Meddling in Policy and Politics

ImageWe seem to live in an era where we in the US are ever ready to protect our own God-given (we believe) rights. To stand our ground, so to speak. We are vehemently ready to safeguard our own rights, but not so much someone else’s. In these past few weeks where we have seen the SCOTUS gut the Voting Rights Act, the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, and even Paula Deen’s almost inexcusable gaff of exposing the mangy underbelly of racism in our society everyone is feeling imperiled and embattled: the majority culture, the minority culture, and the vast center that just wishes we could stop talking about all these uncomfortable issues and get back to watching Jeopardy. And it makes trying to talk about (much less trying to enact) hospitality a tough sell indeed. So I’ve been trying to think of things we can do to nudge us all a closer to caring more about our neighbors whoever they are, whatever color they are, whatever accent they speak with, whatever headscarf or hoodie or necktie they choose to wear.

  1. I will never use the “N” word, and I will make sure that anyone using it around me knows I think it is unacceptable. Not for political correctness, but because I cannot imagine how that epithet ever builds another person up. It is almost always destructive.

  2. A gun used in a killing should always be confiscated and destroyed. Even if it was justifiable, even in self-defense, if it was used to kill a human being that gun should be removed from society. If it deemed that the killing was not illegal, the gun’s owner still caused a death and should have to forfeit that firearm. They can get another one if they desire. But a gun used in a killing should be gone.

  3. As long as I’m meddling about the 2nd Amendment, can we work toward a consensus that my right bear arms never trumps another person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? I’m not saying that we can’t ever own guns, but our technology is such that I don’t think we necessarily have right to own every kind of arms.

  4. Can we create a society where even if you think what I said in #3 is the looniest thing you’ve ever heard, you can still sit down and drink a cup of coffee with me? All I’m asking is that we somehow are as ready to see each other as neighbors as enemies.

I was watching an old episode of “Cadfael” recently where a minstrel is being chased by a mob accusing him of murder. He runs into the church, right up the main aisle, grabs the cloth on the altar and cries for sanctuary. The brothers intercede themselves between the minstrel and the mob, offering him their safety and protection.

That’s exactly what I see the Urban Abbey doing. When someone is being pursued by mobs of anger, violence, prejudice, and fear they find sanctuary in our midst. We ponder, practice, and offer different ways of existing in our culture and community. We are the people ready to intercede on behalf of peace, healing, and unconditional justice and love. We want to be the place that nurtures these kind of crazy ideas, ideas that can change the world.

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Let’s Go Get Shwarma

ImageAfter the climactic battle scene in the movie “The Avengers,” Tony Stark (a.k.a. Ironman) thinks it’s  a good idea if they all go out for shawarma. He’s not sure what shawarma is, but he’s heard that it is good.

Well, I know what shawarma is! I was raised in North Dakota where food was not exactly adventurous. But at the age of eighteen I headed off for college in Minneapolis. I was experimenting with all sorts of new food now that I was on my own. I discovered that bell peppers were not poisonous,  and that there were more spices worth using than just salt and pepper. Feeling quite daring, I noticed  an interesting-looking restaurant a couple of blocks from the college. It was called “Abdul’s Afandy.” And the very first thing I tried at Abdul’s was a chicken shawarma sandwich.

It was a totally new flavor experience for me. That sandwich was the first food I had ever tasted that I could not compare to something else. It didn’t taste like meatloaf, or pot roast, or scrambled eggs. It tasted like shawarma. And it was great!

I’m told that more and more people are abandoning Christianity because of the bad taste it leaves in their spiritual mouths. Sexual abuse and cover up, misappropriation of money, closed mindedness, willful ignorance of scientific knowledge, and the inconceivable demonization of homosexuality all seem to epitomize Christianity in our day. All the voices and faces of Christianity that the mainstream media seems to show are either the charlatans and their televised circuses or the narrow minded “experts” espousing hatred and intolerance on what used to be news shows. I believe most people don’t know that there is more than one flavor of Christian. They think it is all meatloaf or pot roast. They’ve never had shawarma.

The Urban Abbey celebrates a shawarma kind of Christianity.

  1. It is not built on dogma or doctrine.
  2. It is based on Jesus’ teachings that love of God and love of neighbor (and implicitly of self) are intertwined and the beginning and goal of the journey.
  3. It can be embodied in billions of different ways, just as there are billions of people.
  4. Its flavor is that of hospitality and peace and deep, unconditional love.
  5. It is open to the movement and inspiration of the Spirit doing new things, creating new flavor combinations, so to speak.

