Monthly Archives: May 2013

Trusting the Universe

  Image              My dad used to tell me stories of his college days when he hitchhiked from North Dakota to Indiana where he went to school. He met lots of people and had adventures (pretty mild by some standards), and only once had any trouble. One truck driver pulled a gun out after Dad had hopped in, but it was just to establish the situation. The trucker had been mugged by another hitchhiker recently and he didn’t want it to happen again, but he also did not want to stop picking up riders! By the time I was in college, those halcyon days were gone. In the early 1980’s hitchhiking was no longer a safe way to travel the country, in fact it was deemed dangerous.  Somehow one of the lessons we learned in the 20th Century was that we could no longer trust strangers.

                A couple of months ago I got to introduce my friends Christy and Aodh Og to my family at Scottsdale Congregational UCC. Professionally, this pair goes by the name “Four Shillings Short”  (http://4shillingsshort.com/bio.html) and they are world class musicians. They also describe themselves as gypsies. They travel around the country in their van, receiving the hospitality of strangers. Sometimes they stay with people they know, at least a little bit, like my spouse and me. Often, though, all they know about their hosts is a comment on their email sign-up page that says “room available.” Christy  and Aodh Og still live off of the hospitality often of strangers.

                When I asked them about staying with strangers, they talked quite eloquently about learning to trust the universe. They not only believe that if you put positive energy out into the universe it will bring it back to you, they live it out every day. They challenge the assumptions of our culture about mistrust and fear.  In fact, when Aodh Og broke his leg recently, this ad hoc community of fans and practically strangers (connected across the country via email) responding with real compassion and generosity. Thousands of dollars came in for the hospital bills, from people who really knew nothing of Four Shillings Short except their music and maybe a brief conversation at a concert. In their perspective, the universe cared for them and provided for them. The kindness and love of people, even strangers, was the way the universe accomplished this. Even as I write this, I feel the shutters of my mind and heart closing down and the question rising up, “Really?” Does life really function this way?

                And yet here is extensive if anecdotal evidence that it does. And the Urban Abbey (and its foundation on the path of Hospitality) places its belief that this is the way God wants the universe to work. We will operate by belief until we have clear and convincing evidence otherwise and likely for a good while even after that. Because if the world doesn’t work that way, maybe we can help it change. Just a little bit.

                In what situation might you be willing to trust the benevolence of the universe? How might you try that?


The Deep Woods of Community

Image                When I was in fourth grade, I had a very detailed fantasy of living in the wilderness all by myself. I watched “My Side of the Mountain.” I read every book in the Rickard Elementary School library about camping and survival lore. I was an active cub scout. Now I realize I grew up in North Dakota and had never even seen a real forest, but I had plans to walk deep into the woods, construct my shelter, and live off my wits and skill. Except on Saturday, because there were cartoons to watch.

Part of this fantasy, I now believe, was a reaction to not being a particularly popular kid. I figured I didn’t need friends. Living like Grizzly Adams, I wouldn’t need anybody. And nobody was cooler than a gritty, self-reliant mountain man (remember the North Dakota perspective again).

While wood-lore has lost its luster, I believe our culture still preaches the gospel of self-reliance. More than ever, we are given the message that strong, healthy people don’t need anybody else. The warnings about strangers and foreigners entice us to stay behind locked doors. We tend to avoid any conversations of real substance like the plague. We are a lonely culture longing for something better.

What we are trying to create with the Urban Abbey is community, an attempt to address the essential loneliness we all face. We specifically want to create a safe and sacred community: a place (geographical, virtual, however it will happen) where it is safe to be exactly who you are, safe to ask the deep questions about life and meaning and doubt, and sacred enough to help each other connect with that something that is larger than any of us that seems to call to us and draw us out.

