by Kathy Staudt
In the upstairs choir room at our church, on the bulletin board, there is a set of crayon drawings by Sunday school children.. One of the Sunday school pictures has my daughter’s name on it. Another has the name of her closest Sunday School friend. My daughter is now 25. The picture was probably made when those girls were in third and fourth grade, i.e. in 1996 or 1997.
The bulletin board where those drawings hang was once a room divider used in the undercroft , to divide up the various grade levels of Sunday school. Someone moved it up here at some point for storage, or maybe to create 2 levels of Sunday school in this space. But no one ever took the pictures down.
And I find I can’t bring myself to take them down, either. I feel sentimental about that Sunday School picture. It reminds me of an era when I felt that my children shared a church life that was important to me, when they were part of a healthy church family, learning the basic stories of the faith and experiencing worship in community. It was the era when life in church was transforming me, giving me satisfying leadership roles as an educator and prayer leader, and steering me toward a vocation that has been real and life-giving to me. My life in those years was quite wrapped up in church, and I am still “active” in my congregation. But the vocational path I started on in the 90s has also led me to different expressions and experiences of the Christian life. I still value and treasure that era of family life in church, and continue to be fed by worshipping with the next generation of younger families that have come. I come “home” to worship, I support this church financially, and I help out where I can with leadership. But the congregation now is more a “home base” from which I go out, not the place where most of my ministry and social life are focused, as they were in an earlier time.
The room where these pictures hang is still called the choir room, and it is where the choir stores our stuff: robes and music, and where most of us vest. But it is no longer used for choir practice, either; It is up a steep flight of steps, with no bathroom on that level, and the aging of choir members makes it harder for some of us to come up the steep stairs to this room, though it still houses a piano and metal file cabinets full of music. (As well as a number of tables piled high with music to be filed!). The room comes to life when the children’s hand-chime choir rehearses there, but their rehearsal happens in a space surrounded by clutter from the past.
Certainly there is no longer the same kind of “Sunday School,” no longer the large choir program that we had 20 years ago — but the things associated with that era in our common life are still lying around. No one (myself included) seems to have the energy to retire these reminders of the old way. I have been noticing that many other churches I visit have the same kind of clutter lying around in their parish halls and meeting rooms. It is the kind of clutter we stop noticing when we have lived in a house for a long time. Just a lot of stuff that we aren’t really using any more, but we haven’t had the energy or a reason to move or toss or put stuff away. And the sorting and tossing that would be required seems like more than we want to take on.
I know something about the emotional energy this kind of sorting takes because in the past year I have moved our household from the home we lived in for 24 years, into a new and less cluttered space. In the same year I have also helped to downsize and sell my mother’s condo, as she moved into assisted living. Both projects began with a slow sorting process, a lingering over this or that thing or book or file or piece of paper that held a memory. And revisiting those memories was important. As my Mom was doing it, we took things slowly, even though her daughters were itching to get on with the move. She needed to handle those things, tell those stories, before tossing files and mementos into the trash, as she then did. In my own sorting and packing, I found that after a time I Just needed to get someone to help me who wasn’t invested in the stuff, who had a vision for what this place would look like when it was cleared out, and how the space could work for the next owner, the new buyer, or in the case of our own move, for the next stage of our life as a couple and as a family. The realtor, the decorator, and ultimately the “College Hunks Hauling Junk” became important allies in the spiritual work demanded by moving.
It is easy enough, from the outside, to say, “Just throw it all away, simplify and start over again!” But in fact the process necessarily involves some real decisions about what to keep and what to toss. My mother took comfort in knowing that her daughters would take some of her most valued possessions, and the process of adding those family treasures to my own household has deepened my sense of continuity between my new home and my origins, and the places I have come from in life. I kept boxes of family memorabilia, for example, knowing I had space in the new house to store it, and wasn’t ready to part with it yet; The sorting out of “treasured things” from “stuff” is a long labor of love, and takes a lot of energy before the time comes to call in the “College Hunks” and say “just take the rest away.”
We have known for awhile now that at this moment in the life of the Church, there are things that need to go, and things that need to be remembered, and the process of discerning which is which involves a conversation between the generations, some story-telling, some mutual listening, and a lot of emotional energy. This is what Phyllis Tickle means (quoting Bishop Mark Dyer) when she refers to the “rummage sale” that goes on in the church every 500 years or so, an event that she calls the “great emergence,” which we are in the midst of now.
When I look at that room in our church building, I ask myself, “What is this room for, now?” And I find I don’t have an answer to that; right now it is mainly a room that stores stuff from the past. It will take some creative thinking, and conversation with a next generation of leaders, if it is not to remain simply a cluttered room, but a place where some new creative thing can happen in the life of the church. In this way it stands for the larger, physical presence of our particular congregation in the place where it is. What is here that is worth cherishing and remembering? What is clutter that needs to go? These are serious questions that I think we need to be asking ourselves, as leaders and long-time members in congregations, who care about both the past and the future of the church. And it is a conversation that needs to happen across generations.
When I go up the old choir room to collect my robe and music on a Sunday, I sometimes notice those church school drawings still on the old room divider. And I think of a saying of Jesus that cries out for our attention, in this time of transition in this church.. Asking his disciples how much they’ve understood of his teaching, he declares: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old..” (Matthew 13:52 (NRSV) Words to reflect on and act on, as we move through this new time of “emergence” in the Church.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.