ANNUAL “FERN SUNDAY”
By request, I am recounting the story of “FERN SUNDAY” (an unofficial observance of my own; the Sunday before Palm Sunday – this coming Sunday, in fact.)
First, I know this is ST. PATRICK’S DAY, but this is not a “ST. PATRICK’S DAY” story…it’s simply another “colorful” event I remember from my strange life; something to bring a smile and maybe provoke a thought or two during these weird times. It’s a story of rebellion, of “church politics” and the seed of tradition…and it is set during LENT.
When I was a Freshman and Sophomore in College I had my first actual “church job” that didn’t involve my home church. I was hired by a very wealthy congregation to be one of four section leader/soloists for their aging choir. This was the first congregation I belonged to that was not the church of my family, nor was it the denomination I had grown up with. It was a very enlightening (in a good way) experience for me, and my own formation as a Believer & Follower.
Being one of the few “young” people (read: anyone under 50) at this large and established congregation I gravitated to the other few who were close in age…one was another paid member of the choir, and one was his girlfriend who also attended. We would gather after worship and chat/mock/chill in the mammoth, two-story, parlor behind the chancel area.
This church building was beautiful. A former synagogue/temple, it had been “redeemed” as a Christian worship space with magnificent carvings, paintings, stained-glass windows, and an epic pipe organ. The choir sat in the back balcony with the organist, and so could observe everything. The worship was traditional to the extreme and well done, but a little stiff and stodgy. The people were older, much older, than us, but warm, gracious, and very, very thankful for any youngsters that were in attendance, so we always got lots of love and food.
The congregation eased into LENT, a church observance I had NEVER experienced, so I paid attention to every fascinating detail of the “traditional mainline protestant” observance.
First off, the sanctuary was always filled with the most impressively large floral decorations I had ever seen in a sanctuary. The first Sunday I sang in worship I had assumed there had been a wedding in the sanctuary the Saturday before, there was SO MUCH “flora” tucked into every conceivable place…but no, I quickly found out there was a “flower lady” who took great care each Saturday to deck the sanctuary like the Garden of Eden. She had a well-known floral shop and used her buying power to procure everything we saw. I honestly don’t know if she donated or charged the church, but I DO know she was a “force to be reckoned with” as she was in the choir, and also dictated which color stoles the choir wore on which Sunday. She appeared to be the “Martha Stewart” of the congregation.
In any case, LENT arrived, suddenly and shockingly. The sanctuary was stripped of greenery AND flowers. I stood amazed at how large the sanctuary actually was when there wasn’t a forest taking up much of the space. Dark purple decked the pulpit, the lectern, the windows, and the walls…but even with all of that, the place was “bare Lenten bones”.
The Flower Lady was not a fan of LENT. She complained, starting on Ash Wednesday, and continuing throughout the 40-day observance, about the “sad music”, the “dull sermons”, and especially the “lack of beauty” (read: “flowers”). The “youngsters” (me, and the other chosen few) for whom this congregation was new, appreciated the humor of her probably more than the saints who had been attending since the founding of America. So, when she wasn’t amused, they weren’t either.
It seems that finally, on the Sunday before PALM SUNDAY, she’d had it. We walked into the sanctuary (the choir was one of the first there each Sunday) to what looked like the bar at the local “Holiday Inn” (not that I ever was ever THERE, but I’d seen pictures): it was wood, brass and ferns, ferns, ferns…everywhere.
Yes, it seems, without permission, she had taken it upon herself to ease the congregation back into the woodland glade that was the usual setting for us in the sanctuary. The fact there were suddenly ferns in the sanctuary did not sit well with the Minister, the Board, or the other woman, who understood fully how LENT may be ruined for everyone if it wasn’t “plain and bare” up to PALM SUNDAY. It began what turned into a yearly struggle (so I’m told, since I moved to Seattle the next year…but kept in touch.)
Oh, I didn’t tell you another important fact…her name was, appropriately, “Fern”.
And so, for me at least, the Sunday before PALM SUNDAY has always been “FERN SUNDAY”. Here at CCC we have (well, I have) carried on that tradition and placed ferns out, to make sure we’re not all too shocked to worship on PALM SUNDAY when the palms are put out.
I don’t advocate stirring up trouble in church, especially by stamping on people’s traditions (unless moved to do so by the Spirit). I also don’t advocate one person’s tastes and traditions over the traditions and tastes of the “community” (unless you’re the Pastor, then you can do whatever you want…just kidding). But what amazes me most about this story is…that I’m telling it. We put out ferns each Sunday before PALM SUNDAY…and all because of a woman who wouldn’t remember me from Adam, if she is still alive, which I doubt. But here I am, changed, calling the Sunday before Palm Sunday “Fern Sunday” because of her, and something she did.
It reminds me of the power all of us have to affect the lives around us, for better or worse. Every word we say, every action we take, is heard and observed…and in some cases, is absorbed. Words are power, actions speak louder than words, and people are still the greatest influencers of other people.
Fern only impressed this great story on me, her actions and words are not something I aspire to…and, in a way, she taught me how NOT to speak or behave around others. But there are many other people whose words may have been fewer, and actions smaller) who have influenced me even more:
The sixth-grade kid who watched my fourth-grade play and told me I needed to be on stage…
…I remembered that.
The shoe salesmen who sold me my first pair of “big boy” shoes, and called me “tiger”…
…I remember that.
The first person who looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.”
And I will always remember the five people who greeted me that first Sunday I stepped through the doors of Central Christian Church in June of 2006.
The Spirit is changing the community of faith during this season, almost as if we were all in a cocoon. I, for one, believe we will emerge with a new appreciation of each other’s smile and voice. As we learn, during this time, what is truly important, I hope we hear the Scripture’s words about the effect we have on one another – through our words, our prayers, and our love.