Ecclesiastical Misconception #3

We are just about halfway through Eastertide and an exploration of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve been focusing on some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the church. Today’s misconception?


I have a few memories of my great-grandparents. Charles and Minnie McLaughlin lived in Buffalo and married at the turn of the last century. He was an electrician, as were almost all of the McLaughlin men who followed. I remember his stamp collection and how Great-Grandma made him keep his limburger cheese in the basement. I treasure this “running light” from his Pierce Arrow car – a light that my dad retrofitted at one point into a sconce for our kitchen. At some point I’ll continue the tradition of futzing with it and rig it with LED lights so we can hang it on our off-grid cabin up north.

I love showing it to folks and asking them what they think it is… and thus far, everyone has been surprised to learn it’s an auto part. I keep it, not because it’s cool (although it is!) but because it reminds me of the relationship I had with this man who smelled of limburger cheese.

Here’s the hard part. When I die, that light is not coming with me.

What’s even harder is that when I’m gone, I’m pretty certain this funky hunk of brass and glass will end up on eBay.

You see, my daughter has no connection to this oddity of mine because she never knew her great-great-grandfather except through my stories of him. She’s engaged in gathering her own stories and mementos, and to ask her to carry this after I’m gone devalues the reason I’ve kept it. I hold on to it because it reminds me of a treasured relationship, not because it has much intrinsic value.

Organizations have similar challenges. We have traditions that have created relationships of deep value… and when there is no one to continue the tradition, we feel grief. When I’ve spoken with folks about why they value these traditions, it is always about the herculean tasks that were accomplished in uniting for a common purpose and the relationships that were formed. The stories they tell are about the people who were engaged in the activity and the joy that comes from serving together.

When the next generation isn’t willing to pick up our treasured traditions, it’s not because those traditions didn’t have value but because some of what was valued cannot be transmitted to those who follow us. We share the same values (meaningful relationships, communal activities that create change, etc.) but that is no guarantee that we will treasure the same expressions of those values. In the end, I want the next generations to experience the relational aspects of being in community with one another and in relationship to God… but I’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean they will do the same things in order to get there. 

The hardest part of all of this is understanding that our very way of doing church may be like my great-grandfather’s running light. Oh, it can be updated and rewired for a bit, but at some point, it loses its meaning.

Jesus said he would build his church and not even the gates of hell could stand against it… but I’m starting to understand that church may be very different than the church that I’ve helped to build. And so, for now, I’ll continue to dust the lamp and remember the smell of limburger cheese and wonder in both grief and amazement at the church-yet-to-be.

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