought to be, and should certainly should strive to be—even if the church building hasn’t moved at all: always new, always familiar, always seeking to be.