Tag Archives: community

Many Paths to the Center


“Many Paths to the Center #1” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams, c. 2013

“Many paths to the center” is both a spiritual and a political statement. So much of our world has been shaped by dichotomy thinking: it is either this or that, my way or your way, right or wrong, religious or secular, sacred or profane, black or white. It seems to me that kind of world view leads only to frustration because it is a gross over-simplification of the way the world operates. Many paths to the center acknowledges that in this complex and multi-faceted universe (or multiverse as we are discovering) there is no one way to enlightenment, no singular truth that any of us human beings can fully grasp. We journey together toward what we sense as our wholeness, and there are many paths to the center.

Artists seem to sense this better than theologians. Throughout the history of art, there have always been concurrent and sometimes vastly different schools of style and approach. And, yes, members of one school may have been self-righteous and even fundamentalist about their particular method. Nonetheless, it seems that there was always a recognition that there was more art in the world than what this artist or that created. And art itself is a recognition—however ephemeral—that there is more in this world than we can see or feel.


“Many Paths to the Center #6” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams c. 2013

This is part of why at Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ (the community to which I belong and of which I am the pastor) we created a vision statement that says we are “a community of Artistic, Revolutionary, and Evolutionary Christians.” To be artistic is more than just mere creativity: it is an attempt to create beauty or meaning. Being revolutionary is an embrace of change, and a commitment to an ongoing egalitarian reordering of our world. Saying that we are evolutionary means that we are constantly becoming, becoming more human and in a nod to the last desciber, more Christ-like. And we want to positively redefine what it means to be Christians: open-minded and open-hearted followers of the way of Jesus. It is out of this artistic, revolutionary, and evolutionary approach that we are creating the Urban Abbey.


“Many Paths to the Center #3” acrylic on canvas by Doyle Burbank-Williams c. 2013

It was under the influence of the convergence of these thoughts and dreams that I created a series of paintings. They grew out of a period pondering paths one can discover if you are looking for them. Beginning with a fascination for all things Celtic, and the triskele in particular, I started playing with connected spirals. For me, it most often ended with four spirals because with the Urban Abbey we are trying to create a new kind of spiritual community and we started talking about the paths that would help that come about. Eventually we named four: hospitality, self-knowledge, engaging the world, and worship. The center we are seeking is healthy, vibrant community. We know that these are by no means a definitive or an exhaustive list, but they are a beginning. These are the paths that we choose as our starting point. And there are many paths to the center.


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.

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.

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?

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…”