When my daughter was a senior in high school, we observed many of the elements of that last year of high school as “the lasts.” And, in a blog post during that time, I reflected on those “lasts” as they related to my life as a small church pastor, in a church that may also be experiencing a series of “lasts,” as church attendance shrinks under the strain of current American culture, especially virulent in the Northeast. (see “The Lasts” from February 2015)
Now, it’s my son’s turn for “lasts.” And, since my husband and I had only two children, our son’s “lasts” are our “lasts” as well. No more school field trips or permission slips. No more packed lunches or unpleasant, dissonant, high school concerts (or musicals). No more parent-teacher conferences.
The swim meets will continue, though, as our son will swim in college (as our daughter does). But, I won’t be in charge of organizing the timers or paying the team’s bills or putting together the end of season slideshow.
Our son’s lasts are our lasts. And, there are a few things I’m fairly certain I will miss. I’ll miss the community of parents, especially the swim parents. There are some very good people there. I’ll also miss the rhythm of family life with children at home and school activities.
Among the lasts is a very big last: the last year living in what has been our primary residence. Since 2002, we’ve been a very lucky family, with two houses. One house is a nice suburban house just down the hill from my husband’s job and not at all far from places where kids spend time, like the Y, the city playground and the soccer fields. The other house is in a much more rural location on a beautiful Maine lake, down a long dirt road.
Since we purchased the lake house (in Maine, referred to as a “camp”), our plan has been to make it our primary residence when our son graduated from high school. Now, that time is upon us.
After twenty years, the Waterville house has accumulated a lot of stuff—actual, physical stuff as well as a lot of other sorts of stuff, like memories of family, friends, holidays, special gatherings, and the moments of our growing children seemingly stamped on the very surfaces of the house itself. When I started dealing with the reality of moving from one house to the other, and making the transition from two houses to one, I found the task fairly easy, almost exhilarating. The thought of not needing to worry about the other residence seemed like the path to contentment.
As I continued the process, though, of packing up some things and heaving other things into the dumpster, and as I moved deeper and deeper into boxes and cabinets and closets, encountering items that I hadn’t seen in years, I’ve started to get rather nostalgic. I’m starting to feel a sense of loss while also sensing a greater awareness of moving into a new, unfamiliar reality: the unknown land of the empty nester.
In this season of the last lasts, I can’t help but reflect on how it connects to my life as pastor. This time, I’m thinking especially about Old South’s sanctuary building and all of the conversations I’ve had over the years, as we’ve started contemplating what we are going to do with our beautiful, but high maintenance, sanctuary building (Old South also has a parish house), as our financial resources shrink along with our congregation.
The oldest members of Old South are “builders”—their experience of God is wrapped up in that building. But, even those who are not “builders” express a profound sense of loss when they even slightly begin thinking about the possibility of giving up on the sanctuary building. It’s as if their lives of faith are stamped on the very surfaces of that building, and so firmly rooted in the foundation that their faith will shrivel without the building itself.
Whenever I’ve had one of these conversations, I’ve felt the welling of empathy. I do understand the attachment to the building, and all that it means to people. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder about what this all says about our lives of faith—individually and collectively. To give up the building will be deeply painful, but our Christian faith has quite a lot to say about giving things up and going down roads we’d prefer not to travel. Our Christian faith has a lot to say about death, and new life. And, our Christian faith has a lot to say about fear, as in one of the most uttered commands of Jesus himself: Do not be afraid.
Whether or not we keep the sanctuary building, we ought to allow our Christian faith to turn our hearts and minds beyond the building. Sanctuaries are special places and hold special memories, but we must contemplate the extent to which we are worshiping the building and our memories, and turning them into dangerous idols.
As I’ve discovered in the packing up of the home where my husband and I have raised our children, memories are powerful and they are precious. But memories will not feed our souls nor provide the foundation we require. While there is certainly a component of faith that looks back, as we understand ourselves to be a part of a long story, faith is very much about moving forward into a future that is not ours to determine. Our faith beckons us always forward, even into unknown and uncomfortable places. Yet, that is where there is hope, love and life.