Saturday, December 5, 2015

It's more than a really ODD tree!

      This morning, I was reading the book of the Hebrew prophet Amos, specifically verses 18 - 27 of chapter 5.  In this section God (through the prophet) is excoriating the ancient people of Israel for the careful attention they pay to all of the externals of their religious tradition (pilgrim-feasts, sacred ceremonies, grain-offerings, animal sacrifices, etc.) while neglecting the ethical commands of that same tradition. The famous verse from this passage reads:  "Let justice flow on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing torrent" (5.24, Revised English Bible).  I found it slightly ironic that I was reading this passage after spending a week traveling around Denver and Colorado Springs looking at religious buildings (i.e., some of the "externals").
      I was teaching a one-week class called "Angels in the Architecture".  My students and I, over five days, visited twelve different locations.  In addition to the visits, we read websites and/or listened to podcasts that introduced the religious tradition the sites represented.  Our goal was to learn how the building reflected the tradition and its community, as well as how it formed the community in the tradition.  We visited:
Mile Hi Church (Religious Science)
Denver Baha'i Center
Hindu Temple of Colorado
Masjid Abu Bakr (the "Parker Rd Mosque")
Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church
Temple Sinai
University Park United Methodist Church
Mountain View Friends Meeting
New Life Church (Colorado Springs)
US Air Force Cadet Chapel (Colorado Springs)*

The various structures all did a pretty good job of "telegraphing" (to those who understood their various "codes") what the traditions believed:  the mosque was oriented so that the attendees would face Mecca while praying; in the Episcopal church the Books of Common Prayer-a distinctive marker of Episcopalians-were readily accessible to all; the Hindu Temple was filled with multi-colored gods; the Quaker meeting house was almost bare of decoration (only two plants and a sign "Welcome Friends").  So, indeed, we found that there were "angels" in the architecture.
       But almost without fail, our presenters (all members of the traditions) quickly moved from what the buildings showed, to what the congregations did or valued.  Mile Hi's openness to people of all traditions (shown in the art within their worship space) was reflected in the kinds of service they did in the community.  Holy Ghost's beautifully appointed building was always open for private devotion, even though its neighborhood might be considered "rough".  The Academy and its Chapel were constructed in such a way that the academic enterprise was humbled by the Chapel, which in turn was humbled by the majestic mountains to its west.
       In some respects this "movement" from sacred space to committed action was most apparent at New Life Church. On the back walls of the huge worship center were hung the flags of the nations.  One visual cue was that the congregation was to remember the world, pray for its inhabitants, and to serve them all.  There was a conscious decision on their part to orient the cross on the top of their building towards Colorado Springs, as a symbol/reminder where their main work should be focused.  And their ministries and missions to the people of Colorado Springs were impressive -- the funeral of slain UC-Colorado Springs officer Garrett Swasey would take place there just an hour after we left.  But it wasn't just sacred symbols or sacred spaces where the architectural "angels" were active.  The funky tree in the photo was erected in the stairwell leading to the elementary childrens' area.  The care the congregation put into the decorations of that area telegraphed to the children that THEY were important--that as much, if not more, care was directed at them as their parents.
       The "take-away" for me this week was that the externals -- the "angels in the architecture" -- were indeed VERY important.  They spoke volumes, both in support of the tradition, and against it.**  But what was even more encouraging was that the folks who walked by those angels every week or so were challenged NOT to leave their piety there, but to take it out in service to the wider community.  The "better angels" of each tradition accompanied the people out as they worked to "let justice flow on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing torrent".



* For those readers who've not been to the Academy Chapel, it was built to house three worshipping traditions:  Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.  Since its completion, a Buddhist Chapel has been built/furnished, and a Muslim space is under construction. In addition, there is an "Earth-based traditions" site, up a hill to the west of the Chapel (which we also visited).
** The contentious congregational discussions about whether or not the American flag should be displayed in some of the worship spaces was just one example!

No comments:

Post a Comment