Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners


The Meaning of Tradition and Why Church Families Do Such Weird Stuff

An aerial view of where I should be right now (Shelter Island, New York). If you look closely you may be able to make out a couple of Sunfish braving ferry wakes, shifting wind patterns and their competing crews’ trash talk.

This week some of my now very large, sprawling extended family took part in its annual “Robb Regatta” off of Shelter Island, an island off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.  I regrettably couldn’t make it, but got to see some pictures.  And, it’s quite a show really.

The patriarch of our family, my granddad, whom we’ve affectionately dubbed “Admiral John,” began the annual tradition some twenty years ago now.  Small teams of two or three Robbs race out in Sunfish sailboats to a point somewhere in the Long Island Sound.  The bells and whistles involve (or have involved in previous years) an official weigh-in, to the great horror of the female members of our family- this, in an effort to achieve an exactingly fair distribution of weights in the various boats.  (The ritual almost single-handedly dissuaded a few of us aspiring female sailors from taking part when it first began.)  This process was in turn followed by some vying by teams for the female participants, whose lower weights promised a competitive advantage to the lucky boat that got them- with the result that this hardened sailor has spent many a regatta serving as a ballast while clinging to the bow, bailing out water and “preparing to come about” every ten minutes.

Then there are the hats and the T-shirts, inscribed with our names and “Kemah Yacht Club.” “Kemah” is a Native American word meaning “face into the wind.”  It is also the name of the historic sea captain’s house that my great grandfather bought in the 1930’s, which by now has seen many a Robb family reunion.

Following the race, there used to be an admiralty court at which competing interpretations of who won and who should be disqualified were argued before a presiding judge.  (An inevitability, I suppose, when there are so many lawyers in the family- or lawyers, period.)

Winners of the race usually would find their names and the year of the “Robb Regatta” inscribed on a dust-covered plaque on a mantle in the living room sometime before the next summer’s regatta, and before the letter of summons appeared in our mailbox, sent out by Admiral John with the dates of the next race and the highlights from the year before.

I remember my husband’s first initiation into this rather intimidating process when he and I were first dating.  He bravely endured the secret family vetting process. And the ribbing.  And the competitive bravado surrounding this admittedly “WASP” (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant) recreation of sailing.  (I would guess that Sunfish qualify as the “redneck” version of yachting, however.)  Somehow Paul survived, despite being conscripted rather reluctantly to serve as the dead-weight handicap for the team with the biggest competitive edge.

All in good fun, of course.

Remembering these moments this morning has me thinking about the importance of tradition- about why we as families of faith do certain things over and over again through the years.  It is not just because we are creatures of habit, although I suppose we very much need habits, too, to form us.  It is more fundamentally, I think, a matter of identity and belonging.  We remind ourselves about where we come from and who we are- in my case, that “competition” is a bit in the bones of what it means to be a Robb.  (And my husband will be the first to tell you I have an often irrepressible competitive streak.)

Baptism and Communion are ways to tell a story about ourselves that we can learn by heart.  In the waters of baptism and in the wine and the bread we are made new creations in Christ and nourished by Christ’s freely given love offering for us and for the whole world.  In these acts we remind ourselves and one another who we really are (as divinely loved and broken people) and that we belong to God and to God’s love affair with the world.  In this sense, to the degree that these traditions identify us and help us find belonging in an often intimidating and cruel world, I suppose we’re not unlike a family of amateur sailors pointing their little boats into the sea, their faces into the wind.

Got a family tradition that you’d like to share? Leave it below and I’ll republish it!



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