So, I hope you can help me explore this idea of community. I can’t do it all by myself out in the middle of the woods (which I still haven’t really figured out where they are). Share with me your thoughts about these couple questions:

  1. What would real community look like for you? By which I mean the kind of community that supports you, feeds, you, and challenges you to grow?
  2. Where do you find community?
  3. How do we start to create this kind of community?

I hope it is not in the deep woods. I hope we can create community and find here in Arizona, across the mysterious tubes of the internet, or wherever and whenever we find it valuable.


Being Known for What We Do

I am fascinated by how many names (at least European names) originate with the activity of their bearers: Baker, Chandler, Fletcher, Walker, Carter, Teller, Weaver and so on. And in many ways we continue to be known by what we do, even if we do not bear the names that say so. I am hoping that we who form the Urban Abbey will indeed by known by what we do. So, what is it that we will do that we will be known by? Time for a PSA.

There are three primary paths that weave together into the Urban Abbey: Hospitality, Our Christianity, and Outward Mission. It is along these paths that we will find our PSA.

P.   Hospitality is more than just being nice to a stranger (or even to somebody you already know). It is much more than a technique of greeting someone at the door. It is a damn sight more than an industry of hotels and restaurants. The kind of hospitality that is the foundation of the Urban Abbey is a spiritual practice: it is a discipline that when practiced changes us, opens us to the ability to love even our enemies. It is a practice that can change the world by offering an alternative to hate, fear, and intolerance.  Hospitality is a life changing “P”ractice.

S.   Our Christianity will be a thoroughgoing exploration of our own tradition, as well as considering a global family of spiritual expressions and our place among them. Our Christianity will engage the intellectual aspects of our being. It will mean study, becoming students of our own writers, thinkers, pray-ers, and pupils of the great philosophers and theologians of the world’s religions. Our Christianity is an intensive and spiritual course of  “S”tudy.

A.   Outward Mission takes our other two paths and twines them together and puts them into action. We take our growing love for the stranger and the other and combine it with our evolving understanding of who we are as followers of Christ. This will move us out into the world and into action. We have set ourselves a goal of finding people that we can look in the eye, people that we can fall in love with that we can fall in love with, learn from, and build a relationship of mutuality and grace. Outward Mission will put us into “A”ction.

These are ambitious goals, ambitious directions. But we don’t want the Urban Abbey to be business as usual. We see this as an experiment embracing the evolution of faith and spirituality that can respond to the changes in our culture and society. This “PSA” of Practice, Study, and Action will be first self-transformative, and hopefully then begin a process of making a positive difference in our world.


Giving Bearings in a Fearful Forest

Image     Pieces of our lives come together in fascinating ways; lines of a web intersect, gears we haven’t even imagined fit into cogs we take for granted.

Those living in the abbeys years ago stopped whatever they were doing (even sleeping) to worship at regular intervals, eight times a day. Not having cell phones (how’s that for a pun!) or alarm clocks, a bell was rung to call the inhabitants of the abbey to prayer. Eight times a day the bells was rung, day and night.

A story is told of a young woman who for whatever reason found herself lost on a day’s traveling. Being alone, she afraid of who she might meet on the road, so she took off through the woods, thinking that she could cut through as the crow flies and arrive at her destination. Once off the trail and into the trees she soon lost her sense of direction. The sun began to set and in the fading light her fears began to dawn. She was convinced that every sound was a wolf hunting her or a bear stalking after her. She ran, not knowing what direction, having lost all her wits and wisdom. Finally she stopped, realizing her mad dash was doing nothing to save her. She closed her eyes and prayed for guidance. In the gloaming light she heard the gentle peel of a bell. The residents of a nearby abbey were being called to their vesper prayers. She was able to follow the sound of the bell to their abbey and to safety.

