08 July 2021

"The church is like a ..." (part two)

(part one)
From Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944); source.

Today I have three new words to introduce the concept of "church" to people without any experience of what a church can be: lifeboat, garden, and portico.

(Background: this is a follow-up to "The church is like a ..." back in May, where I presented comparisons to an incubator, laboratory, and observatory, and explained why I went in search of models in the first place. On Facebook, I was delighted to get several more interesting suggestions; the threads are here and here.)

Why "lifeboat"? The "boat" image came to me almost immediately -- probably because I was doing a lot of speaking and writing on Jesus on the stormy seas, Noah's ark, the ecumenical image of the church as a boat, and so on. Underneath all that, I was putting together the qualities of several other ideas -- particularly "hospital" and "sanctuary" -- but with the added emphasis that those in the lifeboat are trying to pull in others who are still in the water, but they're all, so to speak, in the same boat. They're risking everything in the belief that the boat is trustworthy. Those who pull at the oars don't just wait passively to help people -- they move toward the places of need.

I vividly remember one experience of a Friends meeting as a lifeboat -- even though that lifeboat came into my life years after the crisis had happened. During many of the years of domestic violence and family chaos that I've described in recent posts, our family was living on Maple Avenue in Evanston, between Crain and Greenleaf Streets. Less than a block away stood the Evanston Friends Meetinghouse, right on the corner of Maple and Greenleaf! Any mention of religion was forbidden in our family, so I never dared to satisfy my curiosity about that building. Another source of drama and tension in my family, Nichols Junior High School, was also just a block away from the meetinghouse.

Many years later, I was on the board of Right Sharing of World Resources, and it happened that one of our board meetings was hosted by Evanston Friends. On Sunday morning, we joined the community of Evanston Friends at their regular meeting for worship, right there at the corner of Maple and Greenleaf.

I settled into the silence and tried to center down, but my teenage years on Maple Avenue came back to me in the form of vivid memories. I tried to bring them to the foot of the Cross. What began happening inside me then felt like nothing less than spiritual surgery of the deepest and gentlest kind. I tried to give voice to what I was feeling, but I couldn't convey how much pain my sisters and I had gone through less than a block from that place, how much weight was being lifted from me that very morning -- and how much poison was being removed. I had read about "healing of memories," but that was my first experience of it.

"Garden" as a model for church came naturally as an extension of "incubator" and "seedbed." What I love about the garden image is not just the variety and lifespans of the plants involved -- the annuals, perennials, ancient trees, new seedlings, glorious flowers, deceptively drab but savory herbs, and even the greedy weeds. But look at all the people involved with gardens: from urban klutzes like me to dedicated amateurs and professionals, to admiring visitors of all ages and conditions.

In Russia, I sometimes helped my friend who had a dacha about half an hour's walk from her home, where she grew vegetables for the table, and flowers to sell for income and to give as gifts. In the summer of 1998, the water level was so low that we had to lower buckets by hand to get the last bits of water at the bottom of the well. I understood that this was not a game -- she and her family depended on canning the produce for part of their winter food supply. (Meanwhile, back home, stores of potatoes, carrots, and beets were under every bed and desk.)

Every detail of this picture mirrors the life of a church, from the earthiness of soil and worms -- engagement with the actual creation -- to the variety of life experiences in the community, to the presence or absence of Living Water and the willingness (to quote Fred Boots) to bring a bucket to the water rather than a teaspoon.

Finally, the church as "portico" (or foyer, lobby, vestibule, whatever term you use for the place between the front gate and the working heart of the whole site).... This is actually my favorite of all these models. Maybe it is linked with Theresa of Avila and her "interior castle," and maybe it relates to the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the church at worship as heaven's living room on earth, but I actually have a specific anchor for this word. When I was a brand new Friend and a nervous newcomer to the realms of prayer, I came across Douglas Steere's book Dimensions of Prayer, and I was enormously helped by this passage:

... [I]n prayer, our first step is to remember, to be successfully awakened to the fact of deep reality encompassing us on every side, and to want to be drawn within its range of radiation. Prayer aims at both a recognition of, and a human response to, something of cosmic significance that is already going on in the universe. François de Sales expressed this very simply by telling those who would pray to begin by remembering into Whose Presence they were to come. And Francis of Assisi used the device of repeating over and over to himself at spaced intervals, "O my God, who art Thou? and Who am I?"

There is no hurry, however, about plunging into prayer. We may well linger in the portico to be awakened, to remember into Whose Presence we are about to come. If one of us were to be ushered into the presence of one of the great spirits of our time -- Albert Schweitzer, or Alan Paton, Vinoba Bhave, or Helen Keller -- we should be glad for a little time in the portico to collect ourselves, to adjust, not our clothing but our spirits, for meeting this one whose reputation we cherish. During this waiting period, we might well think of how this person had lived, of how he or she had spared nothing to give of himself to some great human cause, and of how drawn we were to have the blessings of conversing with him. If this time of recollection is precious preceding a visit to a contemporary, how much more suitable and necessary it is before coming into the presence of God.

Many other writers have helped me get closer to learning what a life of prayer might be all about. Among my favorites have been Brigid E. Herman, Thomas H. Green, Anthony Bloom, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and Thomas Kelly. But those simple and reassuring paragraphs from Douglas Steere helped me get through the gate, from a background of ferocious anti-faith, to a place where my heart really wants to be.

Steere's image of a portico or foyer, where we can collect ourselves, maybe wipe our glasses or calm our beating heart, might sound like a device more intended for the individual approaching God, rather than a community. However, this might be a result of our not having the freedom we should have, as participants in a trustworthy church, to confess our fears and (apparent) failures, our breakthroughs, and our need for control. What if we all have these same hopes and fears? Then maybe we are in the portico together, ready to give up our control in the expectation that the very next step will be into God's heart.

PS: And if we don't all get the inner confirmation we yearned for this time, we will not lack for company when we gather ourselves up for another visit, unashamed because we are all equally loved, and equally welcome, whatever life has put in our way to make us doubt. We won't push you through the portico too quickly, but we also won't leave you behind.

Why Kathleen Parker never had a chance to say goodbye. "Three funerals in a week sounds like a reductive movie title, but it applies."

A brief introduction to Canada's Doukhobors, thanks to BBC's Travel page. (Thanks to Tom Stave for the link.) I mildly dispute the author's statement that the Doukhobor story is "little-documented" but "little-known" is probably right. Here's a brief item on our own visit to Castlegar, British Columbia, eight years ago.

The Washington Post picked up this item about Friends Committee on National Legislation from Religion News Service.

Doug Bennett on critical race theory: a tale of two disciplines.

Pope Francis on the real threat to the church. (A homily on Galatians.)

"She had pickpocket fingers and a Buster Keaton smile." James Harman and friends. (Talk about an atmospheric setting!)

No comments: