Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Restoration and Recovery

I wrote last week about our vestry taking time in retreat to consider how "getting back to the basics" calls for adapting one's perspective. I took that idea all the way to recognizing the size and scope of our vision, especially as it impacts our budget and planning.  Pretty simple stuff that especially in our case takes into account our choosing to use antique properties and not buildings kin to "everyday china."

We have the benefit of certain qualities that come with the "way they use to make things," so that even our 175 year old building is useful and ready.  But that same building shows the limits of its original period as well.  When we gather it is comforting to find our spots in pews that have held generations of worshippers, but part of our comfort -- thanks to central heat and air-conditioning -- comes by asking this lovely property to live in two eras.

That's why I've reintroduced the concept of restoration instead of repair as the guide to how we maintain AND use these historic structures. Restoration always includes an attention to the history along with the use.

A basic principle of restoration is to always reach farther back AND farther forward when our structures need our help.  It's not enough to keep things like they were. That only works when pieces are on display in a museum. It's not enough to fix things so they can still can be used. That only works when no one new needs to use then.

We know both concepts from our own experiences.  How many times have you heard an elder extol the beauty of a family heirloom only to finish with "don't touch it!"  And how many times have you borrowed an old car only to hear the litany of special tricks needed to just get it started?  
Restoration is basic to our lives together at Advent.  So is recovery.

Recovery is an internal realization that our hearts can still be moved without old crutches.  It is the end of living on bad habits and second best sources.  Recovery for us is finding a deeper presence beyond the worries and anxieties of crumbling plaster and tumbled bricks.

Recovery is both work and the result of work, disciplined work in humility and confidence. Recovery comes when we don't bite off more than we can chew and we take the time it takes to do the work which we have been given to do.

In other words, our lives are never free from this calling to restore and recover.  Answering the call is never a "one off" effort simply to repair.  It is "continual love and service" to a future generation using the gifts that God has given us.  Answering the call means to care for those resources that God has given us without substituting easy fixes or without shutting down part of our lives.

Restoration and recovery are basics.  God has called us to get back to them so that through faithfulness and discipline these antique properties are still resources for the worship and love from this place of those who come after us.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bigger Basics

338 Academy St.

Our vestry is being renewed by the inclusion of two new members - Dene Huff and Joyce Morehouse.  We are actively pursuing a third to fill the vacancies made as Kate Booker, Dan Jubelt, and Ginger Kroeber fulfilled their three year rotations.   Thanks be to God for their faithful service to this parish.  

Part of realizing this renewal is for the vestry to go into retreat and take time to consider its work from a larger perspective than the one our monthly meetings encourages.  Thanks to Elizabeth Branch we were able to take most of Saturday, January 21 and comfortably broaden our view, our interests and our imaginations.  

We took on the theme of "Getting Back to Basics."  We focused on how best to structure leadership roles back toward the more customary Senior/Junior Wardens.  We talked about embracing the responsibility for budget oversight much of which had been left to Tom Sherwood and the Finance Committee.  We looked at our year-long calendar paying particular attention to how we make room for each other outside of Sunday morning worship.  We even looked at Christmas 2017 events and talked about how best to use our customary 5pm and 11pm services December 24th, which is a Sunday.  

Lots of basics and because of that lots of big pictures, too.  We talked about the bigger picture of historic preservation and not just the patio.  We talked about the bigger picture of funding for more than ministry since we more and more understand the demands of using an antique property.  We talked about the bigger picture  of parish growth and property development.  We talked about hosting events off our property -- like the Palm Sunday procession -- and how to invite the community.  

Our big picture went carefully into the past and with some courage into the future.  That's what getting back to the basics will do.  It always happens this way, sometimes because I can't keep a secret but other times because we share so much in our love of this parish and each other, historic preservation and the enlarging demand of it is all the more on the mind of several parishioners.

The picture above shows the parish house BEFORE we purchased and renovated it.  Hardly looks like the same place. That things are so different in appearance now is nothing but good news for us.  Granted some liberties were taken in removing the Victorian gingerbread and cupola.  The bigger picture then was to get as close as possible to a colonial period appearance.  Because of that vision we have a property that coalesces well and evokes the earliest days.  

Thanks be to God for the bigger picture that restored Episcopal worship to Morgan County. Thanks be to God for the bigger picture that brought us to this property and to these historic buildings.   Thanks be to God that in getting back to our basics we are finding our own bigger pictures.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When is a Parable not a Parable?

Let me be direct and say one only needs to look at the patio to be sure there are problems that still need solving.  There are good suggestions from just about every quarter of the congregation. There is diligent effort on the part several parishioners, Dick Hodgetts principal among them as he more than fulfills his vestry commitment.  There are others and to you all we are grateful.

We will finish the patio's restoration in time and as is becoming increasingly obvious not without the help of donations toward the increased costs.

But the patio and its persistent disarray is also a metaphor, just like the walls and corn in the quote below.  Don't get me wrong.  It's real.  But it means something.  It means something by way of and beyond the troubled process of replacing what had to be removed because we didn't know where the sewer pipe went and we needed the toilets to flush.  It means something that hurrying to get it back to some usable condition left us with more cobbling and danger.  It means something that yet another round of help and suggestion has joined what is already long in consuming the vestry's attention.  It means something that the anxiety level among some -- one is too many when it's people you love -- of our parish elders and patrons is sky high.

