News & Insights

A guest post from Spirit Matters columnist Melinda R. Heppe.

A couple of months ago, my sister left me a message: “So, Hana isn’t going to her prom, and Yang is going to a formal?”

I laughed. Yup, that’s right.

Hana, my just-graduated middle child, is a fashionista. Should she ever decide to have a princess moment, with or without tiara, she will be perfectly content to do so on a Tuesday afternoon — no special occasion required. Hana is also a pragmatist who can think of better things to do with a few hundred dollars than blowing them in one evening.

Yang is 13 and just finished seventh grade. He is more an intellectual than a social butterfly, although he certainly has a crew of friends who roll through one another’s houses weekend by weekend. His school had their first formal a few weeks ago, for their own middle- and upper-school students — and nobody else. The promotional materials explicitly said not to spend a lot of money on new clothes, and the kids didn’t. They just stepped things up a bit, as befits maturing young people. He was pleased to report that he danced with a girl, but it wasn’t fraught.

So personalities and expectations were both in play here, and things could have worked out differently. When my eldest graduated three years ago, for example, she did the full prom event in a pink and white fairy princess number that made it very difficult to explain to her extended family in Ethiopia that she was not in fact married. She loved every minute of it.

I was only a little surprised that my sister found this worthy of comment, but I will admit that I rolled my eyes a little bit. The seven years between us — and personality factors as well — combined to make her very much a child of the ’50s, while I was more ’60s.

She attended at least one prom in each of her high school years. They took place in the gym, which was decorated by students. She sewed her own very elegant dress for each one.

I didn’t attend any high school proms, but she made me a beautiful lavender leg-o’-mutton-sleeved dress for my first college one. I put it on and danced the pogo all night long.

So what does “prom” mean? Any number of things, apparently. Is it a community-based coming-of-age ceremony, an event in which families pitch in to make memories? Or is it an exercise in conspicuous consumption with Hummer limos and $600 shoes?

For that matter, what do the meaningful rituals and ceremonies of our theological institutions really mean? They can also be affirming or fussy, community-building or over the top. Perhaps even all of these.

Meanings can slip while we’re not looking. Things that were once dear can become distorted, and the drift can be so gradual that no one notices for a long time.

I am grateful to the folks at Yang’s school who somehow came up with “not fraught” as a guiding principle for the formal. The fact that the school is just two years old helped, I’m sure — nobody could accuse them of tampering with history. But most theological schools are reinterpreting old traditions, old stories, and old texts for a new generation, which is much harder than creating new traditions and stories from scratch.

To be a guardian of a tradition requires paying attention. It requires understanding that the people around us experience significant events differently than we do, just as they hear our old stories with different ears — even read the Bible with different eyes. To be the guardian of a tradition requires determining how to uphold our values while making necessary changes. And it demands a willingness to put charity above all.

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