Saturday, September 19, 2009

A "New" House

Renovation, Open House, Rededication

This Sunday we are leaving the lectionary, and it will be a month or so until we pick it up again. Our first departure, the text for this week, is occasioned by a celebration of the completion of a complete renovation of the church building, with priorities on improving hospitality and ministry to families with children 12 and under, and to address some delayed maintenance issues.


You can read the announcement at the Southminster web site, open house,

It seems appropriate to begin with the well-known quote of Winston Churchill about buildings and their effects: "On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again,and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity." -WSC, 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords).

(Source, a .pdf file,

According to the notes attached to that 2003 presentation to the Sloan School of Management (op cit.), "The old House of Commons was rebuilt in 1950 in its old form,
remaining insufficient to seat all its members. Churchill was against 'giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang' because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable 'sense of crowd and urgency.'"

Churchill's oft-quoted observation suggests the following realities about Southminster's newly renovated facilities:

  • First, that the decisions of our ancestors continue to shape us in profound ways. The Facilities Task Force and Session, when faced with the question whether to "start over" or to renovate the existing facility, consciously chose the latter path. One of the values of that decision is that it preserves a great deal of what we had. In that way the building in which we fellowship, minister, and worship, continues to shape our children in some of the very same ways that it has shaped us.

  • Secondly, we have not significantly increased the size of the building while attempting to multiply our ability to minister to and serve our community. All of our space is now shared space, shared with one another and shared with those to whom we hope to minister. We no longer have any "dedicated" rooms that are just used for one purpose for an hour on a Sunday morning. We share. In Churchill's language, we have refused to give each member "a desk to sit at and a lid to bang," a decision that should lead in a very short while to what Churchill called a "sense of crowd and urgency." If you read Tom Ehrich's piece--"Why let churches sit empty?"--in the Saturday Star this week, you will recognize some of what we have begun to do. It is a return, historically speaking, to a dual function, both secular and sacred, for the whole facility. The one exception, the one space where we had dreamed of extending this new mode of living with one another and with our community, by sharing all of our space--but failed for lack of funds, ability, or will (or all three)--is in the sanctuary. I would suggest that this may be the "unfinished business" of our "Phase I." Jim Kitchens and Baird Dixon ("Up from the Ashes," Call to Worship, vol. 42.1, 2008-2009, p. 45) call this "a functional understanding of the sanctuary, acknowledging that it is a 'holy space' when we gather for the purpose of worship and a space that can be used for other functions at other times."

  • Finally, we have maintained a close proximity between staff, even increasing it in some instances, thus increasing the likelihood of regular communication of important information.

To the extent that we have been able, within the very human constraints of the time, money, and ability with which we had to work, we have tried to shape our building to help us to do two things very well: 1) to welcome our neighbors and to provide excellent hospitality to all who come to Southminster and 2) to minister to families with children ages 12 and under. We did this while trying to preserve the integrity of worship, fellowship, and programs for Christian Education and Youth. The spaces where these other activities happen every week have not gone away; they are simply being shared during the week in a way that will multiply our ability to reach out to others with Christ's love and grace.

2 Samuel 7:1-29

Of course, we aren't talking about shaping a private residence or a secular, public building. We are talking about a building dedicated to religious purposes, a building shaped for the purpose of shaping our relationship with God. We are talking about what has ordinarily been called "the house of God." But, as the prophet makes clear to David, and as Solomon's prayer (below) reiterates, everyone knows that God does not live in a house shaped by human hands. Whatever we build, it is not God's dwelling. No, if you want to be clear about it, God chooses to live in a house that his very own hands have shaped. (Genesis 2:7) God is in some theology known as the unmoved mover, the one not shaped or created by another; God simply is and does. When God made us, God made his own dwelling place. We have fallen into disrepair. We are in need of some divine maintenance to make us habitable again. For that work, Jesus provides the divine plan; Jesus is the blueprint for our home makeover.

