An Unexpected Epistle

unnamedAs part of my Lenten discipline, I’ve been cleaning things out around the house. There’s a practical side to it, of course, and it was Bryna who suggested it. Frankly, her “encouragement” preceded Lent by some weeks and had nothing to do with a holy season in the Church year. But as I thought about it, I’ve come to embrace the idea of lightening the material load and there’s a spiritual aspect to this as well. Stripping away some of the stuff you accumulate over the years is freeing. So I’m trying to do a little work every day.

Not surprisingly, I got stuck on books. Some of these things I’ve been hauling around the country since college. I mean, you never know when you might need to brush up on the tobacco culture of the antebellum South. Anyway, I was sorting through some books when I came across a slim volume without any markings on the spine titled Siloama: The Church of the Healing Spring. Published by the Hawaiian Board of Missions in 1948, it was part of a series of books meant to capture “The story of certain almost forgotten Protestant churches.”

This particular book tells the story of the Protestant church in Siloama on the island of Molokai. Many people know the story of how the island became a leper colony in the 1800’s and of the heroic and faithful ministry of Father Damien who died on the island of the disease. What people don’t know is that there was a Protestant church on the island that predated Father Damien’s ministry.

Anyway, I have this book because my great-grandfather on my father’s side, the Rev. Norman Schenck, was a Congregationalist missionary who lived norman_schenckout his life in Hawaii. He served as General Secretary of the Board of Hawaiian Missions. I don’t know too much about him other than what’s been passed down by my family — that he was a beloved figure who was dedicated, passionate, and effective in his vocation.

But what truly amazed me was an old type-written letter I found tucked inside the book. Dated December 14, 1941, it was a pastoral letter sent to the Japanese congregations under his care in the immediate aftermath of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. It astounded me.

I thought I’d retype and share this unexpected epistle.  Here it is:

Statement by Norman C. Schenck read to the congregations
of Makiki and Nuuanu Churches — Sunday, Dec. 14, 1941

To the Pastor, Members and Friends of the ———- Church:

As General Secretary of the Board of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association it is my privilege and honor to bring you this morning, – Christian greetings.

All of us in the Hawaiin Islands are now under a strange and new order of things for our beloved Islands of Paradise.

We are, through no choice of our own, in a state of war.

The implications of this state of war were dramatically revealed to us on Sunday, December 7, 1941 when an attack was made upon our Islands. This caused immediate loss of life in the personnel of our armed forces and among our fellow residents. As a result, martial law has been declared.

All of us have spent this past week in one form of activity or another, seeking to do our part along the lines required by the emergency which faces us.

Every resident of our Islands is under a dual obligation.

First, he must do his part in the great program of national defense. This is not only a duty. It is a privilege. Hawaii is our home. Every Christian citizen will rise up to defend his home with all the courage and devotion of which he is capable. Already the calm and efficient manner in which our people of many racial ancestries have done this, has been commended by those in charge of our public and private welfare. Let us continue to work together with calm and patient and determined purpose.

Second, there is need for all of us to keep up the high levels of morale among our people. This deals with the sources by which men and women live. It is vital to our physical, moral and spiritual health.

In this realm, the Christian Church has  solemn responsibility.

I speak to you this morning not as a Japanese church, – but as a Christian church. We are “one in Christ Jesus.” We are bound together in love, – not to be divided by hatred.

The Christian Church is not afraid of suffering. Its only fear is disloyalty on the part of any Christian to our Lord and Master. And, of course, loyalty to Christ inspires loyalty to each other and to the government under which we live.

May I, therefore, urge upon the pastor and the members of this congregation to minister in every way to the spiritual needs of people and to intensify the Christian work of calling in the homes, of providing for the children and youth, and of holding high the Christian standard of conduct in thought, word and deed.

The Christian Church is needed for moral defense. It is also needed for light in a darkened world.

May God be with you, and with your spirits.

