A theological reflection on saving a Christian college campus.

I am home now. As in, abandoned prairie dreams to come back to the Pacific Northwest with its layers of mountains and hills, moody shifts in grey hues, waterlogged air, and the smell of low tide. It is fortunate that I can complete my research away from school at this point, and even tailor it to this region. The thought of learning Chicago watersheds for my studies in baptism felt daunting.

Coming home has its share of mixed feelings, particularly when my memory is taxed with recalling what ‘used to be’ on that corner instead of the shiny tall thing that looms overhead. So, when I saw the article in the local news about an old Bible school coming due for demolition, I started reading closely. Sure enough, I remembered the place–vaguely, but well enough.

I can’t remember if it was a vacation Bible school, or simply a weekend retreat that took me to the Lutheran Bible Institute in Issaquah, but I remember her. Her name was similar to mine, Kirstin, she had straight, blonde hair, and she sang in the a cappella music group at the Bible school. I remember feeling so enamored with her, like she could be my big sister. We may have even exchanged a few letters as pen pals. I remember, too, the buildings that felt a little old, but in that vertical NW, mod quirky kind of way. At that time, about the only difference I knew existed between the Lutherans and Presbyterians (such as I was), had to do with the color robes their clergy wore on Sundays. Yet I would have signed up to go to LBI in a heartbeat; especially if it meant singing alongside my new friend such lyric hits as, “It’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. / Faith without works…”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the local megachurches owns the property now, and that they have an interest in selling it. But in a region with few religious landmarks, the thought of losing a 1960s chapel and school with a unique history (the Lutherans bought it from the Catholics) is dispiriting. Surely another religious organization would think so, too? Or is a generic evangelical church focused on being young and relevant simply deaf to any cries of history or tradition? I wonder, then, if this isn’t a case of good old North American pragmatism. The church is not a building, it is wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ–so goes the logic.

Shouldn’t a place where the broken, risen body of Christ has been shared, given and communed across time and denominations mean something?

For nearly ten years I worshiped in a space that was built by the Methodists, then occupied by a brewery, a disco, the Baptists, and some other commercial interests during its 100+ year history (not to mention squirrels and other critters in the attic). Houses of worship that have been around for a while feel different. There is a kind of spatial patina that can rub off on unsuspecting visitors, enriching the music, the prayers, the communion of saints. At times in church, I could sense the hopes and desires of past parishioners. My great-grandparents never worshiped there, but someone’s did.

The Providence Heights space is unique as a theological school, first for nuns, then for Lutheran women and men. Let me repeat that: the school was built to educate women first. It may be tempting to be dismissive of a training school for Catholic nuns, but considering how difficult it still is–globally speaking–for women to receive any kind of dedicated theological education, let’s just say this is significant. While the chapel was not a community church per se, it served as a basin for the missio Dei, and a nest from which hopeful young Christians followed the call of the Spirit to the world.

Surely, a fellow religious organization such as City Church, with its focus on developing relevant leaders for the world, would understand such a history?

At a time when property values are soaring out of reach, churches are shrinking, and decisions for survival must be made on a purely economic basis, does City Church (or any church) have a responsibility to history or tradition? What does it look like to honor the people who have gone before in particular places; who have celebrated the Lord’s supper, and proclaimed his death and resurrection in these walls? This week of Pentecost, I pray for a creative solution for the people of Issaquah, for City Church, and the Providence Heights campus. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe new life.

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Today was my day to present in our seminar on Augustine’s Confessions; somewhat nerve-wracking, since everyone else had already taken their turn. Presentations this late in the semester are always problematic. On the one hand, you’ve had all this time to work on the material. On the other hand, you’ve had all this time filled with myriad other assignments and responsibilities. It isn’t like I would have been able to do this earlier, though, seeing as I presented on Book XI, Augustine’s musings and theorizations on time and eternity. Fitting.

I chose the topic of time because, as a procrastinator, it is not my friend. In recent years I have become more wary (and weary) of passing days, weeks, months. Studying time is a little like engaging in the art of war with a much larger and dispassionate foe. I know I won’t win, but I sure as hell won’t go down without fighting.

What I found refreshing in studying time with Augustine is that he asks me to get out of my own contemporaneity. It is impossible to understand him through the digital clock. Instead, I have to put the phone down, close the computer, and simply watch the sun pass overhead, the shadows change on the building, note the difference in air temperature as the day progresses. For him, too, music becomes a teacher of time and measuring time.

Long before treble clefs and 4/4 time signatures, Augustine reflected on measuring time by recounting hymns and songs of the church. Here he had Ambrose’s liturgical renovations in mind with imported tunes and chanted psalms. By inhabiting the song to God, Creator of all things (Deus Creator omnium), Augustine notes, we can know that one syllable is shorter than the next, we can perceive that this phrase is half the length of the one that follows. In this way, we measure time. The breath in our lungs as it pours over the larynx and resonates through the cords is running in time.

Our class discussion picked up on the challenges of defining time over and against its effects. Time is not defined through its measurements because it exists ever only in the present outside of measurement. Once a song slips through our teeth, it becomes past. We can repeat the verse, the line, the song–but to repeat is not to delete and redo.

This got us thinking about the periodization of time. Scores of music are broken into bars of time. Syllables denote length and frequency, forming patterns and periods. Waves of sound have cycles. None of this is purely linear, even when we graph along a straight line. Of course, this prompted our professor (also my advisor) to recount the experience of pregnancy and labor, when pain comes in waves.

