Archive for May 2012
We just marked such a day in the Christian church: Pentecost. Every year on this day we celebrate the birth of a movement that started over 2000 years ago, and continues to this day. And just as a person changes throughout his or her life, the Christian community has gone through many changes and taken on many different forms throughout history.
Darrell Johnson, a professor at Regent College, spoke about this recently. He recalled that when Christianity began on Palestinian soil, it began as a relationship. It was a movement based on a relationship with Jesus and with those who chose to follow his teachings. When it moved to Greek soil, it became a philosophy. It moved to Roman soil and became an institution. When it got to Britain, it was seen as a culture. And by the time it reached American soil, it was viewed as an enterprise. An enterprise, of course, is something that we try to package and sell, and in many ways, the church of this past century has been caught in that model: the best preachers, buildings, music that we can provide, so that people will join us. As with every model, that worked for awhile, but eventually it wears thin, and a new stage or understanding emerges.
As we celebrate again this birthday of our faith, I think its time to go back to that original community and look more closely. Jesus said: “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s a statement about relationships. When I speak with people about what the church has meant to them in their lives, it is always the relationships they recall – connections that helped them to lead fuller, more loving lives. It’s a very simple model, really: inasmuch as a community supports people in deepening their relationships with God and the world, it is successful.
We don’t have to sell Christianity – we just have to share it. What a privilege! May we each recognize the times and places where we can live out our call to connect and to love, in Jesus’ name.
Hope to see you this Sunday!
Architects design buildings with many materials in mind: stone, wood, concrete, and glass, to name just a few. However, one of the buildings I visited recently was designed with entirely different materials in mind: light and dark.
La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family) is the famous basilica in Barcelona that was designed by Antoni Gaudi in the 19th century. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing. Visitors to Barcelona can see the odd, art nouveau style building from many places in the city because it is so big. From a distance, it looks a bit like a Dr. Seuss sandcastle — with towers that seem to be melting in front of your eyes. It is startling and fascinating, and attracts millions of visitors every year, as builders continue to follow the original plans and little by little attempt to complete the church.
La Sagrada Familia is more than an unusual (even strange) building, however. It is an active place for worship and prayer. Tourists may come and go, but the faith of the people involved in the community there is continuous. When you walk in the door for the first time, the spirituality of the place is palpable. The building transforms from an intellectually and aesthetically curious place to the house of God, a sacred space. As I marveled at the change in the atmosphere, I learned that Gaudi had planned for this very experience. He meticulously designed the placement and colors of the windows to reflect a balance of light and dark. He felt that spaces which were too dark (think of some of the medieval churches) caused people to reflect mostly on the difficulties of their lives or to obscure their vision to the hope in their midst. Likewise, churches which let in too much light (think the Crystal Cathedral), could blind people to the complexities of a world in need of service and transformation. Too much darkness or too much light — either way, our vision is not comprehensive enough.
Gaudi knew this, and so did Jesus. They both knew that the real world was made up of life and death, suffering and joy, sin and the overcoming of it. People of faith live in the balance of light and dark, for we live in the real world. Gaudi’s genius is that he designed a whole cathedral with that as a guiding principle, thus creating a powerful experience of the holy.
Every life experience is an invitation to know ourselves and God more fully. I got a visual reminder of that on our trip to Barcelona. As we embrace the fullness of our lives, may our vision deepen, so that in the balance of light and dark, we more clearly see the presence of God in our midst.
Thanks be to God.
The main room of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, is awe-inspiring. It is huge, but not overwhelming; filled with visitors, yet somehow reverent, the noise level a constant, hushed buzz. Originally built as a cathedral by the Christians in the 6th century, it was covered with mosaics depicting the Christian story: Jesus the Judge, Jesus as a baby, Mary and the Saints – all the elements we are used to seeing in Orthodox art. In the 16th century, the Ottoman empire took over the city, and converted the church into a mosque. All the mosaics were plastered and painted over, and Muslim symbols were the only ones visible to the eye. It was in 1935 that the edifice was changed again: this time, it became a museum, a place owned equally by all the citizens of Turkey, and a monument to the separation of religion and state.
