Making Space

by Julie Greer

First, I want to thank Leonard again for all of his hard work this year.  It was a privilege sitting on Church Council with such amazing people, and I’m excited to work this year with all the new folks!  I’m especially grateful to Sara Woods for stepping into the role of Moderator Elect.  Sara, you are so smart, and such a dynamo – we are blessed to have you!

When I was ruminating on a theme for this year, I happened upon Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 5, verse 2, from The Message:

We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that God has already thrown open God’s door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

I love this – by the time we get our doors open to God, God has ALREADY thrown open God’s door to us, to the wide open spaces of God’s grace!   So our theme this year is MAKING SPACE.  That may not sound like the most creative theme, given that we are literally making space this year with the demolition of the old Pilgrim Hall, but I don’t just mean it in the literal sense.  In commencing this journey to determine what we will do with that literal space, we are making space in our minds, we are making space in our pews, and we are making space in our hearts to do the work that God calls us to do.

This journey may bring up a lot of feelings in us.  Excitement.  Hope.  Trepidation.  Anxiety.  Joy.    We may still be mourning the loss of Pilgrim Hall, or we may be over- -the-moon excited about having more than $9 million dollars and an open slate.  Or maybe a little bit of each. 

We are not the first of God’s people to feel these feelings. 

The Bible tell us that after the devastating destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a foundation was finally laid for a new temple.  And many of those who were old enough to remember the original temple “wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”  [Ezra 3:11b-13]

These feelings are profoundly, quintessentially and universally human.

And do you know what else is quintessentially and universally human?  Conflict.  Disagreement.  It’s not fun to talk about, but I want to address it head on.  We all know, as much as we love God and one another, there is no way we’re going to make it through this rebuilding process without some disagreement.  We will be making lots of decisions, and some people might be disappointed about some decisions and thrilled by others, and other folks may feel the opposite.  This reality too was recognized in the early church:  Right after Paul tells the Romans that “God has already thrown open God’s door to us” and “we find ourselves out in the wide open spaces shouting our praise,” he says “There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  Troubles develop passionate patience in us, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.  Passionate patience is another way of saying Making Space.

Some of us may harbor the thought that because we’re a church family and good progressive Christians we’ll never be in conflict with one another.  We’ll just come to full consensus on everything.  Yeah, I hear you laughing.  Just like everyone else, good progressive Christians disagree.  That’s okay.  It’s normal.  That’s why we have the 75% rule:  if I as an individual can feel fed by 75% of what’s happening in the church, that’s awesome!  Leave 25% of our Motley Pew for other folks who might have different needs, different desires, different priorities from me.  That is MAKING SPACE.

This year some of us went to a Mediation Skills Training put on by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center does trainings for lots of different denominations across the country – they’ve been doing healthy congregation work for almost 40 years.  I was one of only two lay leaders at this particular training; the rest were clergy, mostly senior pastors.  And the head of the Center, Richard Blackburn, showed us something that really stuck with me.

This is Church A,  and Church B.

In church A, some folks want soft, cushy pew cushions. Other folks think they’re a waste of good money.

A different group of folks want to start a capital campaign to fix the church roof.   Another group think sthe church should borrow the money instead.

Some of the above folks really like a traditional service with classical music and liturgy.  Others prefer a more casual service with contemporary music. 

Now Church B:

This group of folks really wants a traditional service with classical music and liturgy.  The rest really want a more casual service with contemporary music.  Period. 

And at this training, Richard asked the clergy, “which church would you feel more comfortable pastoring?”

Of course it was Church A!  Yes they had more disagreements, but obviously they were able to love one another through them, because those disagreements did not divide them as a church family.  They maintained their relationships.  They loved one another through their disagreements.  They had PASSIONATE PATIENCE with one another.

Now, hopefully we won’t have quite all this stuff going on, but we’ll have some of it, and the question is how to we love one another through the disagreements and have passionate patience?  Well first of all we’re already good at that, we’ve shown that over the years, and lots of us have taken Louise and Jim’s Compassionate Communication workshops and Empathy Training.  We’ll use “I” statements when we talk, avoid blaming language, and we’ll speak directly to one another instead of triangulating through others.  We’ll avail ourselves of the many ways we as a church family have put in place to facilitate good communication:  we’ll have regular updates via the Carillon and elsewhere, we’ll have the Blue Fire tables set up after worship for people to talk directly to Blue Fire Committee members, people can email or call staff or committee members, our pastors have office hours, and we’ll have listening circles to make sure everyone is heard.   And I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk.