The Rev. Norman C. Schenck


“Allelu…oops”

no alleluiaAh, the start of Lent. The day in the liturgical year that many well-intentioned church goers mistakenly say the verboten “A-word.” You know how it goes. After the breaking of the bread at the altar the celebrant says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” And everyone replies “Therefore let us keep the feast. Allelu….oops.”

In fairness, some members of the congregation have been lulled to sleep by the smooth, monotone of the priest as he/she blesses the bread and wine. Out of habit, that word just slips out. If this has happened to you, you may recall the disapproving glances and rampant judging by your fellow pew mates. You can either turn beet red, laugh self-consciously, run screaming out of the church until Easter, or…let me help you.

You see, out of pastoral concern for my fellow Christians (it is Ash Wednesday after all), I’ve come up with a short list of words you can say if you catch yourself in time. Once you realize you’re the only one who has vigorously proclaimed “Allelu…” you can add these ending to change direction and save face. Here goes.

Allelu…ke Skywalker

Allelu…nar eclipse

Allelu…fthansa

Allelu…dicrous

Allelu…kewarm

Allelu…natic

Allelu…theran (works better if you actually are one)

Allelu…re me in but don’t take advantage of me

The only one I’d caution you against would be Allelu…cifer. That might get you in trouble with the priest.


Seminarian Skills Test

seminary games inviteOver the next few days the folks at the NFL Network will try to bridge the gap between football and baseball seasons by televising the NFL Scouting Combine. The top pro prospects coming out of college are put through their paces under the watchful eyes of scouts for teams that may potentially draft them. Naturally, I thought it would be helpful for the church to have a similar skills competition for graduating seminarians. This way, freshly minted clergy could show off their skills while hiring rectors and search committees could get a sense of what they were getting before extending a call. Everybody wins, right?

One of the more controversial pieces of evaluation at the NFL Combine takes place off the field. The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test consists of 50 multiple choice questions to be answered in twelve minutes. A score of 20 indicates average intelligence. I’m not sure if a player’s scores are supposed to be made public but they always leak out. Here’s a slideshow with some notable scores.

All of which is to say that we already have the Wonderlic (doesn’t that sound like a place Larry Bird might vacation?) equivalent in the General Ordination Exam. Equally controversial — there’s been talk of eliminating it for years — but overall a decent baseline indicator of fitness for ordained ministry. So that takes care of the academic/cognitive portion. Now on to the fun part: the skills competition.

The Triangletriangle
The marquee event at the NFL Combine is the 40 yard dash. It measures speed and explosiveness, two ingredients necessary to succeed in professional football. For seminarians, the most important event is The Triangle. At a simulated coffee hour, a “parishioner” holding a styrofoam cup of Folgers decaf corners the seminarian and says, “Great sermon today! Your sermons are so much better than the rector’s snooze-fests don’t you think? If you go tell the Senior Warden to insist Father Dim have you preach more often, I’ll support you.”

What do you do? Give a knowing nod of complicity and leave it at that? Approach the warden? Or say, “We all have different gifts but I think it’s important to hear regularly from Father Dim. I appreciate his approach to preaching but understand not everyone relates to every preacher. If this is such a concern for you, why don’t you go talk to the warden? I see her right behind that plate of stale munchkins.”

Naming Rights
100 people you’ve never seen before file past you shaking your hand and saying “Good morning” and occasionally “Nice sermon.” While they’re all wearing name tags (this is hypothetical) the first pass, they file past you again without name tags. How many can you name? How many do you even recognize? Did we mention they all change their clothes in between?

Preach It!
Each seminarian is asked to preach a sermon on the Trinity (they may as well get used to it). They begin with 100 points. Points are deducted for: every minute past the 12 minute mark; annoying tics like hair flipping or swaying back and forth; use of any of the following words — paradigm, missional, multivalent, or homoousious; and doctrinal heresy. 30 is considered an above average score.

vatCoffee Challenge
In order to properly prepare future clergy for long drawn-out diocesan meetings, having to stay up late on a Saturday night to finish the sermon because they had a funeral and a wedding earlier that day, and mornings following a late vestry meeting, it is essential to test their coffee intake skills. Unlike the individual challenges, this is administered in a group setting.

