Monthly Archives: June 2013

So Where are We Headed?


“The Interior Sun”, acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams

I know some artists who plan their work out in advance and the benchmark of a successful painting is the degree to which the finished product matches their initial plans. I have to confess that this approach is about as far from my process as is possible. Not that the planned-in-detail approach is wrong, it is just foreign to way I make art. My process is much more, well, process. I do generally have a vague idea in my head as to the direction I want a painting or a drawing or print or whatever to go. But when I stand over the blank canvas (or computer screen these days) I set out in that direction with little or no expectation of where I will end up.  It is the conversation with the paint, the color, the composition that is exciting for me. Like a novelist who speaks of writing as a discovery where their characters will take them, I let the painting lead me. It is rare for me to finish an artwork and say to myself, “that is EXACTLY what I wanted!” More often it is “Wow! I didn’t expect this, but it is beautiful and it sure was fun!”

For those who want detailed itineraries and step-by-step business plans, I am going to drive you crazy as we create the Urban Abbey. That’s because I am approaching this creation much in the same way as I approach art. I am being lead. I am trying hard as I can to listen to the Spirit who is moving, darting here and there, and surprising all of us in the process. And it is in the process that is the heart of this. If the Urban Abbey was intended to be a structure, we’d call in an architect, request detailed schematics and measured drawings. We’d hire contractors to follow those drawings and measure their success (and ours) by their faithfulness in following them. But that’s not what we are doing.

Creating community is more squidgy that building a structure. To be healthy it has to be responsive both to those who comprise the community and to the Spirit who is the real creator of the community itself. It means that plans will change, details will shift, and the conversations will hare off down paths we hadn’t expected. If our measure of success is the arrival at a predetermined end-point, we will be frustrated indeed. If, on the other hand, we measure our success by being a part of the Spirit’s process – wherever that leads us- then hang on for a wild ride! Because this kind of process not only changes the squidgy community it embodies, it changes those of us who are individually along for the ride. The idea of the Urban Abbey’s safe and sacred community is not just create a cool group to hang out with. It is to transform ourselves into truly human beings who can live in a dangerous and angry world with love and peace and grace.

And more than any time in recent history, the canvas of ministry that we stand before is blank. We are no longer required to create stained glass windows, or academic oratory about doctrine, or even a unified interpretation of the bible. The canvas is blank and the Spirit is handing a brush and inviting us into a brand new creative process. Wanna have some fun?


A Mad Men Kind of Approach

ImageWe’ve been catching up on some TV series at our house. One of those is AMC’s “Mad Men.” First of all, let me as a male apologize to women everywhere if the attitudes and behavior of those men are at all indicative of the real behavior and attitudes of men in that era or our own. Even if those characters are just caricatures, I still apologize.

I was watching one of the episodes where the company is working on the Nixon presidential campaign. They are struggling to keep up with the hip and innovative Kennedy campaign. The boss comes in and tells the creative team: “You are not watching enough television. That’s your job, you know.” He understands that television was the barometer of American culture and that they had to be current with their culture to do their jobs, to communicate to their audience and sell their products.

When I was ordained, I was asked this question (among quite a number of other, historical questions still asked since the founding days of the denomination): “Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time;” The presiding bishop went on to expound on what he considered to be trifling: video games, playing cards, and watching TV. Really.

And it seems to me that this one example of how the Church went off the rails. The Church forgot that in order to speak to a culture, you have to know that culture. Even worse, the Church got to the place where it assumed that it actually defined the culture. All the while, the real world culture went merrily along on its own very different way.

The Urban Abbey is an intentional shift of cultures. It is a bit of a mental and spiritual emigration. We are going from a place and space where we know the language, the images, the symbols and secret codes to a place that speaks, thinks, and acts differently than we do (if “we” is the church). It is a bold declaration that there is real value in the culture of today. We at SCUCC have always said that we believe that God is as present out in the world as God is in the sanctuary. Yet too often we say that in the sactuary.

So I think we need to watch more TV, and spend more time reading blogs on the Internet, and drink a lot more coffee in coffee shops. The Urban Abbey will be built not of block and mortar reinforcing our own comfort zones, but of relationships and encounters with people. Just as the residents of abbeys in the Middle Ages became students of philosophy and science and art, we must study the philosophy and science and art of our present culture. To invoke a very churchy image of baptism, we need to immerse ourselves into our culture again. That’s our job.

No Objective, Mutually Agreed-upon Definition. Yay!