Writing about this reminds me of my favorite, Soren Kierkegaard who himself wrote about writing.  Actually he wrote about communicating and meant it to refer also to the preaching he heard on Sundays and the discourse in the streets and parlors of Copenhagen.

One of his consistent concerns was the value of indirect communication as compared to the direct kind.  He saw the ready resistance to truth,  especially the self critical kind in the church and the sad substitutes that were offered.  His geese parables are sad depictions of a population preferring to be told what they have already determined to hear so much so that they will reduce greater truths to match their prejudice and fear.

So Soren intentionally often avoided directly addressing "issues" and instead wrote metaphorically and parabolically, under pseudonyms.  His hope was that the truth as he understood and felt compelled to present it would slip through the filters with which those waddling christians had grown accustomed to protecting themselves and their interests.  Here's one of those parables.
"A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it.  Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. 'My fellow travellers on the way of life,' he would say, 'can  you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?
I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. 'How poetical,' they thought. 'How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.' Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.
And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher's message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!"
Soren Kierkegaard
We are always at risk -- no matter the challenges our world presents us -- to succumb to the perceived comfort of the known, to the good corn and the high walls.  Think "the way things used or ought to be."  Even when corn is not our natural or best nourishment and walls not the best encouragement to grow and learn.  

But according to Kierkegaard's parable we are often more at risk because of HOW we hear than we are by what we hear.  Accordingly, I have more than once used metaphors or stories about others not of this community to get at ideas or issues, indirectly.  To not trigger your filtering, to not blame, to not embarrass.

But based on my reading of the above parable its a mistake for me to think that I have that much influence over your filters.  We are going to hear what we choose to hear,  especially since I have no coercive capacity or intent.

And also we do not have the luxury of measureless corn or impenetrable walls.  I no longer have the luxury of visiting you from Athens. So . . . directly, I say we have an historic property that is aging faster than are we.  We have a budget that is constrained beyond its intent to fund upkeep of this property.  We have important members of our parish upset and worried that the walls are tumbling and corn is being wasted.

I'll save directly addressing my own role and performance to another occasion.

For now,  I'm saying that Kierkegaard's direct communication is not only our complaining that "we've not managed the repair of the patio and other matters in a well prioritized manner," it is also our saying "the patio is a metaphor that shows us we are choosing how we listen to and love one another."

Thank goodness Kierkegaard's geese parables don't describe some terrible destructive outcome.  Though perhaps even more sadly he describes geese not flying.  For us that would be not only not restoring the patio but also not talking to each other about how anxious and troubled many of us are.

So . . .  let's talk about talking and let's all talk to each other about our fears and anxieties, our broken dreams and greater awakenings.  Let's talk about the patio and let's talk about flying.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Thresholds and Transitions

One of the ways people know they are headed somewhere is that they step or pass through portals, doorways, or over thresholds.  That horror movies use this motif is proof that not all passage is safe or without risk.  Some portals are "points of no return."  Think Adam and Eve and the fiery sword of Genesis 3:23-24.

Other significant moments are more like a "foot in the door."  A different effort must follow that commitment or somebody ends up losing a symbolic shoe. Even being "thrown out of the nest" is a threshold moment of decision for someone different than one one making the "commitment."

In all cases portals are known by one's passage.  The good or bad of each portal or threshold is always the possession of the one moving through or not.

This happens a bunch in the lives of churches, especially churches that are growing or healing.  The Alban Institute has written extensively about how churches teeter totter over and back at these threshold moments.  Its pretty simple but heart-renderingly difficult to get established beyond the threshold.  Its difficult because each next step forces old habits and practices to make way for new ways of doing things.

I worshipped in a very small parish that started a weekly email newsletter.  The "matriarch" and several members didn't "do email" and she like them received a copy in the mail.  We have the same provision here at Advent.  But all it took was one phone call from an already emailed friend.  So what was originally a tool for communicating became the symbol for "bad" communication.

Her reaction was first to be offended at being left out.  After a conversation or two with the priest (not me, BTW) and some friends she was able to identify a deeper fear under her being offended.  They were lucky that she recognized and admitted her fears.  Think of her experience as being cut from the "grapevine."

Going back to NO email newsletter didn't make sense.  But leaving that gap between Tuesday's email and Wednesday's snail mail didn't work either.  The compromise was to delay the email's transmission. That was easy.  But it wasn't until everyone was brought through the portal.

Advent is marvelously and painfully at several thresholds.  Most have to do with simple growth. Some have to do with the fuse of time burning.  And others have to do with how we forget and remember.

That we are considering budgets, vestries, committee chairs, worship leadership options, physical plant development AND maintenance is a spiritual necessity of our passage in becoming more and more of what God hopes for us to become.  That we have the moments of a new year and an annual meeting should help us to take several of the first steps need to have us on the other side.

Granted we will be taking on more than we will leave behind.  That's what it means to be a people of tradition and faith.  Our passages, whether in the election of someone new to the vestry or the revision of a budget to accommodate new staffing or the appointment of committee leadership or the redesigning the bricks in the patio depend on every step we take not just the ones that get us over the threshold.

Its not just what we do, its what we do NEXT that can glorify God just as much.