In the Guardian article by Giles Fraser I quoted earlier in the week, there was a penetrating observation that is important to the work I do as a pastor, an artist and someone trying to make sense of life in 21st century America. He wrote:
"The power of art," says Marcuse, "lies
in its power to break the monopoly of established reality." My fascination
with religion is its ability to do
precisely the same. That it is able to suggest there is more to reality than
the flat-footed empiricism of those who believe that if you can't count it,
touch it or weigh it, it doesn't exist.
Not a week goes by that someone doesn't say something like this to me: "Do you really believe that you can help keep this church alive for more than a few more years?" Some are that blunt. Others cast their doubts by worrying about our aging building - or our shrinking endowment (still over $1 million dollars) - or the lack of interest in religion by the wider public. After all, New England only rivals the Pacific Northwest in people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious."
For a time I tried to share the "deeper facts" with those who can only see the obvious: our modest numerical growth over the past 5 years is moving in the right direction, our stunning financial stewardship continues to ripen each year despite the current economic recession, there is a greater awareness and participation of our role in a variety of creative community events, a deeper appreciation for our civic contributions is rea, too etc. But I've come to the realization that I need to quit trying to teach stones to see, because here's the deal: when the only way you can imagine the future is related to the bottom line, there are never enough "facts" to push someone into a vision of faith. And Jesus said something about throwing pearls before swine, too didn't he?
Artist and theologian, Mako Fujimura, once put it like this:
How we allocate our funding has to do with
fundamental bottom line issues. Churches are operating under a utilitarian
pragmatism, with a "zero sum game," of resources competing with one
another, much like a big businesses. We do not see beauty as valuable. Why?
Well, I believe this mindset has as much to do with how we view the gospel as
how we view the arts. Jesus commended Mary of Bethany (in John
11-12) for extravagantly offering perfume valued at a year’s worth of wages to
anoint him for his burial. She broke open the nard of mystery of our being, of
who Christ was, and Jesus stated the she "has done a beautiful thing to
me. And wherever the Gospel is told, what she has done will also be told."
My question is this: Is our gospel accompanied with just as gratuitous,
generous, creative and beautiful acts as Mary's? Perhaps both the quality and
the power of our art would reach a different height and depth if we created
from that perspective. (See my essay "Beautiful Tears" on my website.)
Last week, for example, I met a real estate developer - who is also a person of faith - who wants to work with us in finding alternative funding sources that will help us do two things: grow our creative ministries deeper while linking our physical plant to the well-being of the city. This wasn't a "head in the clouds" dreamer, but a man who knows how money works. He wants to link his gifts and wisdom with our need because, as he said, "I want to give something back to this place that will help give my life deeper meaning." Like my Cleveland friends in the Pentecostal world used to say, "Jesus wasn't kidding when he told us to make friends with unrighteous Mammon." What we have to do is learn from those who know how to get things done in this economy so that they can help us advance mission and ministry.
My congregation faces some serious challenges - far more than we have either the wisdom or financial resources to resolve all by ourselves - and as so often happens this has caused some to grow frightened. Even short-sighted. But now is not the time for fear or retreat. We are on the cusp of something bold and new that is only beginning to take shape. The old way of "doing" church - and funding our ministries - is dying. In some ways it is like Maundy Thursday - some hard and uncertain times are certain to come as we give up zero-sum/bottom line thinking - because Easter is just around the corner waiting to resurrect our imaginations.
2) Leonid Afremov, "White Imagination" @ www.redbubble.com
3) The Imagination Tree @ www.subliminalhacking.net