CG image by Doyle Burbank-WIlliams

I get so damn tired of questions like these: “Can a Christian watch Game of Thrones?” ( Can a Christian play Magic the Gathering? Can a Christian be a fan of Doctor Who and wear a fez? Can a Christian cuss? The assumption underlying the article headline and questions like these is that there exists somewhere an objective, mutally agreed-upon definition of “Christian.” Guess what? There ain’t one! And we get into trouble when we act like there is, because the definition that we begin to treat as objective and mutually agreed-upon is the definition that we personally like. And lots of times that is the same definition that makes me, personally, look like a mighty fine Christian!

And that tendency points to another sink hole for Christians (in general): we think we have to set the definition for everything and everybody. It’s kind of like the popular vampire mythology that says a cross holds power over the undead. What if Dracula was a Hindu? Or a positivistic materialist? We get so busy defining the way the whole universe works that we can lose track of how we ourselves function in it. If there is not objective, mutually agreed-upon definition for what a Christian is, then how is it that Christians can set about the business of defining everything else?

I have a friend who, when she was in college in New York, was (for lack of a better term) a Sabbath goy. My friend was then (and I believe still is) a Christian, not Jewish. So this Orthodox Jewish family hired her to come into their home on Friday afternoon and stay with them throughout the Sabbath so that she could all the things for them that the Sabbath restrictions prevented them from doing. She would turn the lights on and off. She would answer the phone. She would wash the dishes. When I tell this story, I often get the response, “That’s cheating!” Why? The family adhered to the restrictions of the covenant they were bound by. My friend was in no way bound by that same covenant. I think the sense that this was cheating comes from our Christian culture that says everybody should behave by our standards and rules. That family had a clear sense of who the rules applied to and who they didn’t.

And I think that is where we need to start with a definition for who is a Christian. There is no objective mutually agreed upon standard (am I clear about this?). So we have to be clear about our own standard. What does it mean to call myself Christian? It is not my job to decide if anybody else is or is not a Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim, or positivistic materialist for that matter). It is my job to be as clear as I can about what I believe it means to follow Christ. Without an objective standard to fall upon, the onus is mine, and yours, to wrestle with and create a standard that fits who I am and who you are.

Can a Christian watch Game of Thrones? This one does (when I have access to HBO). Can a Christian play Magic? I never have but I could. I also think that for me being Christian is not about what I play or watch as much as it about how I love a stranger, a neighbor, myself, the world, and whatever is Holy out there in the universe. And yes, I have a fez sitting on my desk. And I think the opening sentence of this rant answers the last question, too.

Ping Pong Theology

 Image               My dad played a wicked game of ping pong. He had incredible patience. He would watch the ball come to his end of the table, take its bounce and then wait until the ball had dropped below the level of the table. Then he would caress the ball with a scooping motion, in so doing applying an amazing amount of English. The ball would come looping back at me, taking what seemed like a lackadaisical pace. It would bounce on my side of the table, and I would already be in place for where the ball would be on completion of its bounce. Except for that English. Instead of going where it was supposed to go, the ball would ricochet at crazy angle, and if possible pick up speed like it had just engaged warp drive. It never went where you thought, and I never, ever beat my dad at ping pong.

                That was frustrating to be sure, but Dad never gloated. OK, maybe he grinned pretty widely, but he never did an end zone dance. In fact, most of the time he was gracious enough to keep me coming back. He always had a tip to offer. He was happy to help me (or anyone he was playing) play better. I never got good enough to beat him but I always had fun playing.

                Now I know ping pong is a thin analogy for the spiritual life. But what catches my attention here is not the game itself, but the way my dad played it. He never played down to my level (at least obviously) but he never made me feel bad for playing. How many times have you had an encounter or a spiritual conversation when you felt like you were being talked down to? Or how many times have you walked away feeling like you never want to play that game again? Somehow we have to figure out how to play our own game but in a way that makes others want to keep playing.

                And that is what the Urban Abbey is all about. I my own self am looking for a place (metaphorically) where I can explore ideas about God and the world and the Spirit where I don’t have to translate the language to make it acceptable. I don’t want to hear about the blood of Jesus washing me whiter than snow. I don’t want to argue over the parts of the Bible I just can’t buy. I want to be able to ask questions about who wrote it and why and not just that God said it so quit quibbling. I want to hear about Humanity and not just Man. And if you don’t agree with me, that’s OK, too. Can we ask the questions we are both asking and not get bogged down over the stuff we see differently? Can we find a game we can play even if we don’t play it the same way but so that we both want to keep playing? Even if it is just ping pong. And at the Urban Abbey wants to be that kind of metaphorical place: a safe place to ask deep questions and be honest about who we are, and a sacred place where we can connect with each other and with a Spirit that is more than us.