Beacon Street Diary
Archives: August 2016
The title comes from another congregation up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a wonderful line from their church covenant of 1798.
Joshua 4: 1-9
[Sermon preached August 21, 2016 at Orleans, MA]
When my children were small I used to be pretty systematic about keeping "memory boxes." Everybody has these, right? They were a place to keep family mementos: the first pair of shoes, old report cards, years' worth of Mothers' Day cards, leftover casts from broken bones, collars from long-dead pets.
I'm a lot less intentional these days: in fact I keep running across things that I simply don't know what to do with. Now I’ve got rocks from various European countries, shells that once looked beautiful on a beach somewhere, a watch I think one day I will have fixed, and single earrings I keep because who knows maybe someday the other one will turn up. All impossible to throw away. Someday, of course, I'm going to gather it all up, create a spreadsheet and organize it all: one box for family memories, one for Goodwill, and one for the trash. I will go to Ikea and get some metal shelves, and create a little archive in my basement.
Actually, no I won't. Unless some miracle or personality transplant happens, all of this flotsam and jetsam is going to keep roaming aimlessly around my house and I'm going to keep wondering why I don't do something about it.
There's a name for this kind of aimless keeping: we call it hoarding. Of course, my house isn't anything like the ones you see on reality television, brimming with beer cans or cats or old food. But the basic principle is there: not knowing what to keep and what not to, not being able to distinguish between something important and valuable and something that is not.
It's a metaphor of sorts for our culture today — there are more museums devoted to everything than ever before — not just American history and modern art, but Spam, lunchboxes, a giant ball of string. Back in the days of P.T. Barnum people went to museums to see things they couldn't anywhere else — two-headed calves, ten-foot spiders, Egyptian mummies — but now we are happy to see something utterly familiar.
And as I know from my work at the Congregational Library, the digital universe is exploding. We have millions of old documents in digital form on the internet, from medieval Spain or ancient Peru, all available in the comfort of your living room. We are, as people often say, an amnesiac culture, in love with anything new and improved; but we're also obsessed with the past. The obsession grows out of anxiety, the fear that we might lose something valuable, though we don't know what it is, fear of forgetting and of loss.
Christian remembering, as we might call it, is something different. This is what I'd like to talk about this morning, why people of faith need to have good memories. This is your 370th anniversary, and it can be an opportunity to do some creative thinking about your past and what it means to the present and in the future — to honor the past without dwelling on it.
We all know that there's a certain kind of remembering that churches are good at, and I can almost feel pastors shuddering when I bring up the subject. Mrs. Magillicuddy will never forget the time the pastor's wife walked right by her in coffee hour without even saying anything, Mr. Bumpkins can't get over the way the building and grounds committee dismissed his idea for a three-story parking garage in the church lot, the pastor lives with simmering resentment over the way Mrs. Magillicuddy and Mr. Bumpkins took it all out on him or her. And many churches live with regret, over missed opportunities, families we let leave, programs we were enthusiastic over at the beginning but let linger and die. That's not Christian remembering.
Remembering as a spiritual practice is life-giving; telling stories about the past strengthens communities, builds common bonds, a sense of solidarity with each other, opens our hearts and minds to the world. Both Christianity and Judaism are, as Abraham Joshua Heschel has called them, "religions of remembrance." In other words we are both basically story-tellers; history for us is not just a hobby, a pastime for "buffs" or people with an insatiable need for useless facts. It's what we do. It's the reason why the Bible is a book of stories about people in the past, a record for us of their lived experience of faith. What is the Passover seder but a re-enactment of a historical event — the same is true for the Lord's Supper, in which we are told to "remember and believe." It is more than just a re-enactment, as history is for us more than a rundown of names and dates and bits of information. It is a story we tell to each other that places us here in the present day in Orleans, Massachusetts, within a multitude, across time as well as space. We are sharing a story with Christians in first-century Corinth, Elizabethan England, fifteenth-century Japan, twentieth-century Africa.
