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Archive for September, 2016

In the face of extinction

Extinction: [ik-stingk-shuh n] noun. Occurs when the surrounding conditions change more rapidly than a species can adapt to the changes.

This week the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National mall in Washington, DC. It speaks of pride and the way in which the African-American community is absolutely integral to understanding the American identity. It has a striking silhouette — a triple inverted pyramid form, the shape mimics that of the crowns found in sacred commemorative spaces and African art. There’s this striking bronze lattice work on the outside and as sun shines through it and settles on the museum floor, it changes throughout the day. It evokes the feeling of hot summer under a giant tree with “sunlight dappling through.” On another level, there’s a window that perfectly frames the neighboring Washington monument. The way the museum is intended to be experienced is to start at the bottom, some 70 feet underground, in the history galleries and travel upward, literally rising through decades of history.

The architect, David Adjaye, a British-Ghanaian, says that ideally, architecture is not about the building itself, it’s what it enables, it’s what it says. It’s not about explaining things, he says “the building really should talk to you.”NPR story

Which got me thinking about what does our building say?

Perhaps you’ve been asked by those outside the church about all the scaffolding this summer? As the new windows went in and the siding went up, I kept getting asked, “what are you doing over there?” As if we might be getting the building ready to sell it or something.

If our walls talks, I hope they say, This is a place committed to building today for tomorrow…. I hope people don’t hear these improvements saying we’re taking care of only ourselves – building a nice bunker for members as the world goes mad. I hope our new siding says, “We plan to be a vital part of this community for the foreseeable future.” “Come fly with us. We offer our good stewardship of this building as a space for the community’s needs.”

Our building has hosted Al-Anon and Recovery meetings, it’s had a Lyme-disease support group, a friends of Native American flute circle, a preschool, a counselor, and a wide variety of non-profit fund raisers. It provides parking space for church festivals (other church’s events), hosted a farmer’s market, and been the site of various concerts, training courses and district events.

For some SBNRs (spiritual-but-not-religious), I wonder if this investment in the physical space, of what is often seen as a dying institution, talks about our willingness to throw our money away. When every article about the institution of the church talks about its decline and impending extinction, might our investment say we’re counting our ability to adapt and adapt quickly.

I hope that 13-ft giant, colorful cross and flame, that denominational symbol of United Methodism doesn’t say, we’re locked into our own denominational identity, separate from all the other denominations and proud of it. I would love it if folks driving by saw the UM logo and thought, “there are those Christians who are willing to burn brightly and be a enthusiastic force for good. There are those people who are so skilled at disaster relief. There are those people who work in partnership with other denominations and faiths to respond to suffering.” I would love it if United Methodists who drove by saw those dual flames rising from a single source and were reminded of our history–when separate factions united even though we didn’t agree on everything we were willing to join forces… a time when unity didn’t mean uniformity. But I know better.
In our increasingly secular society, research shows that most non-churched people think of church as judgmental, irrelevant, hypocritical and even hateful. If the only thing you know about United Methodism is what’s in the national news every four years when General Conference tries to keep gays out of leadership and full participation in the church, then you might just wonder why a congregation would so boldly proclaim on the front of its building “we, here, are Methodists.” For me, it’s crucial that the cross and flame are right beside a sign even closer to the street with a rainbow saying we’re committed to a wide welcome for everybody, especially those LGBTQI folks the global church is persecuting. It speaks of our commitment to make the denomination live into what it says about itself: open hearts, open minds, open doors.

I hope when people come here, they hear the space speak of our commitment to being green, our efforts to recycle and support fair trade farmers, with programs to feed and rehabilitate and house those who are homeless, or returning from prison, or in need of affordable housing. I hope they hear the elevator say we care about accessibility for all, or hear the joyous noise of so many kids speak of our commitment to provide a safe space for children.

I wonder what visitors hear this sanctuary say when they enter. Maybe as they come down the hallway and pass through the smaller opening into this space of high ceilings with light seeping in front this tall bank of windows and they have a sense of grandeur and awe.

Someone said they were sad to see our outdoor summer services end where we sat in a circle under the shade of enormous tree. The smaller numbers in attendance and different configuration of worship space offered us the opportunity for so many stories to be shared–the movement of the spirit in the group was so obvious each Sunday that I began to see the summer as a blessing and not just a shameful failure in attendance. Someone else remarked on how much better we sounded as a congregation singing close to one another, sitting facing one another. I long for the day when our sanctuary space is flexible enough without pews that won’t move, to allow us to adapt to the rhythms of the season.

To be seated facing one another would speak much more of an ancient posture, familiar to those early followers, training themselves to see the spirit of Christ in each others’ faces. Our current arrangement, with the pulpit higher and set apart, speaks of a much later time when the church wanted to raise up the role of preaching and clergy as the only experts on the divine (the clergy robe and stole complete the effect).

Of course, nowadays, that notion of clergy as the only divine spokesperson is almost extinct. Today there’s an understanding that knowledge and authority and divine experience are the shared function of the people more than the exclusive possession of one person. And so now you see high pulpits go unused, sanctuaries being remodeled, clergy who walk about or who use transparent lecterns (like the new one at Wesley Springfield) –those speak much more to the fragile nature of the word preached. The physical arrangement of things can remind us of what has always been true, that it is the community of faith gathered, on a particular Sunday, and the greater community over time, who has the authority to interpret the word for the themselves.

So I wonder, what does this sanctuary say to visitors about who we are?

The new siding and windows is the first project of the Growing Today for Tomorrow campaign – several more changes are coming as we try to adapt and upgrade our surroundings to serve our current environment. But I hope you will remember as we invest funds in this building, we are also pushing money and ministry out of this space. We just sent the tithe of the money we’ve received so far (15K) to New Hope Regional ministries.

And some of important ministries we do, do not actually happen in our building:
The Justice for our Neighbors legal help for immigrants clinic, mission trips, building a Habitat for Humanity house, helping to re-settle a refugee family, the Pioneer Valley Free Health Services (this one actually began in our building but has long since outgrown us). All of these happen beyond our walls. We come together here to form ourselves as the body of Christ to go out to “raise the level of hope for those who cry out for love and justice.” (From the ELUMC mission statement)

When the surrounding conditions change more rapidly than a species can adapt, it’s cause for extinction. May we be willing to adapt. May we continue to listen to what the spirit says through our building as we grow today for tomorrow.

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