That is how it remains today, and why people from all faiths are drawn to this place. Over the years, the painted facades have faded in places, allowing the Christian mosaics to come through again, existing side by side with the still vibrant Islamic patterns and symbols. As I wandered through Hagia Sophia (the Greek for Holy Wisdom) I was moved by one particular image: in one smaller domed area, a Muslim symbol and a Christian cross seem to be merged, both equally present yet somehow superimposed on one another. Which one was dominant? It was impossible to tell. Which was more beautiful? The beauty of each was enhanced by the presence of the other. The artists were separated by 10 centuries, but the depictions worked together, almost as if they were planned by one artist, after all.
There is always controversy when religions seek to share sacred space. That is true today, as well, as there is a movement on each side to “restore” the building to either the Christians or the Muslims. To be turned back into a true place for worship, as each side maintains. However, the moments I spent in Hagia Sophia, amongst the Christian mosaics and the Islamic murals were some of the most worshipful moments of my life. God is so much bigger than any of our depictions or imaginings. Perhaps the holy wisdom being offered in this special place is just that: we need the best of all our faiths to inspire us, to offer us even a glimpse of the way the Spirit worked and is still working through us. Wherever you find an image or a word or an idea or a prayer that connects you more deeply to the meaning of your life, you are in the Presence of God. May our eyes and ears be opened by grace so that we can recognize God in every face and every place.
by Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister
When my oldest son was born I saw myself entering into the forest of motherhood, a completely unknown territory for me. It became clear pretty swiftly that being a mother was going to take all of my energy, intelligence, imagination and love — and that I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Yet, I was certain God had called me to this adventure and I knew the journey of being a mother would color everything else I would do the rest of my life.
Now my two sons are wonderful, indomitable twenty some-things. The trees have thinned and I am very grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In my eyes, they are lessons that also have meaningful application in the church today. Perhaps the church in our time could remedy some of our most serious flaws by becoming a good mother for our family of faith. See if you think so too.
1. The Goal as a Mother: Be Good Enough
I had learned as a child, from home, school and church that my goal was to be perfect. But from a lot of failures and false starts I learned that perfection is impossible, especially for a mother. It’s also undesirable. As mothers, we are the world to our infant children — their experience of us set their expectations for the world in a way that would be difficult and painful for them to change later in life. I realized that since the world is far from perfect, showing my children that what the world does offer is perfectly good enough was important. It also made me realize that being good enough as mother was a worthy goal for me.
I see that the church and our leaders also feel deeply this burden to be perfect — perfectly loving, perfectly attentive, perfectly present. But this is no more possible than it was for me to be a perfect mother. And it is just as undesirable. We cannot transcend being of this world. We are beautifully flawed humans with weaknesses as well as strengths. What is most important is being good enough; nurturing our faith community and sustaining mission in service to our neighbors beyond us. Our present burden of perfection is too much to bear — Good enough is what God expects of us.
2. Say “Yes” More
It took me some time to recognize that my visceral response to everything as mother was “No.” Perhaps this came from an ingrained sensitivity to what could go wrong. Whatever its source, I came to see how withering this was to the spirits of my children. Out of my love for them, I committed myself to saying “Yes” if at all possible (and often enough it was not, like “No, homework comes before that Nintendo game”). They came to expect more, “Yes” than “No” which I believe contributes mightily to their willingness now to explore the unknown. In time, they heard enough “Yes’s” to expect the world to say “Yes” to them and they came to say “Yes” most of the time to their own ideas, as well.
In church, think about how often we hear phrases like this: “We tried that before and it didn’t work,” or “We don’t have the budget for that,” or “The rules say you can’t do that,” or “Wait a little while longer” with the hope that you will forget about it. Simply put, these answers all say one thing: “No.” How can we wonder that people wander away or get discouraged when the answer routinely is “No”? What might the church landscape come to be if we cultivated a presumption of saying, “Yes”?