We live in an age where wolves of prejudice and bears of hatred stalk us constantly. While we may not practice the Liturgy of the Hours (as that ancient practice is known), we must regularly ring the bell of unconditional love for LGBTQ travelers who have been ostracized and vilified by the traditional church. We must ring the bell of a spirituality that loves and cares for life on this earth in all its richness, despite years of church teaching that says this life doesn’t matter because the next one is what counts. We must ring the bell that Jesus’ life and teaching are just as important (and maybe more so) than his death. When we ring the bell for our own patterns and practices we never who might be lost in the metaphorical woods hoping for a sense of direction to safety.

We don’t have an actual bell in the Urban Abbey, but when we speak of creating a safe and sacred community in the midst of a fearful and intolerant society, we ring a bell that others can follow home. The Urban Abbey is being created to sound exactly that kind of bell. What peels is your heart longing to hear?


Avoiding the Same Old Same Old

                I once made pilgrimage to the Mall of America up in the Twin Cities. Once was all I needed. It was at the time the largest shopping mall in the world (I just looked on Wikipedia and it doesn’tImage even crack the top ten anymore!). It was a weird experience because the concourse goes on and on and there are lots of different levels. After walking along for what felt like quite some time I had that déjà vu kind of feeling because some of the stores felt more than familiar. They were the same stores, but in different locations than when I first walked past them! The mall is so large that they have numerous instances of the same franchise outlets under the same roof. How many Hot Topics or Sunglass Huts does one need?

                I’m afraid that our society needs one more church like the Mall of America needs one more Abercromby & Fitch. And more importantly, like I need another A & F (I am not exactly the kind of clothes horse that finds much to wear there, and the live models scare the hell out of me). There are more than plenty of Jesus franchises out in the world already. In the face of that kind of crowded market, why are we trying to create the Urban Abbey?

  1. In an age of fearful anonymity, we want to create a safe and sacred community that deeply welcomes and supports each other.
  2. Because much of so-called traditional Christianity has left an awful taste in people’s mouths and spirits, we want to offer a taste of creative, liberating spiritual exploration.
  3. While many “churches” define themselves on the basis of bricks and mortar, we want to build the Urban Abbey on relationships and an outward-facing vision.
  4. We are seeking ways of touching the Holy and the Mysterious. Life is daunting, dehumanizing, and diminishing. The Urban Abbey hope to connect you with that source that is larger than you, and greater than the fears and anger that the world is so good at bandying about.

We don’t want to blend in. We would hate to be just one more franchise dressed up with a new store-front or ad campaign. We want to be different, exciting, exploratory. Ancient abbeys were communities of people who share a vision and made a commitment to each other to live out that vision. The Urban Abbey asks that same commitment, not to live behind cloistered walls hiding from the world – but outside, in the midst of the very real world. We want to be a real, intentional community in the face of a society that does its very best to make us feel alone. Are you willing to be intentional enough to be unique and not just one more uniform pre-packaged off the shelf franchise? Are you ready for the Urban Abbey?


The Mystery of a Really Good Brew

Image                True confession time again: I’m a coffee geek. Lots of mornings I’ve sleep too long or took too long trying to get the point of resembling something human and so like the rest of things even drinking coffee (something I can truly relish) gets rushed and I can down a couple of cups without hardly noticing it. Now if it’s crappy coffee I will notice, but I’ll drink it anyway. Maybe the coffee started out crappy: mass-produced poor quality beans harvested, roasted, and packaged who knows how long ago, bought on sale and stored in the pantry for months if not years before somebody opened the can and made the stuff in my cup. Or maybe it’s just made crappy. Maybe the coffee maker hasn’t been cleaned since the first Roosevelt administration. Or maybe they still make it in one of those huge urns that boils it to death. We have served crappy coffee for so long to so many people that lots of folks think that coffee is supposed to have that film floating on the top.

                But every now and then, even when I am rushing around at top speed desperately trying to catch up to whatever it is that pulling away from me, I’ll get a cup of really good coffee. No, not really good, but truly great. Good enough that it makes me stop still and take another sip, hold it on my tongue, close my eyes and inwardly sigh. For those few seconds time stops and I am transported to an ephemeral Eden where all of life is gratitude, peace, and joy. It doesn’t happen often, but thank God for those couple of sips, for those few seconds.

