Tuesday, March 21, 2017

First Amendment Christians

A couple of years ago we held a meeting under the title "Civil Religion."  Parishioner Ellen Warren, then a county commissioner was first to talk about her life as a person of faith in public service.  It was a good evening and some troublesome topics were addressed with good manners around the room.  It was the only episode in what I had hoped would be a series.

The title was a play on words.  Usually "civil religion" means that way of being religious in public that allows moments like our Presidents ending their speeches with "God bless America."  It is the anchored in mottos and phrases like "In God we trust" and "One nation, under God."

"Civil religion" informs the hosting of prayer breakfasts and declarations of national days of prayer. It also informed our talking about the interface between faith and governance and trying to be civil about religion at the same time.  Crazy, I know!

My intent was not to reinforce any sense that America is God's chosen nation or that we were founded as a Christian nation.  I instead wanted to push through the idea that the first amendment intends for the church -- in all its disguises -- to be party to the larger discourse of the whole nation, a discourse meant "to form a more perfect union."

That discourse is assumed in the protecting the rights of freedom of assembly, of freedom of speech, and of freedom of the press.  By protecting freedom of religion AND preventing a state church we are being named in the first amendment as having a particular role in that discourse.  We are not prevented from the conversation but are meant to be included for exactly what a church ought to bring to the table: moral and ethical input not serving those in power and a respect for the "dignity of every human being."

For me "civil religion" also means that we are to demonstrate how to have that "union perfecting" conversation with each other and for the sake of a government of, by and for the people.

So I'm OK with much of even my comments about politics and governance.  It's not my fault those terms are confused of conflated with each other.  It is my fault when I don't play fair with the confusion and help the people I love to read what I write or even more so what I post that has been written by others.

Last week's borrowing from John Pavlovitz is a perfect example.  I pretty much agree with what he said.  I do think that we are nearing the end of the life of much gets to call itself Christian in this nation.

Demographics galore will back this up.  But JP wasn't just talking numbers, he was talking about the loss of civil religion.  We have lost that first amendment intent for the practice of religion in America and replaced it with something that too often isn't civil and isn't religious.

I don't agree with everything he wrote or with all of HOW Pavlovitz wrote what he wrote.  So . . .

I'll take more care in the future to be civil and to promote civility but I intend to say more about this "First Amendment Christian" that I hope to model. I'll also continue to include others' voices and writings in describing and navigating that space that is ours as members of the Church of the Advent and citizens of this nation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From John Pavlovitz

This is from John Pavlovitz's blog entry titled "The Welcome Extinction of a Dinosaur Church"
There is plenty about who we are in Madison as the Church of the Advent that is so not near extinction.  But the challenge to be renewed is always before us no matter our history and antiques.  I hope this use of Pavlovitz's work encourages a lively conversation without fear or anxiety.

Extinction happens. 
All creatures eventually die out. No matter how much they temporarily flourish, over time they all become nothing but memories preserved in photos and fossils. 
The Church in America as we know it is on such borrowed time. It recently managed to buy a four-year stay of execution from the Electoral Collage, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time: the Religious Right here is in its last days—and thank God for that. 
This Bible Belt-dwelling dinosaur has long known that its demise was coming. While outwardly it appeared to be thriving over the past few decades, the attrition below the surface was and is undeniable: weekly attendance has steadily declined, favorable population demographics are shifting, cultural values are outpacing it, Science is continually challenging it. Its once seemingly endless territory is eroding, with now discarded buildings filling the landscape; dusty museums to what once ruled the land. 
And as with all animals backed into a corner and facing destruction, it has become fully desperate trying to save itself. It has ratcheted up its rhetoric, doubled down on damnation, and gone all in on fear in the hopes of rallying its own for one last frantic effort at staving off extinction. 
This is why it’s made its bed with a President without morals, why it has sold its soul for a Supreme Court seat, why it is frantically overreaching right now with its political advantage, why it is in perpetual attack mode—because it knows that these things are all that it has left. It is flailing wildly trying to postpone what it inevitable, but it cannot. 
Like all doomed species, this white, vicious, myopic dinosaur church will surely die because evolution is killing it— the evolution of a humanity that recognizes:

  • that diversity is not the enemy,
  • that spirituality is bigger than a single religious tradition,
  • that redemptive faith cannot be the author of hatred for its brother,
  • that Whoever or Whatever God is, it must be more compassionate than what this thing has become. 
In these last of its days, the dinosaur will make a grand, horrifying display. It will scream and lash out violently. It will thrash itself about and it will attempt to appear ferocious—but on the inside it is terrified. Its preachers will boldly speak of God giving them the victory, they will spit Scriptures and forecast alternative endings, but these things will not matter. The massive meteor of time and progress is hurling toward them and their eyes are widening. 
And for those of us who truly love Humanity, whether in the name of God or simply in that name of that humanity itself, this is all beautiful news. Because every thing that dies allows something new to be born—and something is being born in these moments: compassion is being birthed in our midst. We are moving into a golden age of empathy, where people will not allow religion to become a barrier any longer; where color and orientation and nation of origin are not deal breakers or justifications for separation—they are worth celebrating. 
And so yes, let the dinosaur posture and screech, but know that its end is surely near.
This is the twilight of one day and the dawn of another— and we are a people waking up to who we are together. 
The sun is rising and we are the caretakers of the coming day. 
Be encouraged.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Saved to Worship Only God

