Last weekend, my wife and I took off to Toronto to visit my family. The purpose of the trip was to get together and celebrate the completion of my Th.M. degree before I begin my studies at the University of Toronto in just a few weeks. On Saturday night, we all hopped aboard the subway and headed down to Union Station, where we walked through the skywalk, boarded an elevator, and ascended over 100 stories to the CN Tower’s 360 Restaurant. You see, my family loves to celebrate significant events in our lives. We believe it’s important to mark the transitions and achievements on our journeys from cradle to grave. We celebrate heartily at engagements, weddings, graduations, anniversaries and retirements. And with tears and fond memories, we gather together around hospital beds and caskets to mourn life transitions that are accompanied by great losses.
Society today seems to love to celebrate. Through commercials, magazine advertisements, and the Internet, we’re told to celebrate life by purchasing everything from paper plates to new cars. Christmas, Easter, Labour Day, and the Back-to-School season are marketed as moments in our lives worth celebrating—but we are told that celebrating means buying things. Even though celebrations seem to be everywhere, our society doesn’t seem too concerned with marking significant rites of passage in our lives. This has led to new, transitional phases of life like emerging adulthood and the tween years. Without community markers along life’s path, each of us becomes the master of our own lives and we can struggle to make sense of transitions and changes as we grow from infants to older people. This extreme individualism leads to life structures and meanings that are highly subjective and it can leave many people drifting, searching, and grasping as they struggle to make meaning of life’s changes. James Côté, professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, believes that a situation such as this can lead people to become chronic searchers who struggle to achieve a solid sense of self and identity. This is especially true for children and youth, who perhaps need more guidance along the precarious journey through preschool, summer camp, elemenatry school, puberty, high school, first jobs, and sexuality.
You see, our identities are forged in communities. We are selves-in-relationship. And when we are left entirely to our own devices to make meaning of the ebb and flow of our lives, we can have a great deal of trouble gaining a strong sense of self and an identity that will sustain us during trials and tribulations. Jesus knew this as he gathered his disciples together for the last time. Just as they needed to hear his words of comfort, assurance, and guidance, we need communities of caring individuals to affirm, challenge, and build us up as we grow, change, and form our selves. Communities who celebrate, mourn, and mark life changes together provide firm foundations for the formation of our identities, of our inner selves. They become our aircraft carriers amidst the sea of the world, launching us to new heights and helping us to land when we need to recharge, reflect, and prepare to launch again.
Congregations can play a key role in the lives of our children and youth, guiding them through a life fraught with transitions, celebrating victories and mourning losses. Of course, we already celebrate some key feasts and festivals of the Christian year. And we continue to mark transitions through baptism, child dedication, marriage, and death. But we can do so much more than this. We adults sometimes forget to mark the achievements and losses that may seem mundane to us but are incredibly important to children and youth–learning to tie our sloe laces, taking off the training wheels, having a friend move away (even only a block away), changing schools, 9th-and-half birthdays, experiencing the many changes of puberty, and the death of a pet. What would happen if our faith communities began celebrating with children, youth, and families the completion of toilet training, the first tooth lost, the acquisition of a driver’s license, our last job-free summer, acceptance into college/university, leaving home, engagements, pregnancies, first apartments/houses/cars/jobs, residential changes, job promotions, anniversaries, ordinations, retirements, and the entry into grandparenthood? And what would happen if we took the time to recognize, embrace, and mourn less-than-celebratory events like break-ups, divorces, lay-offs, debt, accidents, miscarriages, bankruptcies, illnesses, and the deaths of our loved ones?
When my wife, mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law gathered with my high above the city of Toronto, they were affirming and celebrating my success. And, together, we remembered the tremendous hurdles I encountered on my way to completing my Th.M. Since I was unable to attend my graduation ceremony, we made sure to party hardy as we marked through food, drink, and storytelling the conclusion of one chapter of my life and the beginning of the next. And through this celebration, they reminded me who I am, where I have come from, and where I am going. May our congregations join children, youth, and all people in marking transitions, celebrations, and losses.