In the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, on the General Theological Seminary’s campus, in the little room off to the side that covers the entrance to the bell tower and the sacristy, there exists several plaques. One day, while I was waiting in that room to begin my acolyte duties for the day, I noticed that one of the plaques was for a young man who died in his early twenties. It also said he died on a ship on his way to a call. I don’t remember the name off the top of my head but I did ask the student preacher about him. And that student told me a story about the young man, a graduate of General Seminary, whose ordination caused quite a stir in the early 1800s. Words were spoken; a riot happened too. It seems some folks couldn’t take that, during the ordination, there were candles on the altar. It just seemed a little too “Roman” to them. I think this was one of the opening salvos in the liturgical “wars” of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The student preacher liked telling that story. In fact, it’s a perfect story for General Seminary since I’m sure the seminary would like to glorify in the moments when its liturgical traditions and reforms where very “punk rock.” A few generations after the young man died, the church where the ordination happened was torn down and the plaque moved to General Seminary. I thought of this story a bit last night while watching a dvd with my wife’s family. It was a taping of a celebration of a pastor who served at Wooddale Church for 35 years and is now retiring. My wife’s grandmother was one of the members of the search committee that brought the pastor, Leith Anderson, to the church. In the “Evangelical” community, he is kind of a big deal, and is currently the head of the NEA. He’s written a bunch of books, expanded Wooddale from 1 church to 10 churches. He’s supposedly the bee’s knees. He even married my wife’s parents and a few aunts/uncles. At the end of the celebration, which consisted of a lot of speeches, the congregation gave Leith a few parting gifts. After thirty five years of service, he got a rather ugly photograph collage of the church, the lease of his car was bought out, a few flowers, and a travel expense account.
So, one young man, who led the “fight” for liturgical renewal, ended up with a plaque. One man retired and received his own used car. Not sure who got the better deal out of the two.
In the church I intern at, there are a smattering of plaques in various places of the hall. Two are dedicated to the founding pastor and his successor. One plaque is dedicated to all the individuals who went off to serve in the church. But all the plaques stop in the mid-30s. It seems creating these kinds of plaques, or at least filling them out, lost its flavor not that long ago. But plaques aren’t the only memorial objects that I’ve seen lose its luster. At my home congregation, there are ten stained glass windows dedicated to the members of the congregation who lost their lives in World War Two. The problem is there isn’t a plaque with their names on it (that I know of). I only learned the names of the people the windows are dedicated to while cleaning out some old files in the rectory’s basement while we were between pastors. Their legacy, in the church at least, is something that everyone sees but not something that everyone knows.
I’m not sure why I’m thinking about legacies two days before Christmas. Maybe I turn more introspective around Christmas. Or maybe the list of people I know who are being ordained deacons in the Episcopal church has got me to think about my own future. I guess I wonder if I’ll end up as a plaque someday. I’m sure, if I got down to it, I could write some words about what it means for the church to have a legacy and I’d probably through in a few references to the incarnation, a God in the Wilderness, and the whole “living God” as well. If I ever have to write a paper on this, I’m sure I could make it sound pretty good. But I do wonder if I’ll end up as a plaque someday. I kind of wonder where I’ll end up and what kind of impact I’ll have on people. I don’t know how it’ll turn out – well, I hope – but if I do end up on a plaque, I hope it is at least at eye level so people can read it. If you have to strain your neck to read my name, I’m not sure I’d like that to be what I’m remembered by.