Monthly Archives: April 2013

Real, Deep, and Ordinary Hospitality

I recognized the older gentleman when he walked into the coffee shop. He smiled warmly and greeted a number of people in the shop. I hadn’t met him, but I knew who he was and I wondered if he was for real. I worked up the courage to walk over and introduce myself ( I am by nature an introvert and meeting new people is hard for me, much less meeting someone like this).

This man was legend in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was living. His story was one that said that we human beings can make actual, real choices to make the world better. Years before I met him, this man began receiving threatening phone calls: menacing, vile, and unrelenting. This man was at the time the cantor of one of the local synagogues. The caller was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. But instead of returning hate for hate, this man began returning love. For every call of hate, he returned on of love. He was just as unrelenting as his adversary. Eventually, almost miraculously, it got through. The menacing caller was not well, physically or emotionally. One time he called and did not threaten, he asked. He asked, how can you keep saying you love me when all I’ve ever done is threaten you?

This man in the coffee shop did more than just make compassionate phone calls. The caller recanted his devotion to the KKK. Because of his failing health he lost his place to live. He had no family, no friends, and now was alienated from a group not known for their tolerance of defectors. So this gentleman I wanted to meet (and his wife, it should be said) invited this other man whose whole life had been steeped in hatred, they invited him into their home. They loved him and introduced him to a whole new way of living, which he followed until he died.

That was the story I knew, and so I wanted to know the man. Could he be real? He was very real, and not in any larger-than-life sense. He was as human and flawed, and searching in life as any of us, as I was. But that is what makes all the more compelling for me. This flawed, genuine man offered someone who hated him love instead of hate. It gives me no excuse that I can’t do this. It is not the extraordinary humans who change the world. It is the ordinary ones.

This man’s name is Michael Weisser, and a book was written about his experience (“Not By the Sword” by Kathryn Watterson, Northeastern Press, 1995). I learned that Michael is gentle man for whom love is an ordinary, everyday way of living. He welcomed me and my wife into his circle of friendship and we are both grateful for that.

Saint Benedict said that hospitality is welcoming everyone as if they were Christ. Michael would use different words, but he is one of the best practitioners of hospitality I have met. Someone has asked me how we learn to be hospitable in this violent, hateful world. I only have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that it is an exercise of trust: trusting that deep down the world is a good place and somehow or another God’s love (of whatever brand or denomination) will be there for us. The other is simply this: just do it. Make the choice that today I will not hate, I will not let fear determine my actions. Hospitality is not superhuman. It is the best of human.


Christianity Under Construction

                ImageFirst of all, there never was one, monolithic Christianity that everybody agreed to and was a part of. Never. Since the beginning, even when Jesus’ feet were on the ground the sound of his teaching was pushing air molecules around, people disagreed on things like meaning and practice and identity. There have been times when diverse expressions of Christianity were better at working together and not killing each other just as there have been plenty of times when we have been terrible (in every sense of that word).

                So, when somebody says something like “That’s not Christian,” the appropriate response may be “according to who? (or whom, since we can’t even agree on grammar!)” Recognizing that there is not some objective or universal standard that defines Christianity puts the onus on every group of Christians to be very clear about who they are.

                Which is why one of the foundations of the Urban Abbey is “Our Christianity.” By this we do not mean defining our own style of Christianity that is true and pure and judges all others. We do mean that we make the effort to understand as deeply and best we can our own history and traditions, particularly as a member of a global family of spiritual paths, faiths, and expressions. Then we make the creative and formative choices to become the kind of Christians that is true to our own lives and understandings.

                At Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ (the home for the Urban Abbey) we say that we “An Artistic, Revolutionary, and Evolutionary community of Christians.” To be artistic is to claim the ability to create and to claim the invitation from God to co-create in all we do. That means theology, too. To be revolutionary is to embrace and initiate change. Claiming that we are evolutionary sees that we live in a universe that is constantly growing, changing, and adapting. The process of evolution challenges us that we never get there, it is an ongoing response to the realities of life. To me, that sounds like a compelling definition for what theology is or ought to be.

                My hope for the Urban Abbey is that we can undertake a deep reconstruction for ourselves of what we understand Christianity to be as an evolution of faith, and offer to our culture an alternative to narrow definitions and judgmental paradigms. I hope that we can create a table that has room for all Earth’s spiritual families. We can no longer simply inherit our faith from our ancestors. The Urban Abbey is a safe and scared place to make it your own.

