Category Archives: Urban Abbey

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.


A New Normal You Can Live With (and For!)

20130504-234343.jpgI don’t know about you, but I’m not wild about the new normal. We are told that this era of reduced wages, increased costs, sparse employment outlooks and meag investment possibilities is the new normal. Instead of hoping for a return to better days, we are supposed to get used to this. “It is not going to change,” we are told, “this is the new normal.” but this is about more than just economics. We are told the same thing about warfare in the world, about violence of all kinds, about poverty, and the environment. There’s nothing you can do that will make a difference so get used to it. This is normal. Except that I really want a different normal.
The name of this blog should tell you that I am fan of “Young Frankenstein.” if you know the movie, you know where the name comes from. After having been attacked by his newly reanimated creature, Dr. Frankenstein calmly sits down with Igor to discuss the situation. Igor admits that the brain did not belong to Dr. Hans Delbruck, an esteemed and wise scientist. So Dr. Frankenstein asks whose brain Igor did bring back. “Abby someone.” “Abby who?” asks the patient doctor. Igor responds, “Abby Normal!”
It is natural for me that when searching for a name for a blog about the Urban Abbey that I would land on “Abbey Normal.” A lot of our ideas about the Urban Abbey will seem abnormal in today’s society:
+treating strangers with honor and value instead of fear and suspicion;
+defining our kind of Christianty as open-minded and open-ended, and as an equal sibling of other world religions;
+discovering people in our community that we can serve and love (without proselytizing or evangelizing);
+and creating a safe and sacred intentional community where we can share our spiritual adventures together.
Those are very different aims than much of the world holds. To others, this might seem abnormal. But for us it is going to be Abbey Normal, the norm and the dream of the Urban Abbey.
A new normal, an Abbey Normal, dreams big enough to envision a changed world. Yet it is practical enough to begin locally, personally. We are coming together in this safe and sacred community to support each other as we challenge the world’s truly abnormal virtues of violence, fear, and hate. We come together to bind each others’ wounds, to celebrate each success, to combine our vision and dreams. We’ll guard the space to be creative, encourage the practices that open us to the Divine, and offer to each other a truly new normal.
So maybe in the process of creating new life, somebody might ask us, where did you get all this stuff? And maybe in a voice reminiscent of Igor we can say, “Abbey Normal…”

Now, Where Did We Put That God?

ImageWe live in an age when God needs GPS. Or better put, we need God to use GPS. Our day and age is out of touch with the Divine, the sacred. We have to go looking for it. And the search is made all that much harder because we don’t even know what we are really looking for any more. It’s kind of like when you move from one house to another and you remember where you kept the colander in the old house, and you’re pretty sure you kept it but you don’t know where it is now. But maybe not. Did we ever have a colander? When was the last time I saw it? I’m not sure. Too many times that how looking for God feels these days.

In ancient days, the monks who lived in the Abbey didn’t have to go looking for God. Their whole day was centered on living in God’s presence. They stopped what they were doing at regular intervals to remember that they were in the midst of God. They prayed, they read and recited the scriptures they loved, they meditated, they heard sermons and homilies, and they sang. Their rhythm helped them create some of the most beautiful art. They illuminated the pages of scripture with gold and silver and colors of every kind. Some of them created Gregorian chants whose power and awe still haunt us today. Poetry and science were generated by this day to day dwelling in God’s presence.

It is one of our greatest shames that we took what was so inspiring of an experience of worship and drained it and desiccated it to the point that in our generations worship has become one of the LAST places people seem to find God.

Which begs the question of what worship, seeking to be in God’s presence, will be like in the Urban Abbey? How to we recapture that inspiring, creativity-generating encounter? Here are a few ideas in that direction:

  1. A Safe and sacred encounter:  open to bringing a person’s full being along.
  2. A Creative time: using imagination, excitement, all five senses, mind AND heart.
  3. Relevant and authentic: addressing life where we are and who we are.
  4. Communal and intergenerational: like the best of family meals of times past, everyone is welcome at the table.
  5. Intentional: It takes practice coming into God’s presence. We set aside time that is free of all the other distractions in life to focus on our center and our Life.

There are lots of forms and ways and places this can happen. Since ours is an Urban Abbey not confined to cloistered walls, we are free to seek God anywhere. And while we hope to glean some valuable treasure from the ancient spiritual troves, likewise we are free to create our own methods and songs. We truly are in an experimental age again; free to seek God in innovative and creative ways. It is an age for artists, revolutionaries, and those on an evolutionary journey. Those of the Urban Abbey will continue to seek God, and to discover this generation’s ways of living in the Divine presence.

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.