Tag Archives: Urban Abbey

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.


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!

Butts and Bills: Changing the Metric System

ImageNote: I did NOT say changing TO the metric system! This is not about arguing the virtues of centimeter and deciliters over the arcane English distances and amounts. I already have a functioning grasp of using the other side of the ruler.  I know how to calculate area and circumference. What I am no longer as clear about is how to measure ministry.

A number of years ago I was confronted with the reality that I struggle to connect with adolescents (I know this comes as a surprise to all those people who continue to describe me as being rather adolescent!). I was leading a Confirmation Camp, who purpose was to engage young teens in the spiritual questions of life. It was at best a miserable week. I had one young man who was a consummate bully and I had to pull him out of the community in order to assure that he did not ruin the experience for those he selected as victims. That was just the largest example of a series of mishaps and disappointments that clouded that week for me. I couldn’t see how any participant could have survived that week and come away with anything like a holy or spiritual experience.

Years later I was back at that same camp, having coffee with that summer’s staff. I told this story of the most miserable week of camp I ever had when one of the counselors looked at me with disbelief. She said, “I was at that camp and it changed my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that week!” Obviously the metrics I was using did not measure everything that occurred in that week long ago.

This comes to mind because I think a lot of churches are using the wrong metrics. We count people in the pews, and dollars in the plates or on the pledge cards. We count it as success when one or both increase and use it to diagnose malady when they don’t. I think the accusation of the non-churchers is accurate when they say we are obsessed with numbers.

Instead of filling seats and meeting budgets, what if we measured our attempts at fulfilling our purpose? How have we offered to our culture a positive alternative Christian spirituality? How have we embodied the radical hospitality of Christ for our neighbors? When did we seek a deep understanding of our spiritual neighbors of other faith traditions? Who (besides ourselves) have we engaged in conversations of meaning and hope?

These metrics are less quantifiable than butts in pews or bills in baskets. Nonetheless, I think as we seek to go boldly onward through the fog they are far more important. Butts and bills are about maintenance. How and When and Who are about being faithful to our calling: why are we here as a community and how are we living that out? We desperately need to change the metric system.

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.

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.

So Where are We Headed?


“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?