Author’s note: Lutefisk (loo– ta – fisk, literally, “lye fish”) is a version of codfish that involves soaking the fish in a lye solution, followed by baking. The end result is a piece of fish that is white, almost translucent, jelled, wiggly, has a strong flavor and an even stronger scent. Most people – including me – find the smell, if the not the taste, repulsive.
American Scandinavians (mostly older ones) eat it, especially at Christmas, to feel traditional and nostalgic. Our immigrant ancestors ate it because they lacked refrigeration: the lye treatment enabled the fish to keep almost indefinitely, at least on the sidewalks of Duluth, Minnesota. Today it is almost unknown in the Scandinavian countries themselves – and for good reason. But American Norwegians and Swedes – who generally have a taste for bland, lightly spiced foods – find great joy in religiously enduring their lutefisk, at least once a year.
Some suspect that eating the stuff is viewed as an unofficial Lutheran sacrament for atoning for one’s sins. Others call it “The piece of cod that passeth all understanding.” That brings us to the parable.
They agreed that they should do it up properly. The main course would be the pungent lye-fish itself with no substitutes or cop-outs for the cowardly, like meatballs or cold-cuts. Just lutefisk. Lots of lutefisk. Mashed potatoes would be good, cabbage perhaps, and lefse (unleavened flatbread made from potatoes).
They also agreed that all the kids and grandkids would come. No excuses would be countenanced. All the kids and grandkids. This was special. This was sacred. After all, Ole and Lena were getting “up there.” Descendants who failed to show might miss their last opportunity to honor their father and their mother while they still lived and breathed and could eat lutefisk. This assumes – safely, I think – that there will be no lutefisk suppers in heaven.
To shorten my tale, I’ll just say that by October 14th the decree went out to 6 children, 23 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. No squirreling off to the Gentile (non-Scandinavian) in-laws would be tolerated. Not this year. Huh uh. No way.
By the end of October, the octogenarians were receiving protests:
“We’ll come mom and dad, but we’ll have to at least have some meatballs so there’ll be something we can eat.”
“Surely you remember mom that this is the year that we go to Stephanie’s parents for sushi.”
After another stern ultimatum from headquarters another round of protestations arrived:
“I trust you’ll understand if we bring some hotdogs or something for the kids.”
“Mom and dad, you surely know that your teenage grandkids aren’t going to show up for that!”
“We’ll bring a BIG meatloaf – in that blue roaster you gave us – so that there will be something the rest of us can actually eat!”
But Ole and Lena stood firm. It was tradition. It was important. It was sacred. It was inviolable.
Late November: “You will come and we will all ENJOY the lutefisk immensely, just like old times.” (That would be THEIR old times, not their kid’s or grandkid’s old times.)
Mid-December: “Sorry to hurt your feelings mom and dad, but this just isn’t going to happen. We’d rather do Chinese take-out and eat it in our SUV than to have to smell lutefisk all night.”
By the 20th of December, the resolute old Norwegian grandpa had set his face like a flint and his wife of 60 years was as uncompromising as her husband: “We’ll get thirty pounds of lutefisk, ten pounds of potatoes, sixty rounds of lefse, put up all the old decorations and hope for the best.” “They’ll show up,” insisted Lena, “I know they will. They don’t really want to miss this. They’re just being difficult because of their lousy spouses.”
As day quickly turned to evening and evening to deep darkness on Christmas eve, just a few days beyond the shortest day of the year, the old couple waited by the windows. Hopes fell with the falling snow. It was heartbreaking. Nobody showed. Nobody. Not even Glenn, their oldest and most obedient son. Not even Phoebe, their favorite granddaughter with little Bridget, their treasured great-granddaughter.
As much as I dislike lutefisk, it almost made me cry to write that.
Now of course, the parable isn’t about lutefisk, however parable-worthy you think the stuff is.
It’s about churches of course (since that’s my “thing”), and their traditions and their aging and their adaptation, or lack thereof, and especially, it’s about their music.
And I’m not talking about the music on Christmas Eve. That’s another story. Even the younger generations love the good old carols on Christmas Eve.
I’m talking about the rest of the year, when the older folks, who are usually manning and womaning the church boards, are making decisions. Far too many are not willing to adapt their churches – the way parents and grandparents lovingly, patiently, adapt themselves for the sake of their children and grandchildren, focusing, for instance, on the five main food groups of pizza, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, tacos and macaroni and cheese – whatever it takes to lure the young ones to their homes.
As much as I love older people – even older than me, that is – too many people, in too many churches would rather see their churches die than to adapt themselves to reach the young. “They can learn to love our music if they try.” “What’s the matter with them? It’s their duty to come to church!” “Those modern 7-11 songs – seven words repeated 11 times – aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”
It’s just plain sad. Even sadder, to tell the truth, than Ole and Lena sitting alone in their lutefisk fog on Christmas Eve.
Questions For Discussion:
- How does the average age of our congregation compare to the average age of our community?
- What is the average age of those who are making the decisions in our church?
- What demographic decade (20 somethings, 30 somethings, etc.) would feel most “at home” in our services?
- What age group is our music, service times, programing choices, etc. “geared for” at our church? Do we have first-rate children’s ministries and nurseries – the most important considerations for young families – at our church?
- What would a decorator say about our building? Does it “skew old” or would it appeal to a broad variety of persons?
- Are we a church that is willing to adapt itself, or would we rather die than change?