                I think that it is moments like that which we long for; not just coffee but moments when the Mystery reaches out of the ordinary and touches us. I also think that is why after so many hundreds and thousands of years we still worship. We want a touch of the Mystery. And so what can we learn about worship from coffee?

  1. Both should be rich, not thin. Too many times worship is watery, thinned down, and even if there are a few good beans involved they’ve been stretched far past the point of brewing up anything tasty.
  2. Both should be what they are: not caramel hazelnut macchiato infused with a hint of Bavarian mint. For me, if the cup of coffee is really good it need nothing else to enhance it, not even cream or sugar. Worship likewise should be honest and genuine.
  3. Both should be fresh; not stale, old, or overcooked. Worship should be relevant, speaking to current situation of our lives, not cold leftovers of yesterday’s brew.

One of our quests in creating an Urban Abbey is to provide each other these moments when we can be touched by the Mystery. Maybe it will be over a cup of coffee, maybe a glass of wine. But when we gather together, it is with the hope and the faith that the Mystery gathers, too.


Can We Turn Down the Volume and Turn Up the Listening?

ImageMy grandparents’ Christianity seemed to be defined by the things they didn’t do. for them, a good Christian didn’t dance, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss, didn’t gamble, didn’t go to movies, and most of all didn’t drink. The funny thing about all these “didn’ts” was that they got them from the bible. The bible was God’s word, complete, infallible, and irrefutable. If the bible said it was bad, they didn’t do it. And the bible has a lot of bad things to say about drunkenness. Now taking the bible so literally also occasionally painted them into a corner. My grandmother was an adamant tea-totaller. Still, the story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana irked her no end. She understood that this story has Jesus demonstrating miraculous power. But she thought if Jesus wanted to show his miraculous power by changing water into wine, one glass would surely have sufficed. She thought it was irresponsible that he filled the six stone jars with gallons and gallons of wine. On the other hand, she reasoned, the bible doesn’t say it was alcoholic wine. I don’t think homosexuality was even on my grandparents’ radar screens, but I’m pretty sure they would’ve thought that good Christians didn’t do that either.

I think that it is this kind of thinking that has caused a major disconnect between a lot of people today and Christianity. While my grandparents’ generation and quite a few Christians today still insist that the bible is God’s exact words and thus irrefutable. But our culture has moved past those words on any number of issues: slavery, divorce, unmarried sex, and the issue of today is of course homosexuality. Just yesterday Delaware became the 11th state to legalize marriage for all couples. The bible simply does not hold irresolute sway over people anymore, if it ever did. I wonder if a lot of those people have come to the conclusion that if the bible really is God’s words, then that is a god not worth listening to.

So what are we to do with a Christianity defined by “don’ts” and a bible rendered meaningless by the insistence on infallibility? Well, I certainly don’t have one definitive answer for that question but I might offer some guesses:

  • The bible isn’t God’s words, it’s our words. It is a collection of people’s writings about their relationship with and understandings of God. It’s their (the ancient authors’) story.

  • These people’s stories are rich and troubling and honest and misguided and somehow God still reaches out to us through them, even if only through wrestling and arguing and getting angry with them.

  • Which means OUR stories are rich and troubling and honest and misguided and somehow God still reaches out to us through them.

  • Being a Christian isn’t about following the bible’s rules, or anybody else’s, but for me it means allowing my life to shaped by the story of Jesus – even as it continues in our own day and time.

The Urban Abbey, hopefully, is a place where we can experiment with our lives and our faith to find what fits us. That’s part of what we mean when we say “safe and sacred.” We even want our Christianity to be safe and sacred. It is not about not doing a bunch of don’ts or doing a list of do’s. It is, in part, about listening for where God is still speaking through your life and my life and all the changes in our world.