Blest Be the Ties That Bind

For almost 50 years, my parents have been attending a weekend retreat at the Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Camp and Conference Center on Labor Day weekend - every year, never missing. That is until this year.

I have been with them for the majority of those weekend retreats, growing up with friends from across Western Pennsylvania who would gather every year with their families for study and play. We have done this for so long that not only are there adults who I see each year who still tell me stories from my own infancy and childhood, but I am able to tell those same friends’ now adult children about my memories of their childhoods spent together at Family Camp.

As someone who didn’t grow up with a large extended family, these were our chosen family of aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents whom we loved and cared for year after year.

In this pandemic, it feels like we are faced with one grief after another, and the grief around the loss of traditions, of connections, and the interruption of continuity is certainly one of them. The routine of these kinds of shared traditions typically provide the consistency that helps us navigate all the other ups and downs of life.

For us, the group that gathers each Labor Day weekend has been where we have supported one another through births and deaths, health crises and vocational changes. It is where we have celebrated one another’s triumphs, and it has been a safe landing place when life has been unkind. We have held one another’s babies and held one another’s hands in the midst of the storm.

We have grieved this summer for the inability to make connections like this, and if you are like me, you are already anticipating the grief that will come with the impending fall and holiday season that will feel like no other.

In a recent book on the gift of hymns and the theological resources available to us through congregational singing, Walter Bruggemann has written compellingly about one of my favorite hymns that I think speaks to the connections we have with one another that we are especially missing and grieving their absence now and in the coming months.

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; 
the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. 

Before our Father's throne we pour our ardent prayers; 
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares. 

We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, 
and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. 

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

From sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin, we shall be free; 
and perfect love and friendship reign through all eternity. 

Bruggemann writes that “we sing this song because it testifies, celebrates, and summons us to a life together that is possible only because our common life is situated in the narrative of God’s sustaining, transformative love.”

We have been called apart in this moment from too many things, and that will likely be the case for several more months. But we continue to affirm that in spite of this we are still joined in heart with those we love, and in particular with those who we have been bound to through the gracious love of our God.