Spaces of Hospitality

I am glad I arrived at the Bellfry in the evening. Had I come the first time in the day, I surely would have been awed by the breathtaking views of the mountains ringing us on all sides, the sloping pastures lined with grazing cattle, the wildflowers of yellow and purple dotting the hillsides. Had it been daytime the sunlight might have lured my eyes toward deer bounding through the woods or streams running rapidly under the bridge. Instead, as we slowly approached and crested the gravel drive, the only thing I saw was the Bellfry, its tower lit against the night sky, a silent invitation to stop and rest.

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The tower has four levels, each one summoning a different experience –

1. Welcome

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The circular welcome area at the base of the tower has a large table in the center and is ringed with chairs. On the table sits a smooth stone, with words that might be spoken by Christ himself, “Take a breath, you are home now.”

We do not wear shoes in the building, and this is the space where we take them off. Embedded in the stone floor beneath the chairs as we look down to untie our shoes, under each window, is a portion of Isaiah 61:3:

“He gives us beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness,
that we might be
the planting of the Lord,
that he might be glorified.”

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The welcome we receive at the Bellfry goes well beyond “we’re glad you’re here,” moving beyond the polite handshake or cheery “Good Morning!” to a deeply spiritual, biblically grounded affirmation that it is the Lord who invites us and calls us together. We may come into the house of God covered in the ashes of the wreckage of our lives, mourning losses large and small, weighed down by the heaviness of concern, acutely aware that the world is not yet what it is intended to be. Yet we are welcomed out of the turmoil and given these amazing gifts – beauty, joy, praise – all wrapped up in the welcome of God.

2. Study

Ascend to the second level of the tower and you will be surrounded by words, inviting an encounter with the Word.

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Every part of the library space invites you to sit and linger, whether in comfortable leather chairs or at a desk underneath a bright window. A door opens to a hidden nook where children can rest and read under their own “window on the world.”

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Anselm writes that “Faith seeks understanding.” The welcome we receive from God is the beginning of the journey. It unfolds into patterns of grace and depths of mystery that summon us not to complacency, but rigorous study. A space like this moves me from the temptation of easy answers and trite simplicity toward a deeper engagement of the mystery of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ.

3. Worship

A steep staircase leads to the third level of the tower, filled with natural light calling us to worship the One in whom there is no darkness.

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We gather each morning in this space to worship, practicing Lectio Divina, holy reading of the Bible. Our prayers mingle with the sound of cicadas and crows and frogs. We read from Psalm 96 – “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth,” and the earth itself – the trees and streams and winds, make reply outside our little room, our sanctuary set in the mountains.

Welcome and word give rise to worship. We are, all of us, made for the praise of God. We do well to remember in our entertainment satiated culture, that the worship of God is more than a few prayers, some hymns, and a sermon – it is the joyful response of a heart captured by the grace of God, embraced in God’s welcome and imbued with God’s word. Worship is why we exist. Even though we gather in sanctuaries and towers and other sacred spaces for worship, the world is filled with the glory of God, and, for those with eyes to see, every space, every encounter, every moment can give rise to the grateful response and joyful praise that is the essence of worship.

4. Discern

You have to be really intentional and do a little work to get to the final level of the tower – the fourth floor is only accessible by pulling down an attic door and climbing a precarious wooden ladder. Once there, you get the clearest view yet of the mountains on all sides, and details missed further below are suddenly clarified.

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This is a space made for one – two at most. It invites silent reflection. Here is a space where the hard work of quieting all the other voices calling to us can be accomplished. It is in this space of quiet where, by God’s grace, we might begin to understand who we are in God. Discernment is a word that is perhaps overused in our time, but I know of no better word to describe what happens here, after we’ve been welcomed, after we seek to understand, after we give our hearts in worship. To discern means at the end to listen carefully to our lives and the life of the world, to pay attention, so we might know the voice of God. It doesn’t just happen. It requires that we, in the words of Shirley Guthrie, put ourselves in the places where God’s grace has been known to happen.

Because, the beautiful, amazing truth is that God’s grace is all around, surrounding and infusing the world with strength and beauty. We only need eyes to see. It is perhaps easy to see sitting in a soft chair at the top of the Bellfry Tower with mountains all around.

How might our churches create such spaces of hospitality as this? Maybe there is no greater task of the church in these changing times than to build such towers among the people of God, in the middle of the world, places where the world might come and receive “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that we might be the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”

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From Belief to Trust

In a time of great change, the question of identity becomes critical. There was a time when it was assumed (often wrongly) that being a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Baptist meant certain things. You could extrapolate from denominational affiliation certain doctrines, worship styles, and, to a greater or lesser degree, political affiliations and social status. Whether it was right or wrong to do so, and regardless of how accurate the assumptions were, there was a certain safety and security in knowing your identity, a security embodied in the name of the denomination on the church sign. If you ever forgot what it meant to be, say, a Presbyterian, there were curriculum resources, books, and people in Louisville ready to help you remember.

