Many Paths to the Center

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“Many Paths to the Center #1” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams, c. 2013

“Many paths to the center” is both a spiritual and a political statement. So much of our world has been shaped by dichotomy thinking: it is either this or that, my way or your way, right or wrong, religious or secular, sacred or profane, black or white. It seems to me that kind of world view leads only to frustration because it is a gross over-simplification of the way the world operates. Many paths to the center acknowledges that in this complex and multi-faceted universe (or multiverse as we are discovering) there is no one way to enlightenment, no singular truth that any of us human beings can fully grasp. We journey together toward what we sense as our wholeness, and there are many paths to the center.

Artists seem to sense this better than theologians. Throughout the history of art, there have always been concurrent and sometimes vastly different schools of style and approach. And, yes, members of one school may have been self-righteous and even fundamentalist about their particular method. Nonetheless, it seems that there was always a recognition that there was more art in the world than what this artist or that created. And art itself is a recognition—however ephemeral—that there is more in this world than we can see or feel.

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“Many Paths to the Center #6” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams c. 2013

This is part of why at Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ (the community to which I belong and of which I am the pastor) we created a vision statement that says we are “a community of Artistic, Revolutionary, and Evolutionary Christians.” To be artistic is more than just mere creativity: it is an attempt to create beauty or meaning. Being revolutionary is an embrace of change, and a commitment to an ongoing egalitarian reordering of our world. Saying that we are evolutionary means that we are constantly becoming, becoming more human and in a nod to the last desciber, more Christ-like. And we want to positively redefine what it means to be Christians: open-minded and open-hearted followers of the way of Jesus. It is out of this artistic, revolutionary, and evolutionary approach that we are creating the Urban Abbey.

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“Many Paths to the Center #3” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams c. 2013

It was under the influence of the convergence of these thoughts and dreams that I created a series of paintings. They grew out of a period pondering paths one can discover if you are looking for them. Beginning with a fascination for all things Celtic, and the triskele in particular, I started playing with connected spirals. For me, it most often ended with four spirals because with the Urban Abbey we are trying to create a new kind of spiritual community and we started talking about the paths that would help that come about. Eventually we named four: hospitality, self-knowledge, engaging the world, and worship. The center we are seeking is healthy, vibrant community. We know that these are by no means a definitive or an exhaustive list, but they are a beginning. These are the paths that we choose as our starting point. And there are many paths to the center.


A Wild Goose Kind of Guy

The most interesting person I met at the Wild Goose Festival was not connected with the festival. We had taken advantage of some free time to explore Hot Springs. Set up in a vacant lot on the main street was Jim Hickey and his art. Colorful pieces of found wood were displayed on portable tables. They were hand painted with bright colors and fascinating designs. Closer examination revealed writing on each piece. Often the writing started on one side of the object and snaked around to the other. Some were philosophical saying, others romantic musings, and still others hopeful dreams of a better world. But the best part was Jim himself. He took absolute delight in telling us where he found the pieces of wood, lying by a stream, stuck in the mud, or hanging from an overhead branch. His wife would outline the images and Jim would carve the words and paint the colors. And he could recite all the things he had written, without looking at the words. He knew them and he loves them. Jim Hickey loves sharing is view of the world and his art with you, whether or not you buy it!
I realized that though Jim was not a part of wild Goose, in his own way he embodied the best of Wild Goose. He intrinsically knows that the world is a good place, a place where beauty and joy lie hidden in the mud or lying on the bank. And he takes immeasurable joy in sharing what he has found. Each of us came to Wild Goose looking for ways to celebrate the Spirit that we know in our own ways. We know that despite the pain and dirt and confusion of it all that we live in a world of beauty and joy. We came together to share the art of the Goose herself expressed in the wildly diverse people she has gathered together.
That’s one of the things I want to keep alive from my Wild Goose experience: not only celebrating the sheer joy that life is supposed to be, but also the joy in sharing that realization. In a society that seems to revel in the garbage and mire of life, it is important good news that despite all evidence to the contrary, we really do live in a world of beauty and joy. Like Jim, I think that is part of why I make art: to keep creating evidence of beauty and joy and hope.
And that is what I dream for the Urban Abbey: that it can be a place where we share with each other the delight of lining in a world of beauty and joy. And that those who have lost their vision for anything but the wounds and anger and degradation of the world can glimpse from us the beauty and joy that can be created from a simple twig rescued from the mud. Thank you, Jim Hickey, for your art, your joy, and delight in sharing it!


I Remember Why

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Thanks to Scott Griessel (creatista.com)
for the Wild Goose photo!

Those of you who know me already understand that I do not blend well in my chosen profession. I don’t mind suits, but prefer comfortable shirts and jeans. I am mystified by the necktie. I just don’t get purpose of it other than as a target for food falling from the fork. And I will never be mistaken for a banker.