A giant vat of coffee is set up in the middle of a mock parish hall. Contestants line the walls. At the command “The Lord be with you,” the seminarians dash to the vat and attempt to consume Herculean (even though he’s a pagan) amounts of black coffee. At the end of 10 minutes, the winner will have consumed the most coffee (without dying). If you’re not sure how much coffee it will take to kill you, click here.

Let the games begin!


A Date with Grief

Scan 18The emotions surrounding the anniversary of a loved one’s death are…unpredictable. We may be gripped by barely controllable feelings — especially when the grief is raw. Yet in some years the day may slip past with barely a whisper of awareness. In both cases, I find solace and joy in reaching out to those whose lives are connected to my own through the person we’ve lost.

While I keep the anniversary of my father’s death on my calendar — as if I could ever forget February 19, 1992 — there’s something about keeping a date with grief that feels peculiar. I’m often moved at times I don’t expect and in ways I least suspect. Perhaps I glimpse someone at a ballgame who shares a physical feature with my dad — his smile or the tenor of his voice. Or I encounter an object in the far recesses of my closest that serves as a talisman to a particularly vivid memory. Maybe it’s a smell that evokes time spent together in a way that is forever lost.

I was surprised at the degree to which the anniversary of my father’s death affected me today. Twenty-two years isn’t a particularly memorable number. Yet I woke up very aware that I’ve now lived more of my life without his physical presence than with it. This day is always tinged with regret as the seminal events in my life — the ones he missed — dance through my head. He never met my wife Bryna or sons Ben and Zack. He never knew of my calling to the priesthood or how my life has unfolded as an adult. And yet he continues to have a major impact on me every single day — in my faith, my parenting, my approach to married life, my vocational passion, my personality, my values.

Sure, his musical talent (he was a symphony orchestra conductor) wasn’t as hereditary as I might have hoped, but none of us are exact replicas of our 99923712527_p0_v1_s260x420parents. [Here’s the obituary from the Baltimore Sun if you’re interested — I just reread it for the first time in years and it still breaks my heart].

Of course “keeping a date with grief” is precisely what we do when we commemorate saints in the Church. We remember these men and women who have come before us in the faith on the anniversaries of their deaths rather than their birthdays. Why? Because we celebrate their lives in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and we see their deaths as glorious moments of reunion with the risen Christ.

The Good News of the Christian faith is that death is not the end — it is merely a temporary farewell. That’s the glory of the Easter message and it’s why, while the pain of loss endures, hope always transcends grief.

If you’re part of a faith community, I encourage you to share these special anniversaries with one another. There’s no reason we must bear them in isolation. To be human is to know grief and we are called to share one another’s burdens. Make an appointment to speak with a member of the clergy on an upcoming anniversary in your own life or call a friend for a coffee date. Shared experience and empathy are two of the great spiritual gifts we can offer our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith.


Grammatically Incorrect Slogans

apple-think-differentI’ve always been both fascinated and righteously indignant about grammatically incorrect advertising. I’m not a grammar fascist — frankly, my grammar’s just not good enough to qualify and I still have flashbacks to trying to learn how to diagram sentences in Mr. Grimes’ sixth grade English class at Gilman School in Baltimore. But overt linguistic fouls annoy me. Maybe it stems from having two English majors as parents who always insisted on speaking and writing correctly. It’s not like they slapped me with a ruler if I used “good” instead of “well,” but if I delved into the realm of lousy grammar at home I generally heard about it.

Now, I’m not as bad as my mother who would often call over a poor, unsuspecting waiter to complain about a typo or grammatical sin on the menu. It didn’t matter if it was a fancy French restaurant or a truck stop. This usually had to do with a missing or extraneous accent mark, though even I had to agree when “Chicken Franchise” showed up on a menu in the Poconos when what they meant was “Chicken Francaise.”