There's nothing nostalgic about this kind of relationship with the past. When Christ commanded us to celebrate communion “in memory of me,” he wasn't suggesting we pull out all the old picture albums and trade our favorite stories about the first century. Remembering for the people of Israel and in the words of Jesus means that we are re-upping our commitment, throwing in our lot with others. We are placing ourselves into a story, into a community of memory, receiving the promise that we are not alone. We are also entering into a story that matters, one that is going to make demands of us.
Thus our story in Joshua: "In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."
If you know anything of the background of this story, it's a big moment in Israelite history, when they are finally ending forty long years of wandering the Sinai peninsula and crossing the Jordan into the promised land. The future ahead of them is full of promise, but it will also bring frightening challenges. And it's in this moment that God commands them to stop, literally in the middle of things, and set up a memorial, a pile of stones meant as a message to future generations. It wasn't enough, in other words, just to write it down and put it in the archives — there had to be something concrete, something visible, maybe even something cumbersome and heavy, something that took extra special effort — hauling heavy stones — to make sure the memory did not fade away easily.
There's not a day that goes by, at least between April and October, when I'm reminded that Paul Revere is buried below my window. Somehow everybody who comes across him feels the need to yell "the British are coming." But they also do something else — I look down and see on the monument and on the sidewalk around it, and see that they have left stones behind.
Stones appear in the Bible a fair amount. They are used as altars, even projectiles, and they formed protective walls. Jacob was even using one as a pillow when he had a dream about a ladder reaching up to heaven. They are also used in ancient rituals, as carriers of memory. As we saw in Joshua's story, stones have a religious meaning in Jewish culture, one that goes way back. People left stones on graves for practical reasons, to mark a corpse, to make sure no one unknowingly stumbled upon a spot of ground that was ritually unclean. But they were also there to allow the grieving to come back, to keep up a connection with someone who was gone, but should not be forgotten. Stones weigh down a soul that might otherwise drift away — it keeps the dead from forgetting about us. They also are a symbol of permanence. Unlike flowers, our object of choice in cemeteries, stones do not wither and dry up. They are always there, no matter what.
We come from a tradition with deep reservations about ritual. Our Puritan ancestors have been criticized a lot for being intolerant and nit-picky, and perhaps with justification. But that's not what they were really about — they wanted to keep religion clear and simple — no stained glass, choir lofts, ministers' robes, crosses, incense. They wanted religion to be fresh, immediate, unencumbered by rote forms and mindless repetition. Churches needed to be as bare and plain as possible, worship services as straightforward as they could be, so that nothing would get in God's way.
Is there a way to keep that idea, really the genius of our tradition, and have some regular practices that keep us from being so present-minded, so easily forgetful about the people who have minded and built this church for the last 370 years?
Are there practices, habits, you could keep, almost like a string around the finger, to bring to mind the people who established both of the congregations you represent, both of the religious traditions? Are there ways you might recognize that, all told, you number in the thousands, and this church has had a reach and an influence over the past nearly 4 centuries that you cannot even begin to imagine? How will you maintain the continuity with the past? And what will you tell those lined up to take our places? How will they learn your story?
This does not have to be dead serious or require a lot of studying. We all need a connection with the past that is life-giving (which means it might even be fun), more than just nostalgia. This means we will not overly romanticize the past, and how much better things must have been back then. And we also won't condescend to our ancestors, as somehow not quite as smart or tolerant or progressive as we are, "back there," or lower down on the ladder of progress. (Yes, we've come a long way in some respects, but we've also discovered ways to do damage to each other that they could never have imagined.) What we need is a mature, grown-up relationship with our ancestors in the faith — and in this church.
In the course of my work I visit lots of local Congregational churches, and as you might guess, I've seen everything. I remember one in particular, in an old church building that over the course of time had found itself surrounded by a mini-mall and a few car dealerships. The congregation was kind of hanging on for dear life, the whole building felt kind of aging and depressed. After my presentation one of the members sidled over to ask me a question: "what would they think about us today?" And I knew the deeper fear was, are we a big disappointment? Would they be angry at how far we've drifted from the founding vision?
I probably mouthed a few comforting platitudes at the time — this was a profound and unusual question. But if we believe we are a community of memory, one that includes both the living and the dead, those kind of questions are going to come up.
