Living in the Salt Palace Convention Center for the past two years (did I say years? I meant weeks) has done odd things to my brain. Multihued concentric circles on miles of carpeting seem like a perfectly sensible thing to be underfoot. Overhead it seems only natural that God has set a dome in the heavens, a firmament if you will, composed of corrugated steel and reinforcing bars that have the appearance of the likeness of the inside of airplane wings. Grass and sky are but a distant memory, as unto the land of Zion for the exiles in Babylon of old. I sit myself down by the rivers of Clear Creek Mall, and sing songs of Zion. It is time to go home.
I have been struck, wandering around the highways and byways of this brave new world, by one of its features. From time to time, it appears that God has ordained there to be video screens that depict various snapshots of life from the old world. They are curious and almost bittersweet things, as of course my memories of life there have slowly begun to fade. But there are two snapshots playing upon these memory-screens that have made me wonder at their apparent incongruity. Let me tell you, dear reader, what I see there. Perhaps you who still live in that world can help me understand their meaning.
One video snapshot is of Anglican choirboys, from the choir school of St. Thomas Church in New York. They are resplendent in their red and white choir robes, with voices like angels that seem to come from another place far away. They file into their spots in the choir stalls in front of the magnificent stone reredos above the altar, which depicts saint after saint transfigured by glory. Though they are but young, they sing songs of a strange and haunting beauty, that seem to speak of another world that is more real, more hopeful, more substantial than this one, and yet is not really another world but this one transfigured. The boys have a kind of light in their eyes, a spring in their steps, and joy in their faces.
The other snapshot is of a young priest in a vast American city, striding confidently through crowded streets and town squares. She wears a relaxed smile on her face, and speaks with assurance and poise. Though she wears a clerical collar, she does not actually appear inside a church. Instead she is shown inside a street-level corridor of an apartment building, getting her bicycle out from its rack. Before her is the open gate to the street, the bright sun shining into the corridor and beckoning her onward. She rides out on her bicycle, going forth into the world. She seems at home in this welcome world, not fearful or defensive but fully within it and for it, dedicated to its service and fluent in its language.
As I say, dear reader, I am not sure I understand the meaning of these visions, these memories. They appear to be somehow at odds with one another, though perhaps at some level they needn’t be. But in the briny Palace dreamscape in which I now live and move and have my being, all I can do is share with you what thoughts about my old life I still have, before they slip away.
Many moons ago now, at the beginning of General Convention, the four presiding bishop candidates spoke of their hopes and dreams for the church of the future. One candidate spoke of the mission of God as one that takes us out into the neighborhood, listening for and joining up with what God is already doing there and leaving old comfortable ways of being church behind. This candidate spoke proudly of his diocese’s new headquarters, no longer in an old mansion weighted down by the past but instead in a converted ball-bearing factory, a large and flexible open expanse with desks arranged here and there on the old factory floor.
Another candidate spoke of the importance of formation, of spending time immersed in the strange new world of Scripture and worship. “We can’t always be charging into the world,” he said. For how will we know how to recognize Jesus in the great wide world, if we have not yet learned who he is in his incarnation to Israel? And how will our hearts be set aflame with the passion of our Lord, if we do not gather together to lift up our hearts to him in wonder, love, and praise, and receive from his hand the grace beyond all reckoning and the peace that passes all understanding?
I wonder. There has been much talk in this grand salty pavilion of what is called the “open table.” Growing up in North Dakota, I understood this to refer to the scandalous prospect of Missouri Synod Lutherans giving Communion to Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. But it appears to mean something different here. It means, instead, the practice of giving Communion to persons who have not been baptized into communion with the body of Christ. This is done, so it is said, in keeping with the radical hospitality and welcome of Jesus to all people. (What, I wonder, would this require if a Pharisee or a temple moneychanger came into church one morning? But I digress.)
Opinions on this here seem sharply and evenly divided. It seems difficult for the two sides to make themselves understood. It is almost as if they speak in different tongues, without translators to mediate back and forth. Or, perhaps better, it is almost as if one side speaks with confidence and ease in a language with clear meaning and obvious import, while the other side often stammers, trying to communicate something of the vision of a transfigured world of which they have caught glimmers, but whose foreign grammar and unusual words do not yet trip off their tongues.
I thought of all this, standing in front of these memory-screens from my old life. I thought of all this, and wondered if there might be some way of being not simply for the world, or against the world, but against the world for the world. How shall we sing the songs of Zion in a new land? And what are the songs of Zion? I looked at the choirboys on the screen gathered around the altar, and thought them fortunate to be learning them by heart.