I was thinking the other day about how many different calendars I have to keep track of in my head now that I have this New(ish) Job. There’s the fiscal year, the calendar year, the academic year, the fee year (which is really a three-year cycle), the union year (again, a longer cycle); these are on top of the liturgical year and the faire years to which I was already paying attention in my personal life. Reader, that’s seven different systems of keeping track of days. That’s a lot. And I’m willing to bet there are others that I have stored in the back of my mind that I’m currently forgetting, like the peripheral knowledge I have of the (American) football year.
This plethora of calendars is in sharp relief for me right now because school started up again at the university where I work. Tuesday was a maelstrom of emails, phone calls, professors who decided they needed keys and copies and codes RIGHT NOW because they were teaching in ten minutes, and students who decided to figure out their whole lives by coming in and asking me who their professor was. (No, really; I didn’t have much faith in students when I was teaching, but I may have even less now. Some of them made me very sad indeed by how utterly clueless they were—and content to be so.) The academic year has begun, and today is going to be a checking in with the fiscal year’s response.
This beginning is hammered in by the tendency of churches to respond to this new year as if it’s theirs, too. Parents are resetting to getting the kids off to school and churches (mine included) are holding all manner of kick-starting Sundays to welcome back everyone who was wandering during the summer.
A part of me is terribly amused by this, that we should be so governed not only by the agrarian system so few of us understand anymore, but also that we should be so governed by the school year many have (with varying levels of gratitude) left behind. We all of us instinctually understand that fall begins something new, whether we’ve been out of school four months or forty years.
But does it? Yes, I agree that the beginning of school is big, and that the restarting of Sunday school programs and music performances and such are very important and something to be celebrated. I’m very excited to see the over-the-top ridiculousness my church has in store this coming Sunday—but at the same time, I’m very mindful of one of Interpreter’s throwaway comments that we’re losing our own beginning.
The Church year, the liturgical year, one of my seven calendars, begins in Advent. That is the start of things for the Church, the place where we wait and celebrate and ponder and reconnect to our understanding of the life of faith. It is connected to the birth of the One we serve—not the return of tanned servants. This week we celebrate the restitution of the church’s life, and on one level, hurrah for it. I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly comfortable with the idea that church is okay to skive off during the summer or that there should be different service times or whatnot, but then, we all know I’m old-fashioned. So hurrah for the families settling back in to regular attendance, hurrah for the kids laughing in the youth house again, hurrah for the choirs restored in the lofts.
Yet I think we do ourselves an injury to say that this is the beginning. It is not. It is a gathering, and a celebration of ourselves as a family, and that is good and holy and true—but it is not a beginning. It is not a starting point, a launching, because at the end of things, church isn’t about us. This is perhaps a terribly unenlightened thing to say, I realize after several weeks (months?) of listening to the emergent Christianity conversations occurring. But I maintain it. Church isn’t about us; it includes us, it inspires us, it challenges us, but it’s not about us. Our return—my return, as I have deliberately been separating myself from my church for a month—kicks off a new series of connecting ministries, that’s true. But it doesn’t begin them, doesn’t restart the cycle of this central Character Who fuels us, sustains us, brings us back to this family. Church is so much more than simple attendance, anyway.
I say all of this in the recognition that I’m a crotchety old sot and may be missing something, but I also say this in a gentle plea to those of us kicking off new seasons of churchdom. Enjoy the friends who are back from Florida and band camp and mission trips and lazy Sundays spent sleeping in. Celebrate the awesome new classes and sermon series that will be coming. But don’t forget that this is not the beginning; it is the end, really, the fading stages of the last bit of this year as we breathe deeply for the quiet start that comes after Thanksgiving, when a teenager and her husband were a part of the changing of the whole world in all of its seasons.
“And I will set up one Shepherd over them, and He shall feed them, even My servant David. He shall feed them, and He shall be their Shepherd … And I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land; and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places round about My hill a blessing, and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.” (Ezekiel 34:23, 25-26, TMB)