That's what the prophet meant when he told David that he should shelve his plans to make a house for God. God doesn't need a house--and if he did, David couldn't build it. God will make David a house, and in doing so will provide a place for God to dwell. God doesn't need a house of cedar. David does. Solomon does. We do. But God does not.

What makes this place God's house? The people who are gathered here in his name, who come together to make a living temple, a house not made with (human) hands; the people of God make this the house of God. In other words, God's hands make this the house of God. Does that mean that we should devalue the church facilities? Should we neglect the physical place where we gather? Should we let it fall into ruin and disrepair? Should we fail to shape it when the opportunity presents itself? Should we fail to make it over to fulfill the mission and vision we have received from God? No! (In good Bible speak, "God forbid!")

David and Solomon understood that the house they built could never contain the God they worshiped. But the house they built could and it would shape the people who came there to pray. For that reason Solomon made it out of the best available materials. He called together (conscripted) the most expert craftsmen and builders, architects and contractors. David, for his part, must have prepared his son to do the work from which David had been barred. Perhaps David collected materials, perhaps he merely planted the vision and nurtured the desire in Solomon to see the very best timbers and stone, gold, silver, and other materials used to build a house for the worship of the Holy One of Israel. Solomon, in his wisdom, put together a Facilities Task Force that was equal to the challenge. And when they were done, they had shaped a house of prayer that would shape the people of Israel for centuries to come.

Solomon's prayer of dedication is a model in this regard. Solomon lays out in prayer before God the most important functions of the temple space; he lists the ways he hopes the temple will shape the peoples' lives. He prays that the temple will do its job as way in which God shapes his people into the sort of home that God desires to live in (1 Kings 8:31-43):

  • "If someone sins against a neighbor and is given an oath to swear, and comes and swears before your altar in this house, then hear in heaven, and act, and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according to their righteousness.

  • "When your people Israel, having sinned against you,...

  • "When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you,...

  • "If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar;...

  • that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors.

  • "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name -- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm-- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built."

(all NRSV)

House Cleaning and Renovation: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

It is happy circumstance that Southminster's celebration falls on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, 2009, which began at sundown on Friday September 18 and ends at nightfall on Sunday September 20. Yom Kippur follows 10 days later, on September 27. Rosh Hashanah is the time for celebrating the creation of the world, i.e., the "birthday of the world." It is also the time when Israel celebrated the fact that God rules in this world. The simplest way of understanding this aspect of Rosh Hashanah is to imagine that God sits on his throne in heaven and has appointed one day each year in which to pass judgment on the deeds of the past year and determine what will happen next year. Rosh Hashanah (as a season that lasts until Yom Kippur) is that day of judgment; it is the day appointed for the determination of one's destiny. (See Job 1 and 2.) It is also likely that Israel's kings were enthroned (and their kingship renewed) during the New Year celebrations, following a thorough renovation and cleansing of the temple.

The shaping of the temple and its rituals did indeed shape the lives of those who worshiped there. It taught Israel that God is on the throne, that God holds both life and death in his hands, that Israel and its leaders lived for God's will and purpose. That even the kings ruled at God's pleasure, for God's purposes. The cleansing of the temple and its renovation reminded the people of their need for reconciliation with one another and with the God whom they served, whose temple and image they were.

Two things that have been renewed in the Reformed tradition of shaping houses of worship are especially important for shaping us theologically. They are also aspects that Southminster has included in our renovation. They are 1) an attempt to focus on the presence of God, removing as many human distractions as possible and diminishing the self-importance of human performers, and 2) "infusing the [...] sanctuary with natural light and using clear glass windows to connect worshipers to the world into which they are called to serve through their own Christian vocations." (Kitchens and Dixon, p. 41.) Our building shapes our focus on God and our focus on the world which we are called to serve. In that way, God continues to shape us into the house he wants to inhabit.

Note: An interesting article on how our institutions shape us.

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