The community I live in is a vacation destination. Today there are coach busses traveling up the highway filled with tourists looking at the fall colors, taking part in pumpkin festivals, and who knows what other fun! Every store, restaurant, winery, and farm stand is decked out with pumpkins, cornstalks, hay bales, and scarecrows. The fun and excitement is contagious. I feel like I need a caramel apple and some of those funky ghost pumpkins and lumpy gourds! Later.
People are coming for an experience. My town and all the others around are making sure people will leave with lovely memories. They are setting the stage for friends and families to have an unforgettable fall day with one another. It is important to set the stage for an experience or adventure of any kind, because those who participate will be touched, moved, and transformed. It takes us beyond the ordinary and into the extraordinary! Just why do we love fall rituals so much?
- Preparation: Traveling somewhere for an experience might have been planned for ages or spur of the moment – either way it is something decided on and looked forward to.
- Anticipation: Anticipation of what one might experience is the driving force of the trip in the first place. It might be the taste of a crispy, juicy, just-picked apple, a hay- filled wagon carrying kids and families through fields to find just the right pumpkin or a hike in the woods where boots crunch the leaves or that new winery that makes the most amazing fall wine.
- Atmosphere: The experience will be rich because it’s not just the imagined event but now it is surrounded with people, laughter, sounds, feelings, smells, and a bit of chaos. It’s more because it is animated with life!
- Memory: It stays embedded long after the day is done. It has been stored in hearts, minds and souls. It will keep and become part of who we are.
- Rhythm: It has the potential to become the stuff of tradition or ritual.
Most of us spend time and energy on these events and adventures, because they build family bonds and help us grow closer to friends and neighbors. At my house we have a long-time group of family friends who gather twice a year at a local state park to picnic. They are epic events and they really illustrate the five points!
My husband is Iranian and they never do things in a small way. The picnic lasts all day – at least two meals. We bring our specialties. Hadi and Reza make kebab on the grill, Mahin brings yogurt salad and her homemade pickles and bread; Parvin, a huge green salad with her home-made salad dressing. Faribeh brings baklava cake and someone always brings the tea kettle and sugar cubes, fresh fruit and lots of nuts and treats. I try to surprise them with something American that is fun and delicious and Martha Stewart-ish or bring something Persian that they swear was made by one of them – high praise!
These picnics are anticipated by everyone. Even grown children know to come home for those days to see everyone and catch up on news – new babies, new jobs, family back home, and the political scene these days. This has become tradition and ritual; tending to the mind, body and spirit. These five points are things that parishes and faith communities might want to contemplate.
- Preparation: A parish community should treat every gathering or event like it is the Persian picnic or the fall festival up north. They should be prepared with hospitality and welcome – and be ready for people to encounter the God who loves them beyond measure.
- Anticipation: We hope that people come to the parish events or weekend liturgy with anticipation. If that is not the case, then it is something we must strive for. Is there time to say hello to one another? Are people welcomed and greeted? Is there something to look forward to like children’s Liturgy of the Word, coffee and donuts, or other community-building activities?
- Atmosphere: Once arrived, is the atmosphere one of joy? Hope? Laughter? Conversation? Welcome? Inspiration? It is the immersion into the experience that leaves a lasting impression on the heart. There are many moments from my childhood and adolescence that touched me deeply at Mass. Once a visiting missionary inspired me to want to do the same through his incredible stories. As a teenager, my parents let me go to Mass with my friends and it became the thing we did on Sunday night – Mass, homework and pizza.
- Memory: Those experiences that touched my mind, body and spirit haven’t left me. They colored my view of vocation, service, ministry, community, and friendship. They were powerful, happy, and authentic experiences.
- Rhythm: The Mass, homework and pizza became a ritual and very much our idea of sophistication as high schoolers. We were doing something grown up and cool – worth repeating! The missionary and his stories never left me – I found and continue to find a place I can serve those in need. It is the most incredible piece of my faith story and the place where I have encountered Jesus over and over.
These five little things may seem to be more psychology or sociology, but they remind us that people love to find meaning and to make meaning in their lives. A faith experience is certainly not the same as a trip to the apple orchard, but the components are. We would grow vibrant communities if we observed, listened, and did the unexpected once in a while. Tomorrow is a local pancake and porkie breakfast downtown, with proceeds to go to the Boys and Girls Club. I am for sure going to that! I love pancakes cooked outside, I might meet new people, and I love that the kids in our community have a place to go after school and all day long in the summer. I might just call a friend and see if we can make a new tradition!