Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone’s discourse on a topic and then realizing that you have needed to hear this discourse your entire life? You might have even realized that this particular discourse confirms what you believed and thought all along. I recently experienced this in the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, while listening to the sermon written by our pastor but read by another parishioner out loud due to the laryngitis of the pastor. At the very least it was interesting to hear her sermon spoken by someone else and it even broadened the impact for me. I’m not really sure what happened there, perhaps having the male voice read what the female voice had written brought a balance to the whole sermon. For me, the main topic of the sermon revolved around the symbol of the cross, which is used throughout Christianity. The pastor described the connection between the cross and the violence that occurred around its use; further detailing how often crucifixions occurred per day, in various countries, during the time of Jesus. Crucifixion was used both to control people and to condemn to death those people who had committed wrongdoings. It was emphasized in the sermon that a crucifixion death was filled with incredible suffering caused by carrying the cross through the streets by the condemned, from being hung onto the cross and during the long-term feeling of suffocation experienced while hanging on the cross. This information brought to our awareness the reality of what the cross truly represented. While this was disturbing enough to have to listen to and take in, it was even more disturbing to think about how Christianity has embraced this symbol for so long. How hard would it have been to embrace only the symbol of resurrection without focusing on the crucifixion?
We attempted after giving birth to our first child in the early 80s to connect to the Catholic Church in Charles Town, West Virginia. But the head priest of that church was from Massachusetts, he was well into his 70s and he spent pretty much every sermon lambasting the congregation for not coming to confession often enough. However. we did have our son baptized in that church and we soon grew weary of being criticized every Sunday. A few years later, after we moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, we tried attending the tiny Catholic Church and while the Jesuit priest was very intellectual and his sermons were simulating and connected to the world events, he wasn’t a big fan of children. For some reason, that little church just couldn’t meet our needs.
We subsequently raised our children with a deep respect of the Divine in nature and would sometimes threaten them with going to church if they grumbled about our Sunday morning walks on the C & O canal.
Fast forward in time to the point where all our children are grown and are starting to have their own children. Our youngest was attending the local Shepherd University when she, my husband and I collectively decided to begin checking out the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. We began attending about eight years ago and it has definitely served our needs well. From the beginning, I had to listen carefully to the Minister to make sure he wasn’t going to say anything that would trigger me or make me want to flee the church. Our minister, Randy Tremba was brilliant at including the masculine and the feminine when addressing the divine. He never used the term goddess, but would more likely talk about mother-father-God. This was refreshing to us, to say the least. All good things come to an end, and 40 years of being a minister at SPC also came to an end. We made it through a two-year transition process with a wonderful interim minister and were prepared to welcome our new minister this past fall. Even though on a conscious level, the congregation knew there would be changes that comes with a new minister, on an unconscious level, however, being humans, who love the familiar, I’m sure we were all hoping that things didn’t change too much. It is very helpful that our new minister has been the new minister in several different churches and she knows how to navigate the process of becoming the leader of the church she is in charge of. She has an understanding of pace and how to gradually introduce the changes that resonate with her and hopefully with her new congregation. A natural side effect of such a big shift in a church is that the people who have been supporting the previous minister as employees and directors of services, also begin to see an opportunity to step down from their roles. So the waves of change create more waves of change. And it is all perfect in its imperfection. All will be well and we will traverse this transition successfully together.
As usual, this past Christmas season, our bare bones, brown, wooden cross that resides on the wall behind the altar was replaced with the two white angels holding the three circles with stars and crescent moon in them during the advent season.
On January 12, when we celebrated the baptism of Jesus, the backdrop of the altar at SPC had been transformed into the flowing river of the Jordan, which flowed all the way down onto the baptismal font. This is a stunningly beautiful representation for me of hope and rebirth and I find this image feeds my soul.
Then last Sunday, we hear the sermon about the cross and all the violence that is connected to it. So circling back to this brilliant sermon that fed my soul on a deep level, I am encouraged by and hopeful for the possible changes of how we represent our connection to the divine through statues and images in our church. Part of me cautiously suggests that our church is truly ready to let go of the cross image forever, while the spiritual side of me, embraces it to be so. Amen