I wish that I had thought then of infertility’s counterpart, where pain comes in monthly tides as, yet again, the blood flows. But I am in the habit of letting references to pregnancy wash past me.

The experience of time changes with waiting and non-expectancy.

I learned yesterday (Thursday) that this is National Infertility Awareness Week. I had seen penguins for World Penguin Day, and (daily, multiple) invitations to protest at the People’s Climate March, but infertility is one of those things that is simply difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. I myself feel conflicted about speaking up. What are we inviting people into with Infertility Awareness? What would come if I were to say in class, ‘Well, actually, I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant. And I am in this class at this time because I could not get pregnant.’ Personally, I am not interested in pity. However, I recognize that the experience of barrenness, the fact that I cannot conform to normalized womanly identity, does in fact drive certain lines of theological inquiry for me. But, how do I insert such snippets into conversation so that others might understand, when I myself am still wandering in the wilderness of non-expectancy?

There was a time when I cried, How long, O Lord? That time is gone.

Near the end of Book XI, Augustine states, “without the creation no time can exist.” I know that time and creation are interlocking concepts, yet my bodily response is ‘yes, but, How?’ Apart from any signs of life within my organs, my follicles are sputtering toward death. So, what is the creation that will bring music to my soul, and help me measure the seasons with joy? For now I must lean on my old friend, Augustine, and pray with him:

You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let the person who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house. You lift up those who are cast down, and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall. (Confessions, 11.31.41)

 

The U.S. is showing itself to be worn at the seams, the bright muslin florals have faded. Cushions once springy and round are flattened with irregular wave patterns. The large coffee table can no longer be trusted to hold so much as a feather. Newer furniture scattered along the edges has yet to be intermingled and arranged within the space, it seems it doesn’t fit. These bold new styles and exotic finishes show some wear and tear themselves, though not necessarily from the ravages of time. A petition is going around for all new furnishings, but no one can agree on the details.

Inauguration Reflections
I witnessed the “peaceful transition of power” on Friday from a man who taught courses in Constitutional Law, to a man who uses Twitter as a primary communication channel for his rants; from one who is exemplary in family life to a man who abuses women; from a man who believes there is such a thing as the “common good,” to a man who, ultimately, only considers what is good for him and his sycophants. I watched the ceremony, and listened to that man set forth his “new vision [of] America First.” It seems that every presidential transition is a reaction to the previous administration, but this, this feels different.

The inaugural speech was as brutish as I expected, with all the fear-mongering imagery that raised this man to power. But from his bleak vision of a burned-out middle America, I heard one thing of interest. Apparently, ‘we the people’ have been granted permission to take ‘our’ country back. In other words, it is up to us to make this country as much for our Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, even atheist neighbors as it is for ourselves. Not every citizen is a Christian, so let’s drop the pretense. And while the men who delineated independence from England’s crown perhaps never imagined the diversity of population, nor the size of territory the United States would become, they nonetheless placed certain rights in writing. It has been and will continue to be up to we, the people, to affirm and reaffirm those rights for every person who lives from sea to shining sea, not just landholding white males.

The stated “new vision” for the nation is deceptive because it is not new at all. It is the same vision that men have desired and profited from for centuries; circle the wagons, keep the goods for ourselves, let them take care of themselves. Trump’s claim that ‘American’ wealth has been stripped from middle class homes and redistributed around the world leaves him and his ilk untouched. Blame is laid at government’s feet for somehow allowing all this wealth to fly away, when the mechanisms and means for money moving around the world lies squarely within large businesses and multinational corporations–all friends of the new administration. Who gets the goods when the wagons are circled?

What is most obvious and most disturbing for its power to occlude is the attack on free speech and the press that we are witnessing. There are numerous headlines about reductions in staff from newspapers around the country, the New York Times being among the most high profile. Journalism at a national level relies upon critical investigation from local sources. It is time to pay for our newspaper subscriptions again, especially if we’re reading online. News sources are no more free than they are unbiased, and the ads one sees speak volumes. And, let’s face it, if we’re going to “take our country back,” we need reliable information. Personally, while I deeply respect the writers of Mother Jones, Sojourners, and the Nation, I tend to read news more often from NPR, the Guardian, and BBC. I have, in the last year, added Indian Country Media Network to my list of sources as well.

This nation has been schlepping democracy around the world for some time now, using it as a weapon to enter conflicts abroad since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. It is time for us, the people, to understand a little better just how our democratic republic functions. Let’s start with a quick refresher from Schoolhouse Rock. Three branches of government, working together in a system of checks and balances. Will that continue with this administration? I don’t believe so, which means this is now becoming more of an audience participation kind of spectacle.

So, here are my initial thoughts on a brief survival guide for the next four years, or until someone torches the government curtains.

  • Read the news. As in, the critically vetted news that comes from the AP and Reuters. – Focus on the issues you care about–not just one, but at least a couple. Let’s not perpetuate the single-issue voter cop-out.
  • Read U.S. history. My personal favorite is Howard Zinn. Perhaps start with the period of “yellow journalism,” or, leading up to the first world war.
  • Read Scripture together. Read your own holy book and the holy books of others.
  • Do not do this on your own. Do not attempt to process the state of the world alone. Just don’t.
  • Add your local representatives to your contact list and moisten those pen tips.
  • Gather together regularly to do stuff for one another, for your community, for your city.

Where is God in our current context? God will be found when we meet with those who are cast outside the gates of ‘normal’ society. Let us go and meet God. Then, while we still can, let’s work to make this country as much for ‘them’ as for ‘us.’