What would our ancestors wonder about if they could see us today? They'd probably wonder why my sermon is going to finish so soon (and of course about my gender) and why we aren't coming back for another two hour sermon after lunch. They'd be astonished that most of us can't tell the difference between a Presbyterian and a Congregationalist, much less an Episcopalian and a Catholic.
But I think they'd also wonder why we don't tell more stories about our history, whether we have any idea of how much we owe to them and to others — all the things they've given us: songs to sing, pews to sit in, books and ideas that inspire us, the names and layout of our streets. Novelist Wendell Barry calls this a "long choosing," that we and our world are the result of the thousands of decisions by other people, about who to marry and where to live, what to care about.
I think it's going to take a lot of rethinking and undoing of old spiritual habits before we can break through all the layers of indifference, condescension, and confusion that have accumulated around faith and history over so many years. We can start just by saying thank you, acknowledging over and over again that we are not making all of this stuff up as we go along, but are stewards of memory for our ancestors in the faith — and for generations still ahead.
In a way we are talking about remaking our Christian imagination so that we can see the cloud of witnesses around us, recover an older language of faith. "Seeing dead people," as I sometimes call it, is a profoundly countercultural act — it can be scary and uncomfortable, and a little weird sometimes too — but it's not optional and it's not something you have to do every twenty-five or fifty years. It's the responsibility, promise, and adventure of our Christian faith.
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed to the public on Thursday, August 25th for a staff training day.
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The Congregational church in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is marking its 250th anniversary this year, and my husband and I drove up this past weekend to join the festivities. I offered greetings from the Congregational Library & Archives and gave the Sunday sermon, a twenty-minute drop in the bucket compared to the months, even years this congregation has spent on putting together a creative, thoughtful celebration.
The entire weekend up in Maine made for musing about the distance between what we see and what we don't. To anyone else my husband and I probably looked like run of the mill tourists with Massachusetts plates, checking one more destination off of our bucket list before moving on. But Boothbay Harbor is not an ordinary place for us. My husband's family has roots in the area, and we used to visit his grandma when we were first married. We kept going up there after she died and when our children were small, staying in the family cottage — a grandiose term for a Rube Goldberg cabin, rooms randomly added over the years. Back then we didn't have a lot of money to spend on vacations and so we amused ourselves in inexpensive ways, picking blueberries in the back yard, hanging out in the hammock for hours at a time, taking the dogs for a walk down to the Sheepscot River, where we'd all enjoy the smell and muck of low tide. The little splurges were memorable.
I arrived early for the Sunday service, and since I had a little extra time to roam around, I did what most nosy historians do, visit the local graveyard. The Boothbay church had been founded by Scots-Irish Presbyterians, some of whose family still lived in the area and were part of the congregation, and I thought I might spot one or two on a tombstone, maybe find a story or two to tell at coffee hour. As in most old cemeteries, Boothbay Harbor's dead were grouped into extended families of parents and children, husbands and wives. The inhabitants were right out of a Melville novel, sea captains named Uzziah and Elijah, wives named Prudence and Sarah and Priscilla.
And then there was Cinderella Smith. Gravestones are fairly sparse information-wise and hers only made he wonder further. This woman had died relatively young, before the Civil War, perhaps of one of the epidemics that took people with depressing regularity during that time. She'd also lost both her parents at an early age — her tombstone included their birth and death dates — and, even more tantalizingly, it indicated that she'd been adopted by other couple with the same last name. Though adoption was a fairly common, informal practice among families back when a head cold could turn into a fever and an infection that brought death in days, I've never seen the actual word on a nineteenth-century gravestone. Nor have I ever come across a Cinderella.
She must have come from special people, who named her for a fairy tale character and then kept her close within the family after what must have been a tragic loss. And I wouldn't doubt that a local historian or an expert on New England graveyards could piece together a lot more of the mystery than I can. But do you really want to know? Isn't it enough that almost two centuries ago, back in the days when Mainers made their living on fishing smacks and hard-scrabble farms, someone loved a little girl enough to name her Cinderella? The past loves to keep its secrets, I've found, and sometimes it's more than enough to enjoy the mystery.