In every congregation I have served, there are people who always clamor for a class on “What Presbyterians Believe.” As Diana Butler Bass writes in her new book, “Christianity After Religion,” such classes are the model from an era that is fast fading away. Locating identity, whether it is personal identity or the identity of a congregation or a denomination, in questions of dogma is answering a set of questions that fewer and fewer people are asking. Bass writes, “It is not only the case that the Western world has grown weary of doctrine, but Christianity itself is changing – shifting away from being a belief-centered religion toward an experiential faith.” People do not want to “believe in God;” they want to “experience God.”

Bass quotes a conversation she had with a young Christian, the only young and single member of her large university town Lutheran Church: “I love this congregation. The people have become my family.” She paused, and her voice dropped to a confessional whisper. “But I don’t know what to say to my classmates when they ask me what I believe. Whenever I say ‘I believe in Christianity,’ they look at me as if I’m crazy. Besides, I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to…sing those hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being Christian?”

I have a number of people in the church I serve who cannot say the creed. They have come to me at various times to let me know that they find it impossible to say words they cannot affirm rationally. The virgin birth makes no sense to them; nor does the idea of ascension. For a few of them, resurrection is problematic. I ask them, “Why do you still come to church, if you cannot affirm these things?” All of them respond with variations on this theme: “I experience God here.” The God they experience in this community is a God bigger than all the categories, including doctrinal categories, we may try to impose.

We may think the folks who take a pass on the Creed in worship are in the minority, and for now we might be right, though I suspect there are many who say the words while harboring their own unspoken questions. But the trend lines are clear and unequivocal – their number is increasing. The church of the 21st century will increasingly have to share its hospitality not only in its open doors but also in its openness to questioners and doubters.

I am not advocating that we dispense with doctrine or with educating our people on the meaning and value of the creeds and confessions of the church. I am not a fan of the question, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” But I do think we miss the meaning of the creeds of the church if we see them as asking “what” we believe about God instead of “how” we experience God. Douglas John Hall encourages us to retrieve the root meaning of the words “faith” and “believe,” which are a matter of trust, of giving one’s heart to someone – of love.

Perhaps we should stop saying “I believe” and start saying “I trust…”

I trust in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…
And I give my heart to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…
I trust in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

This is what it means to believe, to have faith. It reclaims these words from a western culture that is too eager to make belief a question of rational assent. If we begin with this basis for belief, it will enable us to move more deeply into doctrinal matters without the literalism and fundamentalism that becomes very tempting for all churches – whether they are more liberal or more conservative in nature.

Where is your faith centered – in ideas or doctrines about God, or in experiences of God, or in something else entirely? What is your relationship to the Creed or the confessions of the church? Do you say the Creed without a doubt? Do you say it reluctantly? Partially? Not at all? What about the people around you – family, friends, co-workers? What are the faith questions you hear them asking? Are they the “what do you believe about God?” questions or the “how do you experience God?” ones. And do you find your congregation (if you are part of one) open to questions, merely tolerant of them, or actively discouraging?

There is no doubt that we are entering a time of unprecedented change in the church in the United States. Though it is a time of some anxiety for those of us who try and help lead the church, I am grateful to have conversation partners like you on the journey. Peace and blessings to you as we learn together how to believe, how to trust, in the faith, hope, and love of God.

What Remains

“And now, faith, hope, and love abide – these three – and the greatest of these is love.”

Might the future of the church in these “postmodern” days rest in this Gospel proclaimed by Paul – a Gospel centered in his own understanding of the freedom Christ brings to the world?

As I approach one month into the sabbatical, these words from Paul keep coming around, as if God is inviting me to dive more deeply into three words at the very end of a passage that too often is only read in the context of weddings. They hint at something beyond the bride and groom, something beyond bouquets and tuxedos. Paul speaks of the end of all things in this little chapter in Corinthians, when the world will be stripped down to its essentials and we will all discover together what lies beneath all that is – seen and unseen. Three things remain, says Paul, which is a way of saying these three things are the essentials, the stuff of which life – true life – consists. All else will pass away, save faith, hope, and love. And the greatest, the first of all, is love.

At the end of the month I travel to Montreal to spend a week with Douglas John Hall, Professor Emeritus in the Religion Department at McGill University. Dr. Hall is an inspiration to me; his theology has been formative for my ministry for many years. It is a gift beyond words that he has agreed to spend this time with me one on one. At eighty four years old, he continues to write, having just published a new book on the topic I am exploring entitled Waiting for Gospel. I have my copy and he and I will discuss it as part of our time together.

I continue to be moved by his assertion that the church of the future, if it is to be faithful to the Way of Jesus Christ, will operate by “a theology of faith (not sight); of hope (not finality); and of love (not power).” He believes that people outside the church are looking for a gospel of faith, hope, and love. But too often what they find are churches filled with pious certainty, closed traditions, and an infatuation with power.

Hospitality may be the natural outgrowth of an engagement with the good news beyond certitude, finality, and power; what Paul calls “a still more excellent way,” the greatest of which is love.

Can we imagine – dare we imagine – the end of all things? Can we see what it may look like when we no longer gaze through a glass darkly, but face to face? We do not know ultimately what that will be like, but if our brother Paul is to be trusted, we know what will remain. Can we live even now in the light of that day? To do so would be life as it is meant to be, in God.