3. Mothers Don’t Hold All the Power
Perhaps other mothers out there will relate to this: There was a pretty distinct moment in both of my pregnancies when I felt that the growing being inside my body changed from an extension of myself to something different from me that was nestled inside me. It may have been when each reached a certain size. Whatever caused the change, from that moment on it was clear to me that eventually this being would be on its own in the world. When I look back, this was the moment when my children started to exert their power over our relationship.
This was startling to me. It may be common sense to many but I never thought that my children would bring considerable power to the process of parenting. From the very beginning, they had feelings, opinions, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, insights — in other words, they were real people. My younger son resisted taking a nap and having a regular bedtime from two weeks old and to this day his preferred routine with late nights and late waking mystifies me. He taught me very early that he had his own mind and brought it to our relationship with amazing power.
We say in the church that each one of us is a beloved child of God. It would help us to accept one huge consequence of this truth: each one of us has power to bring to the church family. All of us are unique and important and filled with gifts to bring to blessed transformation in the church.
4. Children Grow… and So Do Mothers
Change is inherent to being human, but I quickly learned that children grow and change at a speed beyond anything I had imagined. And it was not enough for me to simply hold on for dear life on this wild ride. A mother needs to change in her own unique ways in order to keep pace with the change in her children. The growing edges of the mother and of the child are entwined, but distinct. Both are on their own journey, sometimes easily forgotten as the mother struggles to simply keep up with the daily tasks at hand. I found that nurturing my own growth was crucial so that I could keep up with my children as they inevitably changed, that is, grew up.
When my oldest son was in high school, he asked me if he could join a group that planned to visit the Heifer Project sites in Cambodia and Vietnam. Though I knew it was a trip that could be a great opportunity for growth, it took all I had to summon the courage to say “Yes” to my child traveling across the world with strangers. In doing so I had to step up and develop whole new skills — registering him for the trip, getting visas from foreign embassies, getting the right immunizations, let alone learning how to let go. I could only do this because I had already been changing — growing as a person. I had seized opportunities for my own transformation each year and so was more open to adjusting to the change in my child.
Absorbing this lesson from motherhood could be so wonderfully transforming for the church. Our parishioners — our children — are changing, especially if we are doing a good job of making the connections between God and their daily lives. It is then utterly crucial that the church be committed to changing in a way that accommodates the change of the members of the church family. I am blessed to be in the Reformed tradition whose hallmark is “Reformed, always Being Reformed” so that we understand the way our change is inevitable and good. A great deal of conflict within the church would disappear were we to learn this from mothering.
5. It Really Does Take a Village
I was extremely possessive as a new mother. At neighborhood parties, I was not the mom who was comfortable having my infant passed around among the adults. I think about this now and it embarrasses me! It took me some time, but the longer I was a mother the more I realized that it did, indeed, take a village to raise a child. For one thing, it is a basic way in which your child’s connection with the world expands beyond you. It is a very good thing for your child to be in loving contact with a variety of adults from the very start to introduce him or her to the big, wide world.
It is also good for a mother to disappear and come back from her child’s earliest age. At the very least her child learns to trust that she will return when she disappears. And at the same time, her child learns that there are other adults who love him or her and can care for them well. For me, as a mother, I also learned that my love for my child was not in the attachment — the physical being with my child — my love was a deep spiritual truth that was constant whether I was with my children or separate from them. It is a blessing for us all to know and trust this love wherever we are in any one moment.
The church needs to see that it takes the whole village to nurture faith in each one of us; that we need everyone in our faith communities for us to love and serve Jesus Christ together. It worries me how often in the church today our love for one another lacks the motherly quality of deep constancy that abides through attachment and separation, through disagreement or conflict, through good days and bad days among us. God loves us all in this way. I look for the day the church lives out the same motherly love.
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