In 20 years 70% of our churches will be closed...

So this morning, after receiving about 14 inches of snow yesterday, I awoke to perhaps another 8-10 inches. Small wonder the local authorities extended our snow emergency to Saturday morning. Here's what it looks like out of my study window.
(photo: James Lumsden)
What I want to consider with you today is a small rant and then an extended reflection on the pursuit of beauty as a spiritual practice. First, the rant: as I was watching the evening news yesterday - with their various reports of snow fall and program closings - there was one odd story about how health clubs and gyms were doing a booming business during the blizzard. One earnest fellow said with no apparent irony, "On a day like this you just HAVE to get out of the house for a little bit or you will go crazy!" He then gave the camera a look and a shrug that suggested only a moron would willingly stay inside a warm and quiet home for 24 hours when s/he could be going to the gym.

Apparently I was disturbed by both the comment and the man's look - and I must have fretted about it in my sleep - because it was still fresh in my thoughts when I rolled out of bed this morning. "Why is his obsession with busyness so disquieting to me?" I wondered. After all, I went out with snow shoes to play with the puppy in the midst of the downfall; how is that any different? Well, there are some obvious differences:  I schlepped into the woods behind my house while he drove on snow encrusted roads; my exercise was out in the quiet of nature while his took place in the bustle of a pay-as-you-go exercise emporium. 

But ultimately those differences aren't important, right? A gym - the woods - who cares? Different strokes for different folks and all that. No, what really troubled me was his almost obsessive need to get away from the quiet to DO something. I kept wondering: aren't all the game boys, computers, video challenges and 57 channels with nothing on enough to distract you from the bewitching quiet for 12 hours? What about a nap? Or reading stories to the children? Or cleaning the basement? Or playing a board game with a loved one? Or who knows what...? I hate the snarky and judgmental quality of my words here, but this little human interest story really struck a nerve.  In less that 120 seconds, this news clip cut to one of the growing sicknesses in our society:  we have become terrified of the silence.

(photo: Ben Garver)

Mother Theresa once said: We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls. At another time she observed that the United States was the most broken place she had ever visited - sick and diseased she actually said - but not with HIV/AIDS or other communicable diseases:  our sickness involved loneliness and a broken heart.  Her exact quote is as follows:

The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.

That set in motion a variety of thoughts this morning - and in the quiet of yet another snow day - I took the time to ponder them in solitude. Eventually, I noticed that my friend Mark had sent me a link to a recent posting from Carol Howard Merritt. Her reflection mirrored an on-going conversation we have been having over the past 15 years about the death of religious denominations in the USA. At the core of our concerns - and her blog posting - is this double-whammy: a) Within twenty years more that 70% of our existing once mainline churches will be closed; and b) these faith communities could still have a role to play in the redemption of our culture. It isn't likely, of course, that these churches will let themselves be opened to both the charism and need of this generation - most are too stubborn and afraid - but it could happen in some places. (check out her full posting at the Christian Century here: blogs/archive/2014-02/gutting-our-creatives)

One of Merritt's suggestions involves empowering congregations to be a part of a thoughtful revival of the arts.  She writes:

What would a religion infused with great art look like? How could we stage an iconoclast reversal? How could we celebrate the fact that we pay singers? And painters? And architects? And song writers? (Forgive my ignorance, but do we employ people with a decent salary to write our sacred music? If not, why not?) What would it look like if we began to allow pastors to take time to form the words of their sermon into something beautiful? In our local congregations, what if we encouraged creativity instead of punishing it? 
(photo: Dianne De Mott)

Aldous Huxley once said that "after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." But let's not stop with music; let's go deeper with all the arts. Not only do they touch the heart, but they can become encounters with beauty experienced in community. Shared blessings that embrace the silence rather than privatized excursions into ecstasy. 

Think of the work Mako Fujimora and IAM (International Arts Movement) has done with mostly Evangelical Christians. Or the ministry Gregory Wolfe and the IMAGE Journal has done from a Christian humanist perspective. Sadly, too little effort or interest has been generated for the arts in the once mainline congregations. But perhaps Merritt's comments hint at a change just below the surface? The once mainline congregations have some incredible buildings that once honored beauty unlike the all too utilitarian, concrete-block auditoriums of the contemporary evangelical world. Why not find new ways to use these treasures before they become museums?

Over the past seven years, we have been using our Sanctuary as a show case for local musicians and sometimes visual artists, too. For part of our 250th anniversary celebration there will be an exhibit of local photographic art and painting interpreting the mission and architecture of First Church. This display will be open to the public and will remain in the Sanctuary for a month. In Lent, I will be starting a 6 week conversation on discovering the sacred in the cinema. And in this Sunday's worship, in addition to the visual art we've created for Epiphany, there will be the music of Thomas Tallis, Appalachian folk song, traditional and contemporary hymnody and jazz.

And the reason I lift up our experience with the arts is simple: our compulsive, busy, addicted and obsessive culture needs healing and hope.  Our overactive but malnourished imaginations needs symbols of depth and beauty. And the Body of Christ has been charged with living as light and salt for the world. This is a hard time to do ministry - all bets are off because everything is changing - and many pastors and congregations have resigned themselves to closing. To everything there is a season, yes? But not all of these churches must board up their doors or sell their property to real estate developers. No, we can listen to the Spirit of this generation and refocus our work in much the way Merritt suggests.  Anything less, is a waste of our time.
As an afterthought it hit me that I shouldn't just carp but also offer a few excellent resources for those who might want to go deeper. These are some that I have found most satisfying:

+ Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts by Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplain.  These women worked with Jeremy Begbie on his art in the churches projects in the UK.

+ Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle. She is one of the best artists reflecting on the place of art in the journey of faith.

+ Theology and the Arts by Richard Viladesau. This is serious reflection on beauty in all aspects of the arts as divine revelation. Not for everyone but a real gem.

+ Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue by William Dryness.  Another serious work of reflection on art and faith this time by a Reformed theologian.

+ Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner. Not as rigorous as the previously mentioned texts but a helpful introduction that is very accessible.

+ The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community by Robin Jensen. One of my favorites that offers useful tools for thinking about how to move into this realm.


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