And we as a church family will approach these conversations assuming the best in one another.  Most of you have heard of Dr. Brene’ Brown, the research professor and author; we’ve read her writings and seen her Ted talk on shame and vulnerability at our church retreats.  Among the many insights that have emerged from her research is that one of the best things we can do in an organization or community is to assume others are doing the best they can.  Give others the benefit of the doubt.  That does NOT mean be a doormat – the other side of that coin, according to Dr. Brown, is setting healthy boundaries.  But it does mean MAKE SPACE for the belief that the person you are speaking with is acting in good faith and doing the best they can.  If someone steps on my broken foot, I can respond to it from a belief that the person did it on purpose, or I can address it from a belief that it was an accident and that they would never intentionally harm me.  The harm to me is the same.  It hurts.  And it’s perfectly valid for me to give voice to that, especially if they’re still standing on my foot.  But what a difference in our conversation and ultimately our relationship if I MAKE SPACE for the belief that it was an accident and not on purpose?  Such a belief “develops passionate patience in us, and that patience . . . keeps us alert for whatever God will do next.”

I know that this is stuff we all already know.  I’m literally preaching to the choir and everyone else.   But it bears repeating because it is inevitable that in making our new space in the place of Pilgrim Hall with less money than we hoped for and bigger dreams than that money allows, some people will be disappointed by parts of it.  Others will be disappointed by different parts of it, just as some folks will be more excited about some aspects than others.  In the words of the ancient prophet, Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want.  . .” That’s the joy of our Motley Pew!   And it is in those moments that we need to remind ourselves and one another that we’re all doing the best we can.   To remember to Make Space for one another.

And on the fun side – we get to make space for creativity and growth!  Ya’ll were wondering when I was going to get to Burning Man, weren’t you?  Many people know that the Burning Man art festival culminates in the burning of a gigantic, many-stories-high figure, referred to as “The Man.”   The story goes that in 1986, founder Larry Harvey was going through a bad time and had alienated many friends and loved ones, and wanted to make a change.  So with family and friends gathered together on a Baker Beach he burned an effigy of himself as a symbol of letting go of his old life, his old assumptions and prejudices and feelings of entitlement and ownership and control.  He did this to make room for new ways of thinking and being. 

And that small gathering eventually grew into Burning Man, a week-long celebration of art and community attended by about 70,000 people this year.  Unless you’re a burner you may not know that the burning of a giant, 80 foot tall effigy of The Man is NOT the only burn that happens that week.  A lot of the art is burned, and I don’t mean small paintings here and there.  I mean, huge, elaborate, interactive art pieces that took teams of artists months and months of painstaking, detailed, arduous labor to make.  Like these.   [photo]  And this.  [photo]  And This. [photo] And most poignantly, this. [photo] This is the Temple from 2014.  [photo] Every year a huge elaborate temple is built on the Playa, usually many stories high.  It is made without nails or other metal fasteners – wood only, designed and fitted together perfectly like a giant puzzle.  All week during Burning Man people come to the temple to mourn their losses – lost relationships, lost loved ones, and to express their hopes and dreams.  [photo] They build shrines, write goodbye letters, love letters; they play music, they sing, they weep.  By the end of the week someone walking through the Temple would see thousands of these shrines, big and small.  Photos of parents who have passed.  A well-worn dog collar hung on the wall.  An un-worn pair of baby booties.

And at the end of the week at Burning Man, the Temple is burned.  [photo] And thousands of people watch and sing, and weep, and yes, even shout with joy.  And the next year a new Temple is built [photo], a different Temple, and thousands of people fill it with their hopes and their sadnesses, and it is burned again.  And a new and different one is built again the next year.

Why?   Why is all of this beautiful artwork made only to be burned? 

It is to remind us not to grip so tightly the fruits of our labor that we cannot let go to make space for more of the abundant fruits that the universe has to offer.  To make space for new creativity, for new relationships, for new life. 

Obviously our loss of Pilgrim Hall was not a voluntary burning – it’s nothing any of us would have wished for, and here’s hoping it never happens again.  But now it’s gone, making space for . . . what?  When we make space for more, what can we achieve?

  • How about working with a non-profit called RIP Medical Debt to purchase and cancel medical debt, which is a leading driver of homelessness? Every 100 dollars that we raise can cancel $10,000 worth of medical debt.
  • How about providing more food for the unhoused in Berkeley by expanding our fourth Sunday afterparty to make up for the fact that that is a day that is particularly hard for the unhoused to get a meal?
  • How about using the fun Bingo cards you received today? 
  • How about teaming up with other UCC Churches and having a Progressive Church tent revival?
  • How about Sunday evening alternative worship every week starting after Easter, including Taize contemplative worship, generationally-expanded Open Chapel, and outdoor worship called The Magic Hour? 
  • How about a multiracial trip to visit the Equal Justice Initiative memorial and museum in Montgomery, AL?
  • How about all of the amazing things we can do with the sacred space that once held Pilgrim Hall?

These are among the many, many creative and Spirit-driven ideas that you all have come up with, and that we all get to foster and nurture and see to fruition. 

I look forward to a year of Making Space with all of you.

Please pray with me:

God of many names, you have thrown your door open to us and invited us into the Wide Open Space of your extravagant grace.  Continue to guide us on our journey as we seek to be your hands, your feet, and your voice in this world.  Amen.