Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Church, The Quick, and the Dead

On Sunday, as I nosed my way through the church mail, I found myself encountering the latest issue of Presbyterians Today.   It was the handy-dandy "Welcome to the PC(USA)" edition, one that Presbyterian churches can keep conveniently located near the entrance for distribution to visitors curious to learn more about the church.

But looking at the cover, I found myself going, "Huh."

I know the demographics of my denomination, know what it looks like, know what it feels like.  And what I saw on the cover just wasn't that.  You can see it yourself, a multiethnic klatch of smiling, pleasant, recently-graduated Hufflepuffs.  The crowd is young, almost without exception.  And there, I'm not even talking about the circle of folk in the foreground.

I'm talking about the whole room.  There's one slightly older guy, and maybe one blurry person who might conceivably have white hair in the far background.

This seems a nice enough gathering, one that was most likely Presbyterian through and through.  But if you encounter a Presbyterian church, is this what you are most likely to find?

Meaning: where are the old people?  You know who I'm talking about.  The geezers.  The codgers.  Old Man Jenkins.  Widow Prescott.

Because honeychild, we Presbyterians are not a young lot.  The 2011 Presbyterian Panel Study (Lord, how we loves us some data) found that the average age of a Presbyterian...that's median, kids...was sixty three.

Yes, Sixty Three.

I marveled at the unrepresentative cover, and wondered to myself...where's the church I know?  Where are the oldsters?  I flipped the magazine over, and...O Sweet Jesus.

On the back, an ad for columbariums.  

Which, in the event you've never encountered that term before, are places you stash human remains within a church.  Pretty much no twenty or thirty-somethings have a clue what that even is.  Lord knows I didn't at that age.

We're a young church, says the front.  Your Session may be interested in hearing a presentation about columbariums, whispers the back.  It was a peculiar tension, one that stirred several reflections.

I see columbariums as a peculiar thing.   What's wrong with a garden for ashes, or the foot of a beloved tree, or the sea, or a mountaintop?  Just remember to toss downwind, brothers and sisters.  

Then again, I also struggle even more deeply with the absence of age on the cover.  

Yes, we must be welcoming to the new generation of the church, and open to the new.  Period.  If not, all we are is a columbarium waiting to happen.  Our organizational survival strategy can't be to scare off property purchasers and potential developers by filling our sanctuaries with human remains.

But what our culture does to the old is both insane and a tiny bit monstrous.  Age is hidden away, ignored, useless.  And so we forget, and our forgetting leaves us weaker.

One of the things I've cherished about my time in the Presbyterian church, as I've gone from being a youngling into the comfortable roundness of middle age, is the encounters with the deeper spirituality of older souls.  Lifetimes of hard won experience, triumphs and losses, these things have a value that no amount of Googling can replace.  The wisdom of older pastors and Jesus folk who've walked in the Way for a lifetime have taught me as surely as Old Ben or Yoda.  

Some folks do lose themselves on that journey, I'll admit.  Their souls calcify as they age, and they hold on to the past with anxious hands.  But others remember, and delight in being where they are, and bear with them stories that are powerful and worth hearing.

Focusing on the young?  That's our culture.  Intermingling the generations and casting down the walls that have been erected around us?  That would be different.  Countercultural.