From the Newsletter: “Seeing the Sights…or Visiting the Gift Shop?”


When I was a kid, we visited a lot of museums.

As a New Yorker, there were a lot of good ones to see, although the Natural History Museum was and is probably my favorite, and particularly the room with the enormous whale on the ceiling.

But there were others.

The catacombs in Paris. The catacombs in Rome. Churchill’s underground war rooms in London (which I recommend). The Jack the Ripper Tour of Whitechapel (not for the faint of heart). The John Knox House in Edinburgh (you can wear a goofy Reformation style hat and snap a picture with your phone) . The Musee de Faience in Quimper (that was a lot plates. A lot.) The Museum of the American Confederacy in Bermuda. (Yes. Yes, there is.)

I bailed on the Museum of Lace in Bruges, and stayed outside for an hour, feeding a croissant to the ducks (Rest assured, I would never waste a croissant like that now).

As you might expect, some of them were great, while others weren’t. Yet the quality of the museum never seemed to dim my enthusiasm for one room above all others: the museum gift shop. Of those, I am a true connoisseur—so much so that, sadly, too much of what I remember from some of the wonderful places I’ve been is the haunting ache for some thing that I wanted to acquire there, but didn’t. Hologram cufflinks. A subway token key chain. A tri-corner hat.

More often than I’d like to admit, the gift shop has been the heart of the whole experience.

I confess that to you now because tomorrow, I’m off to General Synod, the United Church of Christ’s national meeting, currently held in a different American city every other summer. Yes, there are a lot of nice museums in Cleveland, and maybe I’ll have time for one or two. More to the point, though, there is a lot of important work that goes on—creative worship experiences, thoughtful presentations about how to invite underserved people in our communities to our churches, passionate debates about social and moral challenges for our nation and the proper role of the church in those challenges. Missionaries giving reports of phenomenal work all around the world. There’s a new General Minister and President to elect. I have friends to see. From the deeply uplifting to the small and quirky, there will be a lot going on, and it’s all worth knowing about. Some of what will be there is sure to be great, and some may not be. Yet it is sure to be, as always, a remarkable window into the heart and life of our church, and of the way of being Christian that our denomination seeks to offer.

But ohhhhh, my friends, the gift shop. The glorious, glorious gift shop.

How utterly Congregationalist to let temptation itself lurk at the very door of the meeting. How Congregationalist that temptation should come in the form of books and baseball caps and t-shirts for causes of all kinds. That said, I know it is not them. It’s me.

The choice of whether or not to dive deeply into the experience or to stay at the edge of the pool is finally only mine to make.

Of course, none of us can choose what we’ll remember or what it is that we’ll one day come to regret. But in a world where it is so easy to collect badges of our experiences instead of actually having the experiences, we need to commit to new sights, new sounds, new places, and new friendships with renewed vigor.

May these weeks of summer be a time when all of us do just that. I look forward to telling you more about Synod when I get back.
See you in church,

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