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In memory of… relic or symbol?

  • In memory of… relic or symbol?

Three All Saints worship ideas, including one fully-scripted service CLICK HERE

Does your church worship relics? “We’re Protestants! Of course not!” you say. Well…

As All Saints Sunday rolls around again I am reminded of a church consult I did years ago that many of you have heard me talk about in my presentation on the “Politics of Change.” This congregation had recently installed a screen in their sanctuary for their new “contemporary” service. They had created a way for it to roll up electrically behind some wood that matched the rest of the trim so that when it was up and unused for the traditional service it’s presence would go undetected. But when it was down for the new service, it covered a stained-glass window.

This had caused much consternation and horror among some folks in the church–mind you, folks who never worshiped in the new service but just the thought of the window being covered ever had them incensed. Of course, I introduced the idea of easily creating a digital photo of the window to project on that screen at times, but the real issue had nothing to do with the screen, it turned out.

What was the issue? Covering that window was a symbol of a congregation who was slowly forgetting its past and the people (such as the person noted on the memorial plaque who had financed the window) who built that church. Grief was the real issue–unresolved and unrecognized grief as a result of a changing congregation. The window no longer symbolized the theological concepts it embodied as a piece of liturgical art.

When memorial pieces lose their connection to their deeper theological raison d’etre (reason for being), such as candlesticks that now point to the matriarch who donated them rather than the light of Christ, then we begin to worship relics.

Relics are part of human symbol-making. There is nothing wrong with this at all. We keep artifacts related to someone we loved and lost and seeing or touching them does what symbols are meant to do–makes our loved ones “present” to us in a palpable way. A candle that remained lit at the bedside of an ailing parent becomes a way to rekindle our memory, and therefore all the neural associations with that time and that person. A tattoo with the word phrase that a lost friend once used to say becomes a symbol of the life and vitality of that person and makes it “live on” as you tell the story to those who ask about your ink.

The problem with church relics “given in memory of” is when the stories begin to disappear and the only ones left who remember those persons hang onto the relic itself as a way to hang onto the past. So…. the point?

This All Saints Sunday, I invite you to consider something I did with that congregation who was in the midst of their “worship wars” over the screen: do a ritual that brings out all the stuff “given in memory of” and tell the story of the persons whose name is on it. Thank them. Honor their love for Christ’s church. Then underscore the deeper spiritual meaning of the object–the light of Christ, the story of Christ’s love in the stained glass rendering of Jesus holding a lamb, the ringing out of Christ’s presence in the world through the church’s love in the ringing of that memorial bell in the tower, etc.

I guarantee that the likelihood of hurt feelings when the visual arts team wants to use a different set of candles for the next worship series will diminish. If this is the first time different candles are being used, bring back the brass memorial candles the next worship series, thereby beginning to cultivate a culture of flexibility. Then change them up again after that with something else.

Symbols have many layers. This All Saints Sunday, dig a little deeper and unearth the layers beneath. Move from a church full of “relics” to a church full of love.

More resources:

Three All Saints worship ideas, including one fully-scripted service CLICK HERE 

If you are celebrating All Saints on November 6 this year, here is a video we created about All Saints coinciding with the “fall back” of the clock on that day CLICK HERE 

Another of my blogs about making memorials memorable and rituals rich CLICK HERE  

And another CLICK HERE 

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