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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

A School That Looks Right: A Reflection on Change

One of the side-road routes I take when driving from my home to the Luther Seminary campus takes me past an aging elementary school in St. Paul. It is neither the shortest route nor the quickest, but I drive that route because I like to look at that school.

I like the view because to me it looks like a school is supposed to look, meaning it looks like the schools I went to back in the mists of the ancient past. When my gaze falls on that school I know what the rooms look like and smell like and feel like. I can see the desks and the chalkboards and imagine the students there with a mini-me in the midst of them. Driving past that school stirs up good feelings in me.

But here’s the reality: it isn’t a school any more. It really isn’t anything. It was a parochial school, but that closed down some time ago, and now the sign on the outside of the building that used to announce concerts and plays and scout meetings usually just says “For Rent.” That is appropriate for me. I didn’t visit the town where I grew up for 25 years, and then when I went back for my 50th reunion, I discovered that none of the schools I attended through high school is now in use as a school, and most of the buildings don’t even exist any more. Sanderson School and Horace Mann Junior High are only memories. Perkins School and Prospect Hill School and Burlington High School sit vacant.

There is that little virus called nostalgia that creeps in now and then even for the heartiest and most forward-looking of us. In one of his poems A.E. Houseman has a verse that says:

This is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain.
The happy places where I went
And cannot come again.

That old school for me is the land of lost content, a place I cannot go again, any more than I can go back to that old home town and find things the way they were when I left 50 years ago.

Supervisors live and serve among people who carry around their own little lands of lost content and now and then those noble saints persevere in the sad and destructive notion that they can go there again, that St. Susan’s By The Gas Station can be just like it was in 1955 or 1975 or maybe 1925. It can’t. Interns, most of whom are now finishing up their years, had the chance to see this up close and personal, perhaps for the first time. If a congregation is more than, say, 18 months old, there will be people in it yearning for the good old days. Every now and then they will drive pastors and interns crazy.

The truth is that there is a little bit of that in all of us. As interns transition back into the student role and return to their campuses, they find that “things aren’t the same,” that some of the people who were always there aren’t there any more, that the walls have been painted in some of the classrooms and even, miracle of miracles, different people are teaching the old classes in new ways. This is followed by a wistful yearning for the way things used to be and now and then, even among forward looking and spiritual grounded seminarians, by a hushed level of grumbling.

Verily, even supervisors, when they return to visit the congregations where they grew up or congregations they previously served, may find that things have changed there, and wish they could find them the way they used to be.

There is a tinge of the nostalgist in all of us, that little cluster of atoms that yearns for the old, for the way things used to be, for the good old days. It is that portion of my being that enjoys driving past the old school. But on our good days we have the wisdom and the discipline to acknowledge the nostalgist, and then whomp him upside the head and send him to his room as we embrace the present and look forward to the future. Yesterday is over, it isn’t coming back, so let’s enjoy today and tomorrow without that foolhardy quest to bring back the good old days. We work with congregations that way; may we do the same thing with ourselves.


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