Staked to a Purpose

In the National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, Corrigan, a nineteen year old college student in a Jesuit school, experiences the rhythm of worship among the Jesuit brothers –

“Mass in the early dawn. Hours of theological study. Afternoon walks through the fields. Night walks along the Barrow River, beseeching his God out under the stars. The morning prayers, the noontime prayers, the evening prayers, the complines. The glorias, the psalms, the gospel readings. They gave a rigor to his faith, it staked him to a purpose.”

I went into my sabbatical already convinced that if the church was to be renewed in our day, worship will be a key part of that renewal. After my time among the brothers at Holy Cross I now believe worship will be the centerpiece of renewal. Renewal will not come from a new program purchased from the denomination or from a consultant; it will not be born of more busyness or a frenetic following after and mimicking of “successful” congregations. Renewal will come as it always has – as a gift, a grace, from the hand of God. As the church worships faithfully, creating space for the grace of God, staking itself to a purpose, we will discover our renewal in surprising places, among unexpected people, on God’s time.

The real question for me, for us, is if we have the discipline, the patience – the faith in God – to be who we are even as we await who we shall be. I believe we do. I live and work among a congregation that teaches me each day what such discipline, patience, and faith looks like in the world. My experience at Holy Cross has only deepened my gratitude for the congregation and denomination through which I serve God.

At Holy Cross, the first worship service beckons not long after the dawn. Each morning my little window in the monk’s cell shone bright with the rising sun. I would go to it and stare out to the east, the gently rocking waters of the Hudson shining with golden light. And then the bell would ring, summoning me to continue my early worship in the sun-drenched chapel. The bell tolls five minutes before each of the services of worship throughout the day:

1. Matins – 7:00 a.m. The word comes from a Latin phrase that means “of the morning.” In Roman Catholic communities it is the last of several evening prayers called “Nocturnals.” The Anglican tradition combined those evening services into one early morning worship. Like many of the services, Matins centers on the chanting of several psalms with the theme of praise.

2. Eucharist – 9:00 a.m. The community celebrates the Eucharist daily, and all guests are invited to participate. The service follows a traditional order that many Presbyterians would recognize, culminating with all the participants gathering in a circle around the Lord’s Table, sharing the peace of Christ, and then taking Communion. There is a great joy permeating this service that peaks at the Table – it is a true celebration of the presence of Christ.

3. Diurnum – Noon. The word “Diurnum” means “of the day.” This is a service unique to the Anglican monastic tradition. It is a simple service, centered in the reading of psalms. At the heart of the worship is ten minutes of silence. The silence took me off-guard the first day; it seemed to last much longer. By the time I left, I looked forward to this service and that long silence more than any other.

4. Vespers – 5:00 p.m. Vespers occurs right before supper, and is characterized with more singing than any other worship. All the prayers, psalms, and scripture readings are intoned, and there are a good number of hymns. I entered the supper hall each evening with a song of peace in my head that often stayed with me into the night.

5. Compline – 8:05 p.m. All the lamps in the chapel are lit, and the worship space is cast in shadows. The service is more subdued, filled again with psalms and hymns. The theme of the service is thanksgiving, and it takes on the character of a preparation, not only for the sleep of this particular evening, but also for the sleep we will all enter in death. The service ends with the worship leader sprinkling baptismal water on all the participants. We leave the service in silence, which will be kept for the next twelve hours. We walk out of that space and into the night with a powerful reminder of our baptisms, water droplets still visible on our heads and clothing.

In between these times of worship I met with a small group of Christians from a diversity of traditions, each of us seeking what it means to serve within the church at a time when Christianity is no longer at the center of the culture. Diana Butler Bass walked us through her book, Christianity after Religion, a sobering snapshot of current conditions and a hope-filled invitation to courageous exploration of a future beyond establishment.

At one point, Dr. Bass said, “Churches need to move beyond simply asking “Who are we?” and begin asking, “Who are we, in God?” The prepositional phrase, “in God,” changes our task from one of discovering a niche market or doing church the way we do politics – polling ourselves to gauge how we feel at any given moment. Instead, our eyes are turned away from us and toward God. Who are we, in God? Without adding the prepositional phrase, we fall prey to our modern propensity to make everything about us. With it, we are reminded that “spiritual journeys are entwined with the great ‘I AM.’ ‘In God,’ orients our selfhood in a larger relationship; we are ourselves, but we are not isolated individuals, we exist ‘in’ something.” And then she said something that brought all the experiences of the week together in a moment of clarity that shone like the early morning sun through my window – “Christians do not worship to be entertained; Christians listen to sermons, sing, partake of bread and wine in community to be in Jesus.”

The purpose of worship is to locate ourselves in the God we know in Jesus Christ. It is only as we are staked to this purpose, only as we come out of ourselves and understand ourselves in relationship to God that we will discover who we are in God. It is in this discovery that the seeds of renewal lie. They have been there all along. Like the tolling of the bell across the waters of the Hudson, God summons us to our highest call in the world – the worship of God’s name. May worship imbue all our hours with joy, and may we find ourselves staked to its purpose.