Who Will We Love?

logo splats 2So, Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ is, well, a church. It has existed for more than 50 years. In those 50 plus years it has excelled at meeting each generation’s challenges head on. The Urban Abbey is our way of facing the current generation’s challenges.

One of the spokes of emphasis in the Urban Abbey is our Outward Mission. Seeking an outward mission is the simple recognition that our calling actually exists outside of our walls. God exists and moves and acts in the whole world all of the time, not just the few hours at church when we have meetings or worship services. If we really want to know God, then we need to get to know the people that God spends the most time with: real people in the real world (which is why the fundamental principle of hospitality is that we greet every stranger as though they are Christ).

Finding that outward mission is a daunting challenge: what is the big thing that calls us? What is one direction that can unite us a faith community? We would love to find a project that we can send a hundred people out to accomplish. But we want to do more than just doing good. We have stated that one of the foundations of this mission we seek is to find people that we can look in the eye. Another way I’ve put it is that we are looking for people that we can fall in love with. And finding one place that can accommodate our whole congregation is almost impossible to imagine. Nonetheless, it should be one direction that we can all put our energy and our hearts into.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ heart-driven mission is to proclaim that the Kin-dom of God is at hand. To accomplish this, he gathers a group of followers around him. He invites them to join him in this mission, and joining him he sends them out to attempt it on their own. But he doesn’t send them out in groups of twelve. He sends them out by twos. And instead of equipping them with the latest technology and a full wallet of resources, he sends them out empty-handed and barely clothed. Even so, they accomplish astounding things. This is even more astounding when you realize that in the verses just prior to sending them out Jesus himself was unable to do much of anything.

So before we paint ourselves into the corner of being unable to find the perfect Outward Mission, Jesus’ example beckons us to consider a couple of things. Jesus wasn’t concerned that his disciples had enough resources or numbers. He just sent them. They all went out on the same mission, but not all together. Jesus sent them out to continue the mission that was the passion of his own heart. As we seek to find relevant ways of following Christ in the 21st Century, our mission will likely also be following in the passion of our own hearts, united as we seek to continue Christ’s. The question is not what do we want to accomplish as much as it is who do we want to love?

What the hell is an Urban Abbey?

ImagePeople keep asking me “What is the Urban Abbey?” so maybe this is where I should have started.

1. The Urban Abbey is a response to our changing society. More and more people are finding the traditional ways of being and doing church irrelevant to their lives and concerns. Research, poll, and anecdote all indicate that people, while having an abiding interest or hunger for things spiritual, have little time for organized religion and its ways of relating to God or each other. The vitriol the Church has spewed upon those who disagree with its doctrine or interpretation, most obviously seen in regard to homosexuality, has been license enough for many people to resign the church’s agenda. I know that not all churches and certainly not all Christians suffer from anger or narrow-mindedness, but we get painted with the broad brush of public opinion nonetheless. The reality is that fewer and fewer people care about “church.” And if we admit that this is our current situation, what do we have to offer our society that will be valued and meaningful? The Urban Abbey is a way to begin to dream up answers to that question.

2. The Urban Abbey is a concept. I don’t think that the Urban Abbey will ever require bricks and mortar. It is an idea that attempts to reclaim the best values and virtues of the abbeys of the middle ages: a devotion to God and each other, and a commitment to living hospitably in the midst of a violent and fearful world. The challenge is to discover how to reinterpret those values for a contemporary and uncloistered community.  But the concept of Urban Abbey is to live in the midst of our fearful and violent world and try to transform that fear and anger by offering compassion and hope. The idea is that we change ourselves first. We must embrace and live by those ancient principles first: those are the foundation stones of the Urban Abbey.

3. The Urban Abbey is a community. We seem to live in age that despite having more means of communication than ever before we are experiencing more isolation than ever before. I believe we are longing for ways of connecting with each other, supporting one another in our quests for meaning and depth, and upholding each other as we attempt to live the counter-cultural ideas of welcoming everyone as a treasured guest and Christ-bearer and creating a safe and sacred place to ask deep questions, explore creative expressions, and seek meaningful ways of connecting our spiritual and everyday lives. The Urban Abbey is a community that values the kind of hospitality that transforms its members and bit by bit the world in which it is situated. It is a remedy for the desiccating isolation and powerlessness that we as individuals experience. It is the community in which we find the presence of God.