I also remember my dad talking about grammatically incorrect advertising slogans like the old cigarette tagline “Winstons taste good, like a cigaretteimages should.” Of course it should have been “Winstons taste good, as a cigarette should.” 

This got me thinking about current or recent advertising that plays fast and loose withe the rules of grammar. I’m sure you can think of others but here are a few along with how they should read.

Eggo Waffles: Leggo my Eggo — Let go of my Eggo

Milk: Got Milk? — Do you have milk?

Subway: Subway, eat fresh — Subway, eat freshly

Apple: Think Different — Think differently

McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it — I am loving it

Staples: We got that. — We have that.

What others can you think of? (and yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition).

 

 

 

 


Some Valentine’s Day “advice”

St. Valentine_fol.197 croppedOne of the great advantages of being a priest is that you can give your beloved leftover funeral flowers for Valentine’s Day. Jam some candle nubs that don’t really fit into your candelabra and set them on your table alongside some stale donuts from last Sunday’s coffee hour and voila! A romantic, low-cost dinner. I’m kidding, of course. As far as Bryna knows.

But if you really want to spice things up with your Valentine tonight, try this: show up to dinner at that cozy bistro dressed as the martyred St. Valentine. He was evidently beaten and stoned before his beheading at the hand of the Roman emperor for marrying couples in the Christian faith. So, depending on how realistic you want to make this, it might get a bit messy. Perhaps a simple Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head prop would suffice. Though maybe you should just stick to the roses and either borrow a red cassock from the acolyte room or, if you’re a priest, wear that seldom-used red chasuble hanging in the back of the sacristy closet.

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, it’s helpful to reflect upon the real St. Valentine. Actually, there’s some confusion over this since there appears to 1506575_10152253412466354_588056348_nhave been more than one St. Valentine. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 to mark the death of a St. Valentine on February 14th. But even then it seems to have been a day to mark several martyred saints sharing the name Valentinus (from the Latin valens meaning worthy).

Nonetheless, the modern feast day likely commemorates the St. Valentine who was a priest in Rome during the reign of Claudius II (260-270 AD). He was arrested for marrying Christian couples and assisting those facing persecution – a crime in those days. Valentine tried to convert the emperor and was put to death.

It wasn’t until 14th century England that the feast started to become a celebration of romantic love. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is often credited with bringing together the romantic imagery of blooming spring and birds choosing their mates. In The Parliament of Fowles Chaucer’s was the first mention of St. Valentine in a love poem.

None of this should actually matter to Episcopalians since Valentine doesn’t appear on our official Calendar of Saints. Indeed we commemorate Cyril and Methodius on February 14th — a pair of 9th century Greek brothers who were missionaries to the Slavs — rather than Valentine.

The good news in this for forgetful husbands/boyfriends is that if you forget to pick up flowers, you can always give your beloved a copy of War and Peace by Slavic author Leo Tolstoy or dramatically read a poem by Vaclav Havel.


Liturgical Olympics

Borromean_Rings_IllusionJudging by my Twitter feed a LOT of people have been watching the Olympics. For some, Olympic watching borders on a two-week obsession with sports never given a second thought in the intervening four years. I don’t know too many people who are luge fanatics outside the friendly competitive confines of the Olympic Games. Or who could name all the members of the Slovakian curling team in non-Olympic years.

Anyway, it’s made me think that we should institute an every-four-years Liturgical Olympics. Each diocese could field teams in church-specific events. Instead of the ugly jackets worn by Team USA in Sochi, the “athletes” could wear hideous vestments during the Opening Ceremonies at the Washington National Cathedral. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We first need to come up with comparable events. Here are some suggestions:

Freestyle Skiing — Thurible TwirlingCensing-incense-with-thurible[1]
Everybody loves the daring, gravity-defying thrills of freestyle skiing. Why not transfer this to the skills of our best thurifers? The possibility of setting things on fire adds to the danger of this exciting event. Thurifers show off their skills with 360s, around the worlds, figure eights, and even the newest move called the spinning nautilus. Extra points gained for smoking out any Protestant spectators.