And in fact it is that mismatch that first led me into ministry. I had a clear sense that if there was room for somebody like me in the church, then maybe there would be others who would see that there was also room for them. While I have by and large experienced that there has been room for someone like me, it has not often been unconditional room. More than once I have been offered tentative acceptance, accompanied with the message that the acceptance would be heartier if my hair were shorter or if my beard were trimmed or if for some reason I would just wear a damn necktie. And through the years I have seen churches who proclaim their desire for younger people in their midst, but too often they wanted younger people who love organ music, old hymns, long sermons, and Sunday dress-ups. In other words, if those younger people would change who they were, they would be truly welcome.

                So I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when the very first words spoken at The Wild Goose Festival were “Welcome home.” I steeled myself for the coming “but.” Welcome home, but you should really change this or that about yourself to truly fit in. But there was no but there. In fact, The Wild Goose Festival was one of the few times, especially for religious or spiritual gatherings, where I blended in! There you could see hair of every length on every gender, and beards from the most meticulous hipster style to the grandest, bushiest Duck Dynasty masterpiece. And I found myself comfortably in the middle of everything. Wild Goose was indeed the kind of home that the church has not been very good at creating. If I had a sense that there was room in Christ’s family for people like me, they found their way to Wild Goose.

                And that welcome is the one thing I really want to bring back from Wild Goose. I want to create a community where you can bring your doubts and hard questions and questionable language or dress and find your place at the table. The festival reminded why I got into this game in the first place, and it is past time to make it happen. The United Church of Christ says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” The Goose is challenging us to make good on that claim.


The Wild Goose has Flown

ImageA friend asked me what I expected from the Wild Goose Festival. This was my first time attending Wild goose and I didn’t really know what to expect. Inspiration, fun, ideas, encouragement, like minds; all this and more. But really, my first answer was connections. I wanted to connect.

I have always been an introvert but it seems that as my eyes grow weaker, my “I’s” (in the Myers-Briggs sense of that term) have been getting stronger. So I knew that this expectation of Wild Goose was going to be a challenge for me. But I was determined to seek out new connections.

We had decided to make a journey of this trip so we drove from Scottsdale across the country to North Carolina. All the way there I was thinking about how to approach these new people and strike up conversations. The long drive was good for my introvert introspections. We finally arrived, found our parking spot and crossed the street into the festival grounds. I was excited for the festivities and terrified by the prospect of two thousand people I didn’t know.

I was delighted to discover that besides being there to hear music and dance and to interact with experts like Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren, most of the participants there were also eager to meet and share the common experience of the Wild Goose Festival. Whereas striking up a random conversation in a coffee house usually proceeds rather cautiously, each making sure that the other is neither selling something nor a deranged lunatic seeking to kidnap you, interactions at Wild Goose seem to begin with the presumption that we are all friends and more or less are all there for the same reasons. In other words, just by being there we started on common ground.

I met a young man in graduate school for religious studies, another in Ph. D. program for writing, a videographer, more than one artist; people from the Carolinas, Georgia, New York, and even South Africa. Not everyone was on the same page theologically or religiously or politically but everybody was willing to engage in conversations about more than the weather (yes, it did rain a lot!). We were all there to talk about things that matter, to share where our lives offered us joy and meaning, to find far-flung friends. Somehow the story or person of Jesus brought these far-flung people together, though they tell the story in many different ways and know the person of Jesus in as rich a variety as the people themselves. It was truly a festival celebrating the joyous Spirit who was winging her way through her beloved family.


Wild Goose Day 2: A Good Frustration

               Image I have to admit that I was a little frustrated at Wild Goose today. I have brought with me both watercolors and paper, and my Ipad on which I have at least 2 art-making apps. Usually when I attend events I have plenty of time sitting and listening to lectures to do art. I rarely take notes but I paint, either physically or virtually. It’s my way of processing what is going on around me. But the Goose has kept me so busy going to this event and that presentation that I have had a difficult time sitting in one place and painting. It’s not that I’m not inspired. There is plenty of inspiration floating around the site.

                Some of this situation is caused by my pushing myself out of my introvert shell. I’ve met and talked and laughed with a number of new friends. One is a graduate student in religious studies, on a Ph. D. candidate in some writing field. Another is an artist (go figure). Then there’s the guy who is tripping out on this evening’s musician who used to play for a Christian rock band Daniel Amos. I got sucked into that conversation because I remember that band from my college days. But we laughed and got nostalgic, and felt old and young both. This has been one of the best parts of the day.

                Another highlight was a talk delivered by Nadia Bolz-Weber, entitled, “Screw the Platitudes, Just Say the Truth.” I have been aware of Nadia, but this was the first time I’ve heard her speak. There was nothing spectacular about her delivery, standing by a podium with notes to keep her on track. But what she said was not just significant but penetrating. Her title was perfect. She called us to speak the truth, the hard truths, the deep truths that make us groan and weep (and maybe laugh, too). She wasn’t telling us to speak some objective Truth with a capital “T.” Rather speak the truth we experience and embody, embody with the same bodies that the gospel was embodied in Christ. The same bodies that get broken and destroyed in places like Aurora and Newtown and Miami.

