A Preface to a talk about "The Buildings" by the Rev. John Merz

As clergy in the church, we all either hear or voice complaints about "the buildings." The latest facile clamor in the church, echoing back from the calls for a fully "missionalized" church, is the odd notion that the root of our problems lay in our real estate; that our obsession with buildings, the very weight of them, holds us back from genuine faith, known more colloquially as trusting in God. In fact, if I am not mistaken, it was none other than our Presiding Bishop, perhaps in a moment of hyperbole (a tactic I also relish in) who said we need to get rid of our buildings in order to better "get out there" and "do our mission". I will give her this, she has kept her word. HQ also know as 815 2nd Avenue has become 407.5 2nd Avenue with the leasing of half the building to the AD Council; perhaps soon to be 203.75 2nd Avenue, or an address in Austin, TX, or perhaps eventually just a website. Ah yes, unencumbered we will then be ready for mission!

Others say the buildings have become idols and as such they have taken possession of us. If that is the case it is a spiritual issue and not a building issue, because the buildings in themselves are, philosophically speaking value-free or neutral. From a biblical perspective this position is weak, for as we know well from the Dueteronomist anything and everything in the world, sentient or insensate, as well as anything within the interiority of our hearts and minds, even love of the living God (see the myth of Lucifer's fall here) may become idols. Indeed all things flicker within the shadowing possibility of idolatry--nothing new here at all: idolatry abounds, its eligibility legion.

I prefer to take a different tack. We clergy care for embodied human beings. At the same time many of us are stewards and, for lack of a better term, managers of 3-dimensional structures, churches, that litter neighborhoods and rural areas as possibly one of a few human structures that remind us, even if they are utterly dysfunctional (and maybe more when they are) that life is not all about utility, about getting things done. In this alone they have value.

Not only do we value these physical spaces, we believe inspiring spaces are crucial for igniting the imagination and giving us the courage to act out our faith. The word courage is linked to the root of the word for heart (cor). To have courage is to enlarge our hearts, and sacred spaces well done do act upon us in this way. Architecture in the service of sacred space enables the performance of rituals that encourage us to inhabit what Heschel called "the temple in time." They remind us that there is something called Sabbath, a time of "enough-ness", where we remember that all life, even as it broken and busted is also blessed and whole. This is the stage week-in and week-out, and we are the players. We must not be flip about our structures and forget that such spaces have iconic status in our communities not as museums but as receptors of values that are increasingly more relevant as our market culture has less and less space liberated for the celebration of the non-market values of Christ-consciousness: values such as all of life's inherent beauty, goodness, compassion, kinship, solidarity with the forgotten; space for seeking justice as basic fairness; a built space people can go to for solitude and to share their basic vulnerable unadorned humanity with others.

The Pope's recent visit to NYC, even for all the doctrinal rigidity sitting with his deep humanity, was a serious reminder of the catalyzing force a physical presence has, that could for a moment hold the projected hope, desire and love of so diverse a people. He embodied, gave weight and realization to something hugely aspirational in his three-dimensionality (the exalted, the enduring, the greater arc). Yet in his black briefcase were water, a novel, and a newspaper (the ordinary, quotidian, everyday). All this is part of appreciating material reality and a deep aspect of appreciating the trigger points of incarnational theology and the human imagination.

So as we begin to talk about our buildings, as utterly damaged as they may be--some of our structures sit in devastating neglect--we need to appreciate them from the above angles and depths. They are a huge gift, monetarily, archetypally, and spatially. Yes, they may need to be re-worked, reformed, utterly re-visioned, preserved, or perhaps leveraged when possible to serve some greater real purpose and vision. But as usual, the real mess is not as simple as our buildings (would that it were). As always it's a lack, of imagination, courage, and these factor out in a lack of trust in God and each other, which in the end is a supremely uncreative position.

The simple directional may be doing a bible search of how many times "Fear not..." appears in the Bible (maybe about a million). The second would be starting the heart-work, with ourselves first, about the largeness of the task of reworking both physical and spiritually potent space. The third is assembling a core group of grounded people who have real capacity (not church capacity) to do this deep spiritual work, and then get started. You will have to lead, you will listen, nothing will go as planned, and on your time schedule. But it's really worth moving on this: don't leave it for the next leader to deal with. If you have vision and capacity and things work out you will turn what you experience as a liability and pain-in-the-ass to once again perhaps be a beacon for the work of being a liberated space for the community in which you sit.

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