Tag Archives: evolution

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.


Being Known for What We Do

I am fascinated by how many names (at least European names) originate with the activity of their bearers: Baker, Chandler, Fletcher, Walker, Carter, Teller, Weaver and so on. And in many ways we continue to be known by what we do, even if we do not bear the names that say so. I am hoping that we who form the Urban Abbey will indeed by known by what we do. So, what is it that we will do that we will be known by? Time for a PSA.

There are three primary paths that weave together into the Urban Abbey: Hospitality, Our Christianity, and Outward Mission. It is along these paths that we will find our PSA.

P.   Hospitality is more than just being nice to a stranger (or even to somebody you already know). It is much more than a technique of greeting someone at the door. It is a damn sight more than an industry of hotels and restaurants. The kind of hospitality that is the foundation of the Urban Abbey is a spiritual practice: it is a discipline that when practiced changes us, opens us to the ability to love even our enemies. It is a practice that can change the world by offering an alternative to hate, fear, and intolerance.  Hospitality is a life changing “P”ractice.

S.   Our Christianity will be a thoroughgoing exploration of our own tradition, as well as considering a global family of spiritual expressions and our place among them. Our Christianity will engage the intellectual aspects of our being. It will mean study, becoming students of our own writers, thinkers, pray-ers, and pupils of the great philosophers and theologians of the world’s religions. Our Christianity is an intensive and spiritual course of  “S”tudy.

A.   Outward Mission takes our other two paths and twines them together and puts them into action. We take our growing love for the stranger and the other and combine it with our evolving understanding of who we are as followers of Christ. This will move us out into the world and into action. We have set ourselves a goal of finding people that we can look in the eye, people that we can fall in love with that we can fall in love with, learn from, and build a relationship of mutuality and grace. Outward Mission will put us into “A”ction.

These are ambitious goals, ambitious directions. But we don’t want the Urban Abbey to be business as usual. We see this as an experiment embracing the evolution of faith and spirituality that can respond to the changes in our culture and society. This “PSA” of Practice, Study, and Action will be first self-transformative, and hopefully then begin a process of making a positive difference 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.

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.