“The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.”  Matthew 4:11 CEB

Its hard to read any portion of the gospels and not feel the implication of Calvary's cross and the empty tomb.  Even this ending to last Sunday's gospel has the hint of Christ's last temptation and final hope.

The task we have in our season of "self examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reading and meditating on God's holy Word," is not simply to fight off our temptor's invitations for "their own sake.”

In order for that hopeful casting to be current to our striving we'll need to remember this:
It's not about us! It's about God. Just before what is described in verse 11, we hear Jesus say, "Go away Satan, as it is written, you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him."

Even this wilderness education and testing of Jesus is not just so that we can admire him as tougher than the devil or simply imitate him and expect similar results.  It is also so that we can see ahead to the effect of his obedience to God and hope to be as obedient ourselves.

Matthew will do this again and help us to look ahead to the glory in and beyond Jesus’ dying in hope and utter surrender.  All sorts of human structures built in the confusion that our salvation is always the point eventually and even cataclysmically fall.

Beyond Matthew's rending of the temple's veil, the crumbling of the tombs and hopeful bright Sunday morning there is another 40 days.  Both are periods of paradigmatic change!  Both are hard work.  Both have surrender to something bigger than our own interests.  Both have temptations.  Both end with angels. Both are about serving only the Lord our God.

Our first 40 days are still largely ahead of us. The closer we approach the end our tendencies will be to get lost in the structures and only rehearse a surrender. We’re prone to get caught by the busy-ness of things like Madison’s Palm Procession, or night after night of Holy Week observances, or our larger society's own usurpation of the holiday with bunnies and eggs.

The 40 days after Easter we get to spend with Jesus, who as the one raised from the dead is even better than an angel.  Both periods work to help us honestly, hopefully, obediently “worship the Lord our God and serve only him.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Words and Names in a New Season: Part 2

It was just a few Sundays ago -- the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5th -- that we read from the hopeful part of Isaiah's proclamation to the children who suffered exile away from the comforts and familiarity of their historic home.  That reading finished  with the powerful commendation,

"The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in." Isaiah 58:11-12

The very same commendation is ours in the smaller but equally meaningful of repairing our properties, our historic home.  The patio is a principle image for us but let’s not forget that the same encouragement that Isaiah spoke so many years ago identifies a continuing reality, not a truth bound up and done with in a single moment. 

We are always to be repairers and restorers!

Especially as we have adopted the use of these antique structures: buildings, chalices, hymns, or rituals, we will ALWAYS have the duty of repair and restoration.  We will always have the responsibility to care for places and things and even more so the people who come to join us in using them. 

Isaiah’s words also point us to a day of glory and celebration; more Easter than Lent.  He is hoping for these words to be an encouragement because the Hebrew people's return to their historic home is still to be accomplished. 

We can use that same understanding and always look forward to each of those responsibilities being met and accomplished.

In other words we are always repairers, always restorers, always hoping to celebrate.  Not just to celebrate the work done but to celebrate the calling to the work of returning, repairing and restoring.

Thanks be to God we have been called!  We can always look forward to celebrating with God.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Words and Names in a New Season

There is a practice in most lectionary/liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church to refrain from using "alleluias" during the season of Lent.  With so much of our devotional focus being drawn through penitence those familiar expressions of exuberance, joy and release are at best premature.
This matters in particular this year because we are soon to be clear of several encumbering concerns which when completed will properly deserve our own celebratory expressions:
  • The Patio* is quickly becoming the smooth safe connector from our parking lot to the Parish House ramp.
  • New "same surface" walkways will soon provide safe entry to the "Little House" from the garden patio and the parking lot.
  • Phase one of restoring the parking lot to a regular smooth pea gravel surface.
  • Repair of loose bricks and sealing of the flues in our parish house fireplaces
  • Re-upholstering of the couches and chairs and a fresh coat of paint on the trim in the Parish House parlor.
  • The last day of crew support services for the movie -- St. Agatha -- being filmed at one of the Newton houses down Academy St. As exciting as the hugely increased "energy level" is, it'll be nice to return to a more contemplative environment for Lent.  
The exact end date of each of these efforts is not known in every case but the completion of each as it impacts our weekday lives will soon deserve a finale and in some cases a grand one. 

