I recently spent a few days with my very bright six year old grandson. We developed this little game in which we explored the origins of etymology or certain funny sounding colloquial expressions. We would think of one and then Google the phrase to find out what the original meaning was. Some of his favorites were, “Cat’s got your tongue”, “It’s raining cats and dogs” and “An arm and a leg.” You can look these up for yourself but I’ll give you the meaning of one; “The dog days of summer.” Actually this expression originally had nothing to do with dogs or the lazy days of summer. To the Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” occurred around the day when the constellation, Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year.
I bring this up because it seems to me that many churches and church folk do things and says things which may have had meaning at one time in the past but have been detached from their historical context and quite simply doesn’t make much sense today. We often unconsciously and habitually repeat the same practices and traditions without asking what they really mean or meant or what purpose they really serve for our present time. Why do we do what we do in church? Is there a purpose worth being salvaged and celebrated as we practice our traditions? Is there meaning and vitality in the rituals we observe? I find it quite interesting to reflect on why things in the church are the way they are and how we might organize in a way that better connects with 2017.
When I first came to Emmanuel I noticed there were two short pews placed in the front of the church at floor level. It was obvious that the wood did not match the rest of the architecture and aesthetically they did not complement our beautiful sanctuary. At the same time, while I was cleaning out the small chapel, I found two footprints on the carpet which perfectly matched those two small pews. Apparently someone had removed them from the small chapel and placed them in the sanctuary. I wanted the pews to be returned to their original location but before moving ahead with that task I wanted to know why they were moved in the first place. I asked many of our long time members if they knew why and who had moved them and no one seemed to remember. Finally, I was in the sanctuary one day with Marek, our Sexton, and I asked him. He said, “I remember when that happened. One day, about twenty years ago, one of the interim ministers decided he wanted to sit down in front of the church while communion was being served so he and I picked them up and moved them and they’ve been here ever since.”
When we begin to ask why we do the things we do and why things are the way they are, we often get surprising answers. We may then decide to make or not make a change, or to retire some activity or even language which no longer has value. After we discovered the origins of the phrase “The cat’s got your tongue” with my grandson, I am inclined not to use that one so much anymore. Maybe there are some things in the church we need to relegate to the archival section.