Speed Skating — Speed Mass
After the starting gun/sanctus bell, Celebrants compete to say the Eucharistic prayer and distribute communion as quickly as possible. Everyone begins with the altar set for communion, 100 communicants in (mostly) good standing, and one deacon. Giant running digital clock behind the altar allows spectators to track each competitor’s time. While this event is Rite II, the Liturgical Olympic Committee (LOC) is considering a switch to Rite I to watch Celebrants trip over the words “innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”

Pairs Figure Sakting — Acolyte Choreography
Acolytes must serve at a high mass without extraneous movements or fainting while using perfect form and correct manual acts. Additional points are awarded for singing the hymns and not falling asleep during the sermon. Points are subtracted for unruly hair, wearing sneakers, and getting wax on the cassock.

Ski Jumping — Changing the Worship Space
Participants are challenged to make a substantial change to the worship space and then suffer the wrath of parishioners. The losers either give in and change it back or go home and curl up in the fetal position. “Substantial change” may refer to the removal  of flags from the sanctuary, repositioning the altar, or removing anything — no matter how ugly — donated by a current parishioner (i.e. the modern baptismal font, 1970s-style altar hangings, etc).

boringchurchmrbeanCross Country Skiing — Endurance Preaching
The ultimate liturgical endurance test, preachers are set up in a pulpit and asked to preach extemporaneously on a surprise text for as long as possible. There are two ways to get disqualified. 1) Uttering the words “um,” “er,” “ah,” or  any other vocal placeholder or extra long pause (judges’ discretion) 2) When the first spectator falls asleep. This is the least popular event to attend especially because smart phones and knitting are not allowed.

Hockey — Coffee Hour
Participating clergy are thrown into a loud, crowded room with people drinking bad coffee out of styrofoam cups. They have 20 minutes to remember everyone’s name, have heart-felt pastoral conversations with long-time parishioners, identify and talk to all newcomers, answer passive aggressive questions about the hymn selection, and suck down two cups of coffee.


In Good Faith: Talkin’ ’bout my Generation

clip_image002In my February In Good Faith column I write about generational divides and generational unity in the context of officially having two teenagers in our household (and so far living to tell about it.

Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

My household now contains two teenagers. Well, maybe three since Mimi, our pet ferret, is four-years-old and I have no idea how old that is in ferret years. But with our second, and youngest, child turning thirteen this month and our oldest holding steady at 14 1/2, we have two teenage boys in our domestic stable.

seegerMaybe it was the death of famed folk singer Peter Seeger last week or the reality that my wife and I are now officially graduates of the “tween” years, but I’ve been thinking a lot about generations.

Generation is the one designation in life that transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, ethnicity, and any other label you could possibly come up with. You can’t control when you’re born, of course, and so your birth year determines your generation. As much as I might admire those in what we call the Greatest Generation — people who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II — I can’t become a convert from my own Generation X. And I could take computer classes and play XBox until my eyes fell out but I’d still never be a Millennial, as we call the first generation born into our hyper-connected world.

Generationally, we’re stuck which is generally not a problem because we all think our generation is the best generation. The generation before us is full of out of touch dinosaurs and the generation after us is populated by entitled young whipper snappers. It’s the generational circle of life.

There’s nothing like having a couple of teenagers around to remind you of your incompetence, poor fashion sense, lousy cooking, inability to help with homework, and general cluelessness. Such is this stage of intergenerational living, which is all perfectly normal, of course. It’s part of the teenage “job description” as they grow, mature, and start seeking their own identity in the world. Fortunately, my entire self-worth isn’t based on their teenaged perception of me — if so I’d be spending most of my time on a therapist’s couch.

What’s too bad, though, is that in many ways we live in a generationally segregated society. Multiple generations used to live under the same roof but advances in transportation changed this as families scattered all over the country. Today, there are very few truly intergenerational places left. For instance if you live in a retirement community you may not see a child running around for days at a time and if you’re a young stay-at-home mom you may go all week without interacting with anyone over the age of 55.

