Thursday, April 25, 2013


But I have to admit I'm not crazy about this look.

My friend and colleague (and excellent pastor) Mike and I have a congenial ongoing disagreement regarding the appropriateness of permanent large video screens in worship spaces. My position is that the screens (on which are projected hymns, liturgy, etc.) are simply the hymn-book of the twenty-first century – tools for worship that are value-neutral as regards piety or the content of the worship. (Also, I argue, no church would be built today without them.) Although I don’t claim to speak for Mike (Mike?), I understand his anti- argument to be that the screens detract from the solemnity and focus of worship, and are more of an architectural intrusion than they’re worth in what would otherwise be a place of contemplative beauty (especially in an older sanctuary in which they would have to be retro-fitted).*

Although I continue to maintain my basic argument, a recent worship experience gave me pause. Participating as a worshiping member of the congregation in a church with screens, it occurred to me that this set-up allows for only one posture: upright. This is fine for joining in a song of praise, but is restrictive if the liturgy calls for a confession, prayer of lament, or even a doleful Lenten hymn. Restrictive in the sense that at such times the body (at least my body) is naturally and spiritually inclined to bow the head or bend the knee. This is why I have decided that my first preference is for another relatively new worship practice: Printing the entire service—hymns, scripture, liturgy—in the bulletin. Not only is this welcoming to the visitor, it allows for a variety of postures. I suppose many churches have the practice of doing both: the screen and the bulletin. If I had to choose one, however, I’d go with the full-service bulletin. So I can bow my head and still see the words.

And there are times when one is bowing the head but should be looking up. Attending a conference in Chicago recently, I was walking through the lobby of our hotel, mid-morning, and I noticed that everyone—I mean everyone (including me)—was bent over a screen. People of all ages. Some (like me) were walking along and consulting a smartphone screen, some were at a lobby table working on a laptop, some sitting in the cushy chairs looking at an iPad. The desk clerks, of course, on their computers. At the moment-in-time I took this stroll, I’d say fourteen or fifteen people. Everyone.

We live on a fairly busy thoroughfare. People of all ages walk or run past our house. A mere glance out the window at a passing figure always—always—reveals the bent-down-head silhouette of the screen-user. Then I turn back to my iPhone, bend over my screen, and log in my latest move in the Scrabble game I’m playing with my friend in Texas.

I hope it’s clear that this is not a finger-pointing rant, but rather a confessional and societal observation. The old cartoon staple of the newspaper-reading husband listening with half an ear, mumbling, “Uh-huh…” to his wife’s comments has been multiplied and miniaturized. I was that cartoon husband. I finally learned (with some, uh, encouragement), that I needed to physically lower the paper and look Caryl in the eye and participate in the human interaction of conversation. I have similarly changed my lowdown ways and now physically turn away from the computer screen if someone walks in to talk.

Certainly I am not the first person to notice that if I take the bent-head smartphone posture and remove the phone, I’m gazing straight at my navel.

In third grade we actually had a unit on “telephone etiquette.” I am optimistic that as we emerge from the infancy of the digital age into some kind of maturity, we will routinely teach the eye-to-eye lessons of screen etiquette to our kids, and ourselves. Our brave new world gives a cogent (and literal) new meaning to John Updike’s profound and challenging line, “We are all so terribly alone, but it’s important that we keep making signals through the glass.”

*Another topic is the abuse of screens in worship: Cute butterfly pictures; the speaker reading, badly, words that you can read better by yourself, etc. Screen or no screen, give me a skilled talking head in a pulpit anytime.
I am also curious about why a person curled up in a chair with a tattered crossword puzzle book seems somehow less off-putting than the same person in the same chair doing a crossword on a device. Do you agree?
Since publishing this post, I came across this related article in the Christian Century.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Change and decay in all around I see...

...O Thou who changest not, abide with me. ~ Henry Lyte, 1847 
In the midst of life we are in death. ~ Book of Common Prayer, 1552
Rust never sleeps. ~ Neil Young, 1979
Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin.
Behind scaffolding (off-and-on) since 1258
The last time we were in Oxford (I have friends who will accuse me of writing this post just so I can use that phrase) it occurred to me that if one were not employed in Oxford’s primary occupation -- the pursuit of study both arcane and lively -- the business to be in would be the scaffold business.

Scaffolding, that is to say, and related construction and remodeling trades. As we sat in one 800-year old pub (a pub or ale house had existed in that location since the thirteenth century), I peered over the rim of my pint to look around the pleasant room and wonder what had been involved over the centuries in the conversion from candles to gas lighting and from gas to electricity. What duct-work and cabling within the thick walls? What tunneling under? What scaffolding on the exterior?

As we walked the winding streets (stepping reverently over the black cross embedded in the cobblestone to mark the site of the 1556 burning of the martyrs), my gaze traveled downward from the “dreaming spires” to ground level.  Building after building, tower after tower were enveloped in scaffolding. The effect of the whole was a sort of lattice-work, an almost delicate-looking exoskeleton that existed to silently and steadfastly prop up the bustle of life and community within.

In a sort of algebraic equation, the age of Oxford + the unremitting processes of decay + the ever-changing applications of construction technology = an almost constant need for upgrading = scaffolding.

Age and dignified beauty only serve to make Oxford a telling example of the rule that affects everything—and everyone: In the words of the Poet Rainer Rilke, “All have this falling sickness none withstands.” In buildings, this sickness is wind, water, ice, the shifting of the earth. In us: Well, as my late friend and colleague Gerhard Frost used to put it, “Ah, yes, Richard, it is true; we are all very busy dying.”

Jorgensen Manor.
Propping up ladders since 1929.

Our house has the “falling sickness.” (So does yours.) Not as grand as an Oxford edifice, but within the last year it was surrounded by scaffolds and ladders for much-needed carpentry and painting – part of our effort to prepare for a possible sale. The result is that we like it so much (we’ve always liked it), we’re considering staying. But then we think of those elements of entropy: wind, water, ice; and it occurs to us that perhaps getting out while the getting is good is another way of saying that the next owners can be the ones who hire the next scaffold-erectors. 

And each of us? Our scaffolding is exercise, pills, the latest diet -- the lattice of  support that enables us to carry on the “inner life,” of love, relationship, and meaning in which we live. But rust never sleeps; in the midst of life we are in death. As an old friend said, of his impending death, “This is the end of the road upon which we all travel. The only alternative would be to never have taken the journey at all. And who would want that?”

There would be no journeying to Oxford—no pints in ancient pubs, no evensong in sunlit chapels—without the centuries of scaffolding lining the path. I now think of the scaffolds of Oxford as part of the beauty of the place. I haven't, however, had such a romantic notion about the ladders and paint brushes needed to stave off the ravages of weather on my own house. Why? Could it be that the failure of most of us to include the practicalities of forward-looking maintenance in our budgets and calendars is not so much a matter of procrastination and forgetfulness as it is a subtle but deep-seated denial of death? Averting one's eyes from the creeping, sleepless rust? But the vitality of places like Oxford are an architecturally poetic expression of the truth that ladders and scaffolds are not signs of death, but life!

In the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, God is described as erecting "bars and gates" to hold back the chaos of the sea so that life can flourish. Deuteronomy assures us that underneath this transitory life are "the everlasting arms." Scaffolding.

     The leaves are falling;
     this hand is falling, too.
     All have this falling sickness none withstands.
     Yet there is one whose ever-holding hands
     this everlasting falling
     can't fall through.

                             ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, d. 1926