I hereby ask God to absolve in advance any member of the parish who is heard in celebration or any less-than-Lenten attitude uttering any of the following words or phrases:
  • Alleluia!!
  • Thanks be to God! (with hands raised!)
  • Its about time!
  • Glad that's over!
  • Glory! (with or without an accompanying "alleluia")
  • Sweet Jesus!
  • Praise the Lord!
  • and (especially important to me) What was frDann thinking?

*It is important for us to sustain the memorialization that already graces the areas of what we have turned to calling "the Patio."  It was provided remembering Marie Green Meacham and Elizabeth Wingo Clarke.  

Notice that in both instances the area was understood to be a garden space, not just a patio.  This needs our continued attention.  I'm proposing two responses to this recognition.  First, that we strive to designate and name the area as a "patio garden."  Not only that, we need to include the names Meacham and Clarke in our titling, too.  
Our second response should be to carefully establish and maintain attractive plantings in the areas inside the walls that remain around the garden patio.  I expect some short conversations with interested parishioners to help us find the right people to get that to happen.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Restoration and Recovery: Part 3

Restoration is not easy. Besides the demand of adherence to historic standards and the extra pressure to employ for modern function things antique and often fragile it also asks everyone to adjust away from old habits and practices.  The paths we walk, the doors we enter, the seats we occupy feel like they are off limits until the dust settles again.  

When the restoration work is done some of our habits return and some never are practiced again. Recovery is the partner to restoration because it also names the new customs or habits that give us a sense of self and others as much like the best of the past once gave us.  I'm imagining new ways to use the patio, increased use of the “little house”, a parlor that is once again a showpiece (think wedding photos!).

These concepts of restoration and recovery apply to us as much as our buildings because we are embodied beings, we are incarnated.  We don't just float around like ghosts immune to gravity or solidity.  We are grounded and consequential, we have weight and presence, we leave tracks and markers.  

Because we are incarnated our recovery shows through our behaviors, our adaptations and our learning.  When the work is done on the patio and the connections to the “little house” the changes that will matter the most will be the ones that we find in our recoveries.  Restoration sets the stage and recovery sings the old songs in a new way.  

Because we are incarnated our recovery means we are not alone.  Every soul who occupies these spaces renewed through faithful restoration helps all others to find their ways in and through the same spaces.  As we see and hear about the joy or pleasures that others have experienced because the patio is easier to use, the parlor brightened, we are drawn to find our own experience after them and in some cases with them.  

Because we are incarnated our use participates in the reinterpretation of space.  What was seldom used can become special, sacred, religious.  I remember how dear Ginger would put her lawn chair in the space between the parish house and the church and just sit there.  Her spirit is still helping us to embody a new use of that space. 

Years ago when that recovered Episcopal cohort restored and reinterpreted an old Methodist worship space they embodied a spirit that still walks the grounds, sits in our pews, visits our parlor and gazes across our patios.  Our uses will likely differ to varying degrees from those first to call 338 Academy St. their parish home.  But we are just like them as we restore and reinterpret these same spaces 55+ years later.  Thanks be to God for their embodiment and continued presence.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Restoration and Recovery: Part 2

I said last week that our choosing to inhabit an antique/historic property is that we have the benefit of certain qualities that come with the "way they use to make things."  Things like solid doors, metal fixtures, big windows, high ceilings, etc.  Both the church and the parish house are sustaining gifts to us from the past largely by way of this characteristic.  

Not all that is from the past is a gift to us, some items are problems and others can even surprise us.  Work to rebuild the patio has begun and in removing the boxwoods Dick Cotrill found an old well.  
Plans are to document its placement and fill it so that we can safely cover it with the new surface of brick and cement.  

Currently the demolition of the patio will allow us to re-use almost all of the original bricks. Precision Masonry of Athens is contracted for this work and has proposed a design that will mimic the simple cross pattern that currently decorates the walls around the patio. Donations have been secured to cover the costs of this rebuild.  

It almost goes without saying that this is an excellent recovery beyond restoration.  The rebuilt patio will have a larger area and a smoother, safer surface, especially for those using the ramp to enter through the kitchen.  

There are also plans to improve access to the little house with paths that match the patio in combining brick and cement.  We'll have to say goodbye to the magnolia tree that "graced" the parking lot and patio.  It's roots have already cause some cracking in the patio wall and are intruding on the entrance to the little house from the parking lot.  

There are other gifts from the past that keep on giving.  The drapes that have hung in the parlor windows will be repurposed to cover the sofa that has been in the parish house hallway near the back door.  Fabric from the drapes will also be used to recover the two upholstered chairs in the parlor. Donated fabric will be used the re-upholster the sofa that is presently in the parlor.

It feels good to say that we have carefully and deliberately moved into a good version of restoration and recovery.  We have honored the past and will leave for those after us a property that can continue to support growth both in use and in spirit.