One of the great challenges for the Urban Abbey and all voices of a different flavor of Christianity is to tell others  that we can go get shawarma and that it is great. Our silence simply reinforces the impression that there is only one kind of Christianity and it is all judgmental and angry. In the Christian universe there is indeed meatloaf and pot roast but also shawarma and sushi and more. The Urban Abbey is a full flavor experience.


You Might Be a Museum

ImageA few years ago I was the pastor of a beautiful old church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was built in 1888 and had weathered the years very well.  It stands as a great example of Romanesque and Neo-Gothic architecture and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. The congregation, though, struggled over the years.

One morning we were out sprucing up the yard and the trim when one of our neighbors wandered over. It was pretty much a “Whatcha doin?” conversation. We replied that we were getting the church ready for our Fall Rally day. I was devastated by our neighbor’s response: “This is a church? I thought it was a museum!”

The “Outward Mission” component of the Urban Abbey is an antidote to museum syndrome. People go to a museum every so often to view exhibits of things that have happened in the past: art, social events, music, archeology, dinosaurs, and occasionally religion. They quietly walk through and read the displays (or more often these days they listen to the pre-recorded narrative on individual headphones), learn about the past, maybe buy something in the giftshop and then go get lunch. But museums struggle to engage in a conversation about what is happening today, much less tomorrow. Outward Mission gets us out into our community and our world where things are happening today and hopefully tomorrow.

Here are the warning signs of Museum Syndrome:

  1. People are expected to come to you. If all you do and the only ministry people can engage with is in your own building, you might be a museum.
  2. The art on your walls is more than ten years old. If you have nothing new to display, you might be a museum.
  3. Every item on every bulletin board talks about something that has previously happened. If you have no new activities to announce, you might be a museum.
  4. The reading of scripture in worship is all about what God has already said or done. If the Spirit is not in some way still speaking and still challenging you, you might be a museum.
  5. When gathered for conversation or prayer, all the talk is about us. If your own aches and pains, issues with your building, your own likes and dislikes about each other or the pastor or the janitor are all that you talk about, you might be a museum.

The idea is that there are no docents in the Urban Abbey. Part of the concept that the Urban Abbey exists out in the community is that we are charged with finding people who are seeking deep meaning in life. They are not charged with finding us. We have no docents, we have ministry agents. Outward Mission means that we go to the world. There are more than plenty of places to see fossilized bones. I believe there are people hoping to find signs that life is indeed worth living. They are hoping to find others willing to engage in conversation and struggle together to explore that. It’s all about today and tomorrow. If all your energy is directed at yesterday, you might be a museum.


Once Upon Our Time

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watercolor by Doyle Burbank-Williams, 2011

My spouse has been attending a family reunion this past week so among other things I have been crawling through the Netflix vaults watching films that intrigue me but that I would never inflict on others. There are a few gems buried deep in their catalog but for the most part there are obvious reasons that I’ve never heard of a lot of these films. Some are hilariously bad, but most are just bad. They make me wonder why anybody ponied up the money to make them in the first place.

I was once told that every story we tell is, in one way or another, a redemption story. We tell stories to make sense of our lives, our world, and how we fit into the world. The writers of the Bible told their stories in this attempt. John Steinbeck, Euripides, Mary Shelley, Ursula LeGuin, and thousands of others have told their stories searching in their various ways to find meaning and truth. To say that all our stories are redemption stories does not mean that they all are great stories or are successful at it.

Some of these bad movies I’ve been watching seem to think that violence and vengeance are paths to redemption, if that premise holds any water. I started a couple films that seemed to be explorations of the way we humans can be cruel to each other. If every story is a redemptions story there are a lot of screwed up visions of redemption in the world.

And even when the redemption story of Jesus gets told, too many times people have fallen back on the same twisted themes of violence, cruelty, and vengeance as the means of that redemption. Lots of research and statistics are showing that as long as “religion” relies on those themes then more and more people are going to search for redemption elsewhere.

So here’s where I’m going with this. We who find redemption in compassion and peace and art and in things that create and build up life need to be telling our stories. We tell them in the ways we live and love and worship and paint and dance and maybe even make movies. I don’t mean that somebody needs to make a movie telling the story of a progressive Jesus like some kind of celluloid tract.

The Urban Abbey is an attempt to write a redemption story using the lives of people living in the real world, trying in every way we can to make sense of all the pain and joys, tragedies and celebrations we encounter every day. Theology is a creative art form. There are plenty of buffoons and hacks making lousy redemption stories out of anger and fear and they get plenty of airplay. It’s our turn to start telling our stories. 


So Where are We Headed?

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“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!

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CG image by Doyle Burbank-WIlliams

I get so damn tired of questions like these: “Can a Christian watch Game of Thrones?” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2013/06/04/game-of-thrones-christianity/2389553/) 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.