One of the things I love about the Church in general and my own parish in particular is that it’s one of the last places in society where different generations gather and interact on a regular basis. I love looking out on a Sunday morning and seeing every generation imaginable out in the congregation. It’s a sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth as we all gather to pray and sing and give thanks to our Creator before mixing it up over coffee and conversation afterward.

serving-handsI also love watching the whole congregation come up to receive communion with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Church School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers; hands I recognize and hands of visitors and newcomers. Yet everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: divine relationship through Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to be intentional about reaching over the generational divide in your own life — you’ll be richer for it.  And in the meantime, for any parents of teenagers out there, maybe introduce them to the Pete Seeger song “Be Kind to Your Parents.” It ends with these words: “So treat them with patience and kind understanding, in spite of the foolish things they do. Some day you might wake up and find you’re a parent too.”


Spiraling out of control!

029-22_zps0b57abb4Response to the Cathedral nautilus conversation has been, well, spiraling out of control. This is an apt metaphor for the chambered nautilus so perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. In the “all publicity is good publicity” department, the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston is thriving. Granted not all the responses have been positive and some have even been malicious but, hey, people are talking about the Episcopal Church so there’s that.

After posting my thoughts on the new artwork gracing the long-vacant cathedral pediment and inviting the Cathedral Dean, the Very Rev. Jep Streit, to do likewise, the whole issue has gone a bit viral.

First, The American Conservative’s Rod Deher tried to stir up some controversy in true Fox News fashion with an article titled Episcopalians & The Way of the Seashell. His most offensive, vaguely racist comment was:

Sounds like the inside of a Twinkie has a more solid core than the cathedral community’s theology, though it’s probably not as white.

Surprisingly some of the 50 online comments that followed were actually balanced and a few were even in favor of the nautilus.

Jim Naughton of The Episcopal Cafe posted quotes from and links to both of our responses and also saw the value of open, honest disagreement in “One man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.”

Two people of good faith are having a respectful disagreement, and I find this such a refreshing development in our church that I feel obliged to call attention to it.

The usually balanced Religion News Service posted this comment under the headline “The old rugged seashell

Favorite story of the day:St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedralin Boston has finally filled in the triangle-shaped pediment on its facade with … wait for it … a giant nautilus shell that’s lit up at night like a Vegas show girl.

Real Clear Religion (whatever that is) tips their thoughts in the headline “Episcopalians Trade Paul for a Seashell.” The good news? They didn’t refer to us as “Episcopals.”

First Things went with the neutral “The Nautilus on the Cathedral.”

The key takeaway in all this? Religious symbols are powerful and elicit strong emotional responses. I’m still convinced the Church must first stand up and embrace its own Christian identity — that’s at the heart of this conversation for me. We can and must embody an inclusivity that flows directly from the foot of the cross out into the world. Much of Jesus’ ministry involved shattering the barriers that divide us one from another. The Good News of Christ’s gospel still has the power to do just this.


Nautilus Redux: The Dean’s Response

pedimentlitThere was a lot of reaction and (mostly) thoughtful commentary after I posted my response (The Heart of the Nautilus) to the new artwork on the pediment of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Since then I’ve been in contact with the cathedral’s gracious dean, the Very Rev. Jep Streit, who naturally doesn’t share my opinion on this.

I’ve invited his deanship to post a response here on Clergy Family Confidential as a Guest Blogger. Although he’s the first ever GB on my little slice of the internet, I’ve assured him this is a very prestigious honor. In all seriousness, I’m grateful for his willingness to engage on this issue and I appreciate the vulnerability of his position in opening himself and the cathedral community up to every art and ecclesiastical critic to ever stroll across Boston Common.

Guest Blogger: The Very Rev. Jep Streit

JepheadshotI very much appreciate the thoughtful critique Tim wrote in his blog about our new nautilus pediment. I love his list of what he seeks in a cathedral. “Amen” to that list.

