Sunday, July 3, 2016

2016.07.03 All Things New

It seems fitting that on this weekend when we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation, we should celebrate all things new–and the possibility thereof. Our country calls for e pluribus unum. We keep losing sight of either the unum or the pluribus. Does our religion?

In our present world we are challenged to integrate the pluribus as we adjust to pluralism, now the  norm of oneness—for both cultures and religions. How to keep the old and integrate the new to make a new whole? 

Change is upon us, nation and church. So is fear. Still, what sets us free will also make us whole—especially if it hurts everyone along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with Christianity’s essential vision of goodness in the whole. Do you need to go to church to live good and loving lives, to see divinity in everything? Do you need to believe in God to live these values? Apparently not. Apparently.
Some things I know from experience about change and making things new:
      It hurts. You can’t change without contention, conflict.
      You can’t change by staying within a rigid status, or by silent striving in prayer.
      Change doesn’t happen by staring at our own reflection, like Narcissus. Outside perspectives are necessary, even if it means  systemic stress.That’s how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team found new energy to expose the deeply-rooted scandal of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. The team was embedded in that culture and couldn’t see far enough beyond it to question it enough. A new editor could see the whole. They followed his lead. Jesus wasn’t new to his culture and religion; nor were the prophets of Israel. They just sounded new because they issued a recall which led them back to the basics: what you hate do not do to your neighbor—any neighbor.    
      Change requires new thinking, deep reflection by a core group who work together to make plans, get honest, and listen to outside voices.
      Change requires patience, hope, humor, prayer, true grit, and the grace of God.
      Change requires recognition that what we believe reflects what we pray as much as what we pray reflects what we believe.
      Change awakens minds, hearts and actions. Why change? To live.
      Change requires a mantra of encouragement, such as that spoken about the biblical Esther by Massachusetts Bishop Barbara C. Harris:
                           She used what she had to do what she had to do.

I was recently inspired by an approach to change and making things new from the secular world. Matthew Teitelbaum, the new director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, offers a vision for the future and a practice of quiet innovation—gradual change without operatic drama. Teitelbaum is a Canadian art historian, born in 1956 in Toronto. His vision for the MFA is one of diversification in funding and audience. (See “The Art of Innovating Quietly” by Malcolm Gay, Boston Globe, June 26, 2016.)
Many Christian churches are facing change and innovation for the sake of a lively future. Survival is not enough. Here are a few things to consider from Teitelbaum’s approach.
    Experiment. Just try something new. For example Teitelbaum, instructed his curator to “Put the Monet here.” Usually the most famous of impressionist painters would get his own gallery, be showcased as the prize. The newly installed Monet gallery is a “preposterously gorgeous space that radiates with the collective glow of some 20 freshly hung works.” It covers the artist’s whole career in its historical context. Works are installed in a gallery with other artifacts of the era, furniture, other impressionist paintings and sculptures on pedestals that make them all at eye level. All of it together tells the story of one artist’s evolution and an era. We knew something was different; some things had been put together that would not traditionally be juxtaposed. The expansive effect was praiseworthy.
This is what diversity accomplishes. It’s also what divinity accomplishes as we evolve.
    Look, no, examine, everything the museum does: admissions, hours, cafĂ© menu prices, food served, exhibits, permanent collection and passing exhibits and their interface.  EVERYTHING.  Why? To discern what makes all kinds of people feel welcome. The church must do the same. What can be done differently? What will we vary in our liturgy? Our theology? Do we tell the whole story? Jesus didn’t just die for us.There’s more to the story.
    Diversify.  The demographic of the MFA is diverse, but its audience is mostly educated white people. In our recent visit we observed this truth. But this is a museum for ALL Boston people and beyond. There is the art of the world here! Whom do we serve? It’s a crucial question. Can world and local demographic be served at once?        
   Afford.  “We have to diversify our revenue and our audience—the two are connected,” Teitelbaum said. Financial health and audience growth are primary.
    Ask. Do we retire debt quickly or fund it over a longer time? Debt must not be crippling or a balanced budget an idol.
    Risk. Discern what and why and how. The two most besetting problems for small churches now are stewardship and welcoming/attracting new people. Is a church too homogeneous? Who feels welcome here, as if they belong?—more than a smile and some food.  Is there something that speaks to the experience of diverse groups? Many churches are about as diverse as the museum, which is not diverse at all.
    Go beyond. Who lives beyond our doors? What do they value? What do they need? What do we have to give? In the church, deacons are ordained to help make these connections.
    Ask. Think. What MUST change? What must NOT change? And why?
    Refrain from rank-ordering gifts.  “  . . .the European work is not higher than the African work.”  Is that not a gospel value? Teitelbaum takes advantage of the museum’s whole collection, sparing none. His motto is: Bring it all on. Is it too much? Is it junky? Go see for yourself.
I return to the Monet collection. I love impressionist art, because the farther away you stand from the paintings the clearer the images become. It gives perspective. The same is true of an era, or a religion. Monet is the prize, showcasing depth in the midst of what is temporary. Is that not what we want to do with the unconditional grace Jesus embodied?—permanence, eternality in the midst of what is passing—and all of it lives together in the one gallery, just as all living things thrive in one cosmos. Is that not what makes scripture holy: that the divine Word is embedded in the many human words and voices, so the whole reflects the divine image? Does God not love it all deeply and equally? It’s humanity that labels things good and bad, of God and not of God.

Teitelbaum is helping the MFA create a brilliant and engaging mix. Can the church of Jesus Christ do the same? Put Christ here and here and here. How many stories are in Christ’s? Everywhere you turn there is the face of Christ when we make all things new within the old.