Tag Archives: creativity

Many Paths to the Center

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.


A Wild Goose Kind of Guy

The most interesting person I met at the Wild Goose Festival was not connected with the festival. We had taken advantage of some free time to explore Hot Springs. Set up in a vacant lot on the main street was Jim Hickey and his art. Colorful pieces of found wood were displayed on portable tables. They were hand painted with bright colors and fascinating designs. Closer examination revealed writing on each piece. Often the writing started on one side of the object and snaked around to the other. Some were philosophical saying, others romantic musings, and still others hopeful dreams of a better world. But the best part was Jim himself. He took absolute delight in telling us where he found the pieces of wood, lying by a stream, stuck in the mud, or hanging from an overhead branch. His wife would outline the images and Jim would carve the words and paint the colors. And he could recite all the things he had written, without looking at the words. He knew them and he loves them. Jim Hickey loves sharing is view of the world and his art with you, whether or not you buy it!
I realized that though Jim was not a part of wild Goose, in his own way he embodied the best of Wild Goose. He intrinsically knows that the world is a good place, a place where beauty and joy lie hidden in the mud or lying on the bank. And he takes immeasurable joy in sharing what he has found. Each of us came to Wild Goose looking for ways to celebrate the Spirit that we know in our own ways. We know that despite the pain and dirt and confusion of it all that we live in a world of beauty and joy. We came together to share the art of the Goose herself expressed in the wildly diverse people she has gathered together.
That’s one of the things I want to keep alive from my Wild Goose experience: not only celebrating the sheer joy that life is supposed to be, but also the joy in sharing that realization. In a society that seems to revel in the garbage and mire of life, it is important good news that despite all evidence to the contrary, we really do live in a world of beauty and joy. Like Jim, I think that is part of why I make art: to keep creating evidence of beauty and joy and hope.
And that is what I dream for the Urban Abbey: that it can be a place where we share with each other the delight of lining in a world of beauty and joy. And that those who have lost their vision for anything but the wounds and anger and degradation of the world can glimpse from us the beauty and joy that can be created from a simple twig rescued from the mud. Thank you, Jim Hickey, for your art, your joy, and delight in sharing it!


The Wild Goose has Flown

ImageA friend asked me what I expected from the Wild Goose Festival. This was my first time attending Wild goose and I didn’t really know what to expect. Inspiration, fun, ideas, encouragement, like minds; all this and more. But really, my first answer was connections. I wanted to connect.

I have always been an introvert but it seems that as my eyes grow weaker, my “I’s” (in the Myers-Briggs sense of that term) have been getting stronger. So I knew that this expectation of Wild Goose was going to be a challenge for me. But I was determined to seek out new connections.

We had decided to make a journey of this trip so we drove from Scottsdale across the country to North Carolina. All the way there I was thinking about how to approach these new people and strike up conversations. The long drive was good for my introvert introspections. We finally arrived, found our parking spot and crossed the street into the festival grounds. I was excited for the festivities and terrified by the prospect of two thousand people I didn’t know.

I was delighted to discover that besides being there to hear music and dance and to interact with experts like Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren, most of the participants there were also eager to meet and share the common experience of the Wild Goose Festival. Whereas striking up a random conversation in a coffee house usually proceeds rather cautiously, each making sure that the other is neither selling something nor a deranged lunatic seeking to kidnap you, interactions at Wild Goose seem to begin with the presumption that we are all friends and more or less are all there for the same reasons. In other words, just by being there we started on common ground.

I met a young man in graduate school for religious studies, another in Ph. D. program for writing, a videographer, more than one artist; people from the Carolinas, Georgia, New York, and even South Africa. Not everyone was on the same page theologically or religiously or politically but everybody was willing to engage in conversations about more than the weather (yes, it did rain a lot!). We were all there to talk about things that matter, to share where our lives offered us joy and meaning, to find far-flung friends. Somehow the story or person of Jesus brought these far-flung people together, though they tell the story in many different ways and know the person of Jesus in as rich a variety as the people themselves. It was truly a festival celebrating the joyous Spirit who was winging her way through her beloved family.


The Wild Goose’s First Lesson

Image                I’ve never been one who finds it easy to follow the rules. Pretty much any rules but especially church rules. I’m a preacher’s kid but my dad was not one who laid religion on too heavy. I do remember one Sunday, though, when for some reason we had a lay speaker who was preaching on the correct way to pray. He instructed that the proper way to pray was to go into your bedroom ad close the door. Then kneel, really: get down on both knees by your bed. Clasp your hands and put them on the bed in front of you in a semblance of the pose of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Close your eyes tightly. Then pray these words… I don’t remember the words I was supposed to pray because I quit listening at that point. I just knew that even at age eight or ten or whatever I was that I did not experience God in that way. It might have worked for that guy, but not for me.

                Fast forward quite a few years. I had discovered the paintings of Mark Rothko in college. In art history classes I saw pictures of his paintings in text books and in slide lectures. I found them compelling and breath-taking. A few years after college I got to visit the National Gallery in D.C. After wandering through the hallways of Old Masters I found my way to the new wing, the building designed by I. M. Pei. Rounding a corner I entered a room that was filled only with the paintings of Mark Rothko. I was reminded that Rothko was for me absolutely breath-taking. Literally. I had to sit on the bench in the center of the room until I could breathe again. The friends I was with (not particularly fans of abstract expressionism) didn’t know what was up. But I was gripped by the energy and presence of the paintings.

                I am attending the Wild Goose Festival this week. We’ve only had the first evening and things are still cranking up. But we’ve already had a variety of musicians play, and I’ve spent some time with a friend who is curating “The Imaginarium,” a micro gallery. I attended an episode of “Darkwood Brew Live,” featuring Eric Elnes and Frank Schaeffer talking about Convergence Christianity. And I was reminded of something. Something that ties these three paragraphs together. I remembered that I experience the holy aesthetically.

                While I have some experience with contemplative silence I knew from that early age that I would not experience God by following that speaker’s strict rules of prayer. I experienced the National Gallery as a place of mystical, spiritual presence. And now at Wild Goose the Spirit swoops in taking the forms of music and art.

                I hope that one of the foci I bring to spirituality and religion is the encouragement to discover and reclaim the ways that each of us apprehend the Holy. Or better yet, the ways each of us are apprehended by the Holy. And to be a constant reminder that beauty and holiness are kissing cousins. The ancient abbeys created unmatched beauty in illuminated manuscript and icon and frontispiece and vestments and altars. I see the Urban Abbey as a way and a place to reconnect this devotion to beauty and holiness. Art reminds us that the world is at its core a place of beauty, and that beauty reminds us that since its very beginning The Spirit loves the deep, complicated beauty of this world and all of us in it. Image


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.