                I was during Nadia’s time that I made my only painting of the day. I created it with Artrage on my first generation Ipad. I don’t really have a title for it yet. The colors are dark, like the deep rumblings that are happening within me as I continue to experience the challenge and the call of the Wild Goose. Somewhere in it is the truth I need to speak. Or maybe it, the artwork, is itself the truth I already sense and is yearning to break forth. Thanks, Wild Goose.


The Wild Goose’s First Lesson

Image                I’ve never been one who finds it easy to follow the rules. Pretty much any rules but especially church rules. I’m a preacher’s kid but my dad was not one who laid religion on too heavy. I do remember one Sunday, though, when for some reason we had a lay speaker who was preaching on the correct way to pray. He instructed that the proper way to pray was to go into your bedroom ad close the door. Then kneel, really: get down on both knees by your bed. Clasp your hands and put them on the bed in front of you in a semblance of the pose of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Close your eyes tightly. Then pray these words… I don’t remember the words I was supposed to pray because I quit listening at that point. I just knew that even at age eight or ten or whatever I was that I did not experience God in that way. It might have worked for that guy, but not for me.

                Fast forward quite a few years. I had discovered the paintings of Mark Rothko in college. In art history classes I saw pictures of his paintings in text books and in slide lectures. I found them compelling and breath-taking. A few years after college I got to visit the National Gallery in D.C. After wandering through the hallways of Old Masters I found my way to the new wing, the building designed by I. M. Pei. Rounding a corner I entered a room that was filled only with the paintings of Mark Rothko. I was reminded that Rothko was for me absolutely breath-taking. Literally. I had to sit on the bench in the center of the room until I could breathe again. The friends I was with (not particularly fans of abstract expressionism) didn’t know what was up. But I was gripped by the energy and presence of the paintings.

                I am attending the Wild Goose Festival this week. We’ve only had the first evening and things are still cranking up. But we’ve already had a variety of musicians play, and I’ve spent some time with a friend who is curating “The Imaginarium,” a micro gallery. I attended an episode of “Darkwood Brew Live,” featuring Eric Elnes and Frank Schaeffer talking about Convergence Christianity. And I was reminded of something. Something that ties these three paragraphs together. I remembered that I experience the holy aesthetically.

                While I have some experience with contemplative silence I knew from that early age that I would not experience God by following that speaker’s strict rules of prayer. I experienced the National Gallery as a place of mystical, spiritual presence. And now at Wild Goose the Spirit swoops in taking the forms of music and art.

                I hope that one of the foci I bring to spirituality and religion is the encouragement to discover and reclaim the ways that each of us apprehend the Holy. Or better yet, the ways each of us are apprehended by the Holy. And to be a constant reminder that beauty and holiness are kissing cousins. The ancient abbeys created unmatched beauty in illuminated manuscript and icon and frontispiece and vestments and altars. I see the Urban Abbey as a way and a place to reconnect this devotion to beauty and holiness. Art reminds us that the world is at its core a place of beauty, and that beauty reminds us that since its very beginning The Spirit loves the deep, complicated beauty of this world and all of us in it. Image


Butts and Bills: Changing the Metric System

ImageNote: I did NOT say changing TO the metric system! This is not about arguing the virtues of centimeter and deciliters over the arcane English distances and amounts. I already have a functioning grasp of using the other side of the ruler.  I know how to calculate area and circumference. What I am no longer as clear about is how to measure ministry.

A number of years ago I was confronted with the reality that I struggle to connect with adolescents (I know this comes as a surprise to all those people who continue to describe me as being rather adolescent!). I was leading a Confirmation Camp, who purpose was to engage young teens in the spiritual questions of life. It was at best a miserable week. I had one young man who was a consummate bully and I had to pull him out of the community in order to assure that he did not ruin the experience for those he selected as victims. That was just the largest example of a series of mishaps and disappointments that clouded that week for me. I couldn’t see how any participant could have survived that week and come away with anything like a holy or spiritual experience.

Years later I was back at that same camp, having coffee with that summer’s staff. I told this story of the most miserable week of camp I ever had when one of the counselors looked at me with disbelief. She said, “I was at that camp and it changed my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that week!” Obviously the metrics I was using did not measure everything that occurred in that week long ago.

This comes to mind because I think a lot of churches are using the wrong metrics. We count people in the pews, and dollars in the plates or on the pledge cards. We count it as success when one or both increase and use it to diagnose malady when they don’t. I think the accusation of the non-churchers is accurate when they say we are obsessed with numbers.

Instead of filling seats and meeting budgets, what if we measured our attempts at fulfilling our purpose? How have we offered to our culture a positive alternative Christian spirituality? How have we embodied the radical hospitality of Christ for our neighbors? When did we seek a deep understanding of our spiritual neighbors of other faith traditions? Who (besides ourselves) have we engaged in conversations of meaning and hope?

These metrics are less quantifiable than butts in pews or bills in baskets. Nonetheless, I think as we seek to go boldly onward through the fog they are far more important. Butts and bills are about maintenance. How and When and Who are about being faithful to our calling: why are we here as a community and how are we living that out? We desperately need to change the metric system.