Last month I attended my 50th high school class reunion, held during the annual “Heritage Days Festival” in the small town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. (Actually, it was our 51st, since we had to cancel last summer’s semicentennial gathering of the Class of 1971 due to COVID concerns.)
I’ve been to most of these reunions at ten-year intervals, so I was caught a little bit off-guard by how deeply this particular experience affected me. The whole weekend seemed enchanted somehow. It wasn’t so much like being caught up in a ‘time warp’ as it was a matter of standing together in the precious fleeting moment of ‘now,’ and using that sacred time to evoke and hold and share our tender and beautiful and sometimes difficult memories and stories. Our ‘glory days’ were far behind us, but nevertheless we had about us — as a kind of compensation, perhaps – an air of hard-earned wisdom and humility. Everyone appeared in a new and kind and generous light: recognizing and honoring one another even as we had all been transformed and transfigured by a half-century-worth of life experience. It was truly a ‘golden’ anniversary.
My old hockey and football and baseball teammates were there, as was my first girlfriend, along with her husband, one of the few brave spouses ‘from away’ who attended! I’ve kept up a friendship with both of them over the years, so it was easy and natural to sit together at what we laughingly called ‘the not-so-cool kids’ table.’ We had fun. We had so much fun that I forgot to take pictures with my phone. Who used a phone to take pictures in 1971?
Some people were missing. The line heading to the dinner buffet led past a display called ‘the empty desk,’ which included an actual, old-fashioned wrought iron and wooden desk with photographs and names of the 21 classmates who had died (out of our cohort of 131). As we slowly shuffled past on our way to the food, I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. As I looked at the display, and then gazed around the large room, I realized that I had, over the years, managed to officiate at weddings and memorial services for quite a few of my friends and schoolmates. More funerals than weddings, it seems.
At the opposite end of the room, several display tables held copies of old yearbooks, trophies, class pictures, report cards(!), and a yellowed, tattered copy of the special ‘graduation edition’ of the town newspaper, which included all our adolescent ‘crystal ball’ predictions about our future selves. Some were quite prescient, others wildly off the mark. Certainly, nobody thought I would turn out to be a minister, least of all myself! Throughout my high school years, I was outspokenly, if not obnoxiously, anti-religious. It’s funny sometimes the way things turn out…
Whenever I try to make sense of the story of my own vocational journey, I am reminded of William Stafford’s lovely little poem called The Way It Is:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Perhaps it’s because this class reunion came at a time of transition and reflection on ‘time’s unfolding’ in my own life that I found it to be so especially meaningful and moving. At the end of the Saturday evening program, I turned to my friend, Brad, and said, in all honesty, “I feel like I’ve been to church.”
Part of what religious community offers is a place to weave together our various heart-threads into a fabric of meaning and value that is durable and beautiful and useful. Or — to alter the metaphor slightly — we create meaning by intertwining our different narrative threads to form the multi-colored strands of strong, resilient cords that bind and connect us to one another, ‘firmly in covenant,’ as our ancestors put it. The word, ‘religion,’ after all, literally means, ‘to reconnect, to tie together again.’ At its best, religion is reunion.
I hope that you have all had opportunities this summer to re-connect with friends and family, with special places and sources of spiritual refreshment and renewal, and with your own deepest lifeline. I look forward to meeting many of you during my visit to La Crosse during the week of August 14th – August 20th, and to begin weaving new shared stories and new creative connections.
In good faith,
P.S. As a matter of full disclosure, I have to confess that COVID did finally catch up with me at the reunion. Along with several other classmates, I came down with some mild symptoms and tested positive a few days after the gathering. The slight sniffles and cough have long since passed away, and I am feeling healthy and testing negative. I still plan to get my second booster shot, either this month or once there’s an updated vaccine later in the fall. Be well!