So, that is what the Urban Abbey is at this point: a response, a concept, and the hope of a community to be.

Hospitality: the Foundation of the Urban Abbey

ImageHospitality is the heart of the Urban Abbey. Not your everyday, greet you at the door with a big smile kind of hospitality. I mean the kind of hospitality that lets you know you have come home even if you’ve never been there before, even if you’ve never experienced home as a good place before. You know that YOU are welcomed, through and through, that the world is a better place because you are there sort of welcome. Not the “we’re glad you’re here but we wished you would have worn a tie” kind of welcome. Urban Abbey hospitality is the kind that looks you in the eye and sighs, “God, it is good you are here.”

Popular religion has been built upon a consumer mentality. People shop for churches like they shop for cars or coffee shops. We are conditioned to consider what we get out of it: a warm greeting, a good message (whatever that means), a nice place for the kids to play. Being a part of the Urban Abbey asks us to turn that value on its head. Deep hospitality is not about what experience we might receive. Hospitality has us asking, “how can I serve you, what can I give to this other person?” It asks us to think of somebody else first, to be open to their needs, their feelings, their deepest questions.

Hospitality is not an industry, regardless of what the career counselors say. It is not something we do because eventually we will get paid for it. Too many churches talk about hospitality in this way: “if we learn to be friendly at the door, to smile warmly offer a free gift to visitors then maybe we’ll get more members.” That’s not hospitality. It is bribery and lots of folks can smell it a mile away. It’s still essentially concerned about us, not them.

Some scholars who study early Christianity say that is was deep hospitality that helped them grow. There is a lot of evidence that says the early movement was a not a wealthy one. Jesus’ message seemed to particularly attract those who were already struggling in life.  It was a movement of predominantly poor people. Yet those looking in from the outside noticed that no matter how poor any of them was, not one was going without. They took care of each other, deeply, lovingly, and generously. They might be poor in the real world, but they were rich in Christ’s world.

So our first step in creating an Urban Abbey is a step away from the question, “what will I get out of this?” and a step toward “What can I offer someone else to make this a better world.” As I’m writing this, the news outlets are filled with scraps of updates coming out of Boston. This has been a week of heightened fear, suspicion, and anger. It is exactly this kind of world that needs places and people that are safe and sacred. It is a foundation-shaking challenge to live deeply hospitably in this kind of world. But I also believe it is one of the only ways that the world will change: one deep welcome at a time.

Why an Urban Abbey?

UA logo 2              We live in turbulent times. It seems like the world is no longer a safe place for intellectual pursuits, for artistic exploration, for asking deep questions of theology or philosophy. Every day offers too many examples that our day and age is dangerous to body and soul.

The times of the Middle Ages were every bit as dangerous. In those days, people sought refuge in the abbeys. There the brothers and sisters of those communities welcomed people weary of the perils of the world with a radical hospitality that greeted them as cherished family.  The abbey was the place that guarded the important books, the thinkers and artists, even offering women an alternative to their limited roles in society.

Our Urban Abbey will not hide behind thick walls; instead we are seeking to create a safe and sacred community reintroducing the idea of a deep hospitality into our dangerous world. We will not be monks sequestered away from the world, but we will be intentional in our commitment to each other and to making the world a more peaceful, compassionate place. We seek to create something new for those who are hungry for a spiritual community because we know that many people find their souls are not nurtured by conventional religion.

We are going to begin to create this Urban Abbey by focusing our efforts in these areas:

  • Hospitality that greets each person as they are, where they are, as Christ to us
  • Ongoing exploration of who we are as Christians in a rich and diverse world
  • Following Christ into the world to serve and enter into a relationship with people with whom we can see face to face
  • Worship that invites a real world encounter with a Still-Speaking God

We are an artistic, revolutionary, and evolutionary spiritual community whose activity, voice, and vision take place outside of our walls and in the world. We encourage and celebrate creative and daring expressions of faith and theology as we continue to grow in the Spirit and community of Christ in this day and age.

We don’t know exactly what the Urban Abbey will look like as it develops. We want to follow the Spirit wherever she leads us. Maybe you are looking for a safe and sacred space to be exactly who you are and to follow the deep questions of your heart. We hope the Urban Abbey can be such a place.