Every summer, on the second weekend of August, the Haw Orchard Baptist Church and cemetery in Grayson County, Virginia, are resplendent with color and abuzz with conversation. Why? It's time for the annual 'Decoration.' And many families, including mine, schedule their reunions for that weekend. It's a wonderful time for faith and family traditions. People begin to decorate the graves on Saturday evening, so on Sunday morning, the Haw Orchard Cemetery is ablaze with color . . . reds, yellows, greens, and purples. It's quite a sight! And the church? Well, it's standing room only. Bluegrass gospel music and red-faced preachers follow one another in a three-hour gospel marathon. Most of the songs and sermons remind us that this world is not our home.
The decorations and family reunions are spiritual and social events that have become deeply rooted traditions. On the way from Haw Orchard Cemetery to the Virginia Highlands State Park where the Reedy reunion would occur, I asked my Aunt Betty, "Why is the decoration and family reunion on the second weekend of August?"
"Well, Bud, because the wildflowers are in full bloom," she explained. "People would pick the wildflowers and decorate the graves in honor and memory of loved ones. After traveling over these mountains by foot, horseback, or wagon, they would arrive Saturday evening and stay over to share a meal on Sunday. It was the only time each year when some would see their kin and friends."
"So, they used the wildflowers because the flowers were available, and because these farmers, lumbermen, and coalminers couldn't afford to buy flowers," I commented.
"That's right. And because funds were low and travel was difficult, when they got together they stayed together for a bit," Aunt Betty said. "They introduced newly married couples, made over new babies, and grieved the recently departed. It was also an opportunity to catch up on the news and retell the family history so it would not be forgotten."
How ironic that the Haw Orchard Cemetery is full of plastic flowers purchased at Wal-mart and the Dollar Store, when the nearby hillsides, stream banks, and roads are filled with Queen Anne's Lace, Joe-Pye weed, black cohosh, goldenrod, Black-Eyed Susan, Indian pipe, coltsfoot, and pussy-toes.
Times have changed but the traditions have remained, even though the reason behind these activities has been lost to some. Christmas is another time filled with traditions and activities. Christmas time is the most decorated season of the year. The song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" reminds us that reunion often follows the wreath hanging. Many deeply—rooted faith and family traditions have formed around Christmas. This is fine, as long as we do not forget the reason for the season: to declare to the world this baby born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem was none other than the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He is the Rose of Sharon.
We must be careful not to replace the real thing with a department store version.
As we gather for traditional Christmas activities, we must remember the reason for the season: Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost. At the same time, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Traditions have their place. They can trigger memory and meaning, helping us interpret scripture and life. But traditions must not be allowed to replace the church's mandate. The purpose of our church activities should be no different at Christmastime than at any other time of the year: to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).
Mission-focused pastors and congregations realize that special services at holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve present a tremendous opportunity to reach the unchurched with the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. During the holidays, 'cultural Christians' often make a rare appearance at the church, driven by family tradition or custom. Many of these folks come expecting a nice, comfortable service. Certainly, they don't anticipate a service that would make them uneasy or challenge any assumptions shaped by their personal worldview.
Missional leaders aren't afraid to use such situations for the kingdom's sake. Missional churches know that these are precious opportunities and are committed to the proposition that every service is an evangelistic opportunity to introduce every man, woman, boy, and girl to Jesus Christ. Such leaders are uncomfortable with the same-old-same-old. They creatively blend tradition and trajectory. So they will try the unusual from time to time, not simply for invention's sake, but for souls. And sometimes, they shake people out of their lethargy and into the land of the living. "By all means," Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:21-23, "win some."
This holiday season, go all out for souls.
Take advantage of the opportunities these seasons present for evangelistic impact. Christmas time is a great time to introduce a friend to Jesus. That's the real reason for the season, for the decorations, for the reunions, and for the traditions. Don't settle for plastic flowers. They're nice, but they aren't the real thing.
Bud Reedy is senior pastor of Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene in York, Pennsylvania.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2005