I’m grateful for his generous offer to respond to his posting as a “guest blogger” on his site, which only underscores my appreciation of how he engenders reflection and discussion in a thoughtful way.

In our video the artist remarked that he wanted to create art for the pediment that was not “too religious,” which of course alarmed some people, as though he were articulating our new mission statement. Remember, he’s the artist, not the Dean. I simply thought he was trying to articulate, in his imperfect way, his experience of the Cathedral as a place with an expansive vision of God, “not just for Episcopals” as he put it, and so he attempted to create something that would be broadly inviting.

At St. Paul’s Cathedral we celebrate the Eucharist eight times a week, keep our church open all day for anyone to come in and pray, hold a weekly meditation group and have welcomed and fed hungry people every single Monday for thirty years. I don’t worry that we aren’t Christian enough.

I was a little surprised at how dismissive people seemed to be to the nautilus as a symbol of our faith. It may not be an immediately self-evident symbol, but neither was the cross when it first was used. I can imagine people wondering, “Why are they glorifying imperial Roman instruments of torture and execution?”

After two millennia the cross is now an unmistakable symbol of Christianity, it’s something everyone expects to see on a church. But isn’t God the One who surpasses our expectations, not  the One who just meets them?  Isaiah proclaimed, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Is it unfaithful to imagine a new symbol for our faith?  It may not be immediately clear exactly what a nautilus atop a cathedral means, but that ambiguity can invite thinking and conversation, much more than if we had done something less provocative, as evidenced by all the responses to Tim’s blog.

For the record, here is why I think a nautilus is an appropriate symbol for our faith:

  • A nautilus is ancient (half a billion years old), just as our faith has ancient roots and traditions. Both the nautilus and our faith are open-ended, ever-expanding.
  • A nautilus grows by forming new chambers is it outgrows old ones, it can never go back, just as the God leads us on our faith journey into new places, deepening our conversation. The Holy Spirit is dynamic, not static.
  • The spiral of the nautilus shell is universal, an elemental form found throughout creation, from galaxies to weather patterns to the growth of plants to sub-atomic particles, just as we believe God is universal and unlimited.
  • Jesus gathered disciples by inviting people who were curious about him and what he was doing. “Come and see,” he told Andrew, who then brought his brother Simon.  My hope is that our nautilus sparks curiosity and welcomes exploration.

The nautilus works (or perhaps doesn’t work) as a symbol on these and many levels, but for me it is beautiful and inviting. I love it, and I think it does not require an explanation to be appreciated. Of course everyone doesn’t agree with me: one man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.

The week after the official dedication of the nautilus I received the following email from a total stranger. In it she confirmed my hope that our new june09_Page_48_Image_0001artwork would be engaging and inviting to people who might not otherwise care or even be aware of St. Paul’s and our ministries, and she offers her own reason why the nautilus is a good fit for our cathedral.

Walking through the Common from Beacon Street tonight, I saw the Nautilus sculpture lit for the first time. It is thrilling, and one of the most redemptive architectural feats I have ever seen, bringing the building into new light and new light into the city.

I read about the inspiration of the Holmes poem, but I want to comment also (surely I am not the first) that the nautilus’s many ‘rooms’ evoked John 14:2. As I read about the multi-faith ‘homes’ provided by the Cathedral, not to mention room for the ‘homeless;’ whose room has been on your porch for many years, the verse echoed in my mind. I am not Christian, but I am a great appreciator of this new and marvelous work. 

Thank you and everyone connected with the gift.

Finally, a couple of respondents have noted the limits of the cathedral building itself; poor sightlines, dim lighting, inadequate handicap access. They are right. This is why we are not only adding sculpture to finish our pediment but renovating our interior space: bringing in light, installing a full size elevator, adding a chapel, removing the pews to make our space more flexible and installing an efficient heating and ventilation system.

But when all is said and done, what is true is simple: our ministry is our message. I’m proud of our ministry, the gospel witness we make every day.  I’m also glad for the conversation we are having about our new façade. Of course there are many viewpoints, just as in God’s house there are many rooms.

All are welcome.