THE ARCHITECTURE OF A
I was apprehensive when Allen Ginsberg was scheduled to read
his poetry in St. John’s Church in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
His counter-cultural rants in his aptly named classic, “Howl,” spoke
of a lost battalion of spiritual seekers looking for jazz or sex
or soup. I thought that my congregation, as we addressed this yearning
in post-modern American culture, could provide the jazz and the
soup; the sex would be problematic.
As Allen sat in my study, along with Philip Glass, who had been
coming to St. John’s every third year to benefit the New
Arts Program on whose board I served, I remembered my earlier years
when Manhattan was my playground. Though many years older than
I, we both had come from Newark, were familiar with the venues
around Washington Square and East Village, and we both engaged
in the search for Dharma and for Zen. I remembered Allen’s “Howl” and
the obscenity trials that his poetry had generated.
And now this gay socialist poet and icon of the Beat Generation
was about to stand before the altar of an old traditional Pennsylvania
Dutch congregation and offer his own Anacreontic verse. I whispered
a silent prayer that none of our older church elders would come
out this night out of curiosity to hear this celebrated non-conformist
bard. I had worked to plant the seeds of a new congregation in
the midst of the old, but perhaps this was going a bit too far.
While waiting for the program to begin, I asked Phillip why a
growing number of Jews, including Allen, had become Buddhists.
Phillip laughed and said that they were called “BU-JUs.” They
had embraced Buddhism in a quest for a new spirituality that wasn’t
tied to theism and old traditions. We didn’t have the time
to get into a lengthy discussion but we touched on the common understanding
of suffering. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is
suffering, and certainly the Jewish people have experienced that
from the diaspora to the pogroms to the Holocaust. It became evident
that all people seek a spiritual path out of their own context.
While the great theological question of the nineteenth century
was, “What must I do to be saved?” the great question
of the twenty-first century is, “What must I do to be relevant?” Or
to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, “If you can find meaning in
your life, you can endure anything.” That search for meaning
and relevance influenced how I would try to minister to others
and help them along their own spiritual path.
If my own journey was diverse, it seemed plausible that it might
also be for others as well. Going to the Billy Graham meetings
at the old Madison Square Garden; hanging out at jazz joints in
the Village; learning meditation from Lobsang Samden, the brother
of the Dalia Lama, a classmate at Ursinus; exploring the mysticism
of Quaker silence and the unworldly worship of the Swedenborgians;
and seeking my own dwelling place for wonder and union with the
Creator; it was as though I had gone through a spiritual deli and
selected that which I felt I needed. The one thing that was lacking
was the context or matrix. And that became my theology of the Incarnation,
God present, not only in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but in
all persons. While Christ became the clearest example of “God
with us,” I recognize the validity of other paths where the
presence of God becomes clear.
Allen Ginsberg told the story of his visit to an ashram in Oakland.
He entered the room where he was to meditate, but he carried with
him a notepad upon which he would write down whatever thoughts
might come to him during his period of kenosis. But the monk who
admitted him took away his pad and said, “No thinking. No
writing.” To empty oneself one must resist intellectual constructs
and simply become aware.
Our apprehension of God is often too cerebral, too intellectual.
While it is true as Johannes Kepler said, “I think Thy thoughts
after Thee, O God,” there also needs to be room for the experiential.
And that was what we sought to provide at St. John’s.
My ministry recognized the evolutionary nature of consciousness
as one develops his or her own spirituality. Using the arts as
a means of expression, as well as discussion, intellectual stimulation,
infusion of ideas not normally entertained, and musical forms that
resonate at different levels, we sought to help persons explore
their own levels of spiritual development.
Ulrich Zwingli, one of the fathers of the Reformed tradition,
had another perspective, perhaps more suited to his times. Fearing
the misinterpretation of images and the use of music, he whitewashed
the frescoes and murals in the Grossmunster in Zurich, knocked
out the stained-glass windows, and took an ax to the great organ,
claiming that these additions to worship might distort the interpretation
of the Gospel. Since the Bible stated that faith comes from “hearing” the
Word of God (Romans 10:17), only the reading of the Scriptures
and preaching were important. Art and music were distractions.
The United Church of Christ has adopted the motto “God
is still speaking,” and we understand that to mean that God
speaks in many diverse ways and with many voices. Faith comes from
listening to each other in community, and people have different
ways of expressing their feelings about their faith. Some use the
visual arts or drama or music to express what is in their souls.
Indeed, the jazz idiom began as the soulful expression of field
slaves longing for freedom and looking to God for salvation.
Art is meditation. Music is the sound of the universe. Dance
is the rhythm of the soul. These are all means of expressing one’s
spirituality. Of course there are other means of expression, but
the use of the arts became the means of reaching persons who wanted
to express what was inside of them and to learn from others on
similar spiritual quests.
In the course of my thirty-two year ministry at the church, our
worship styles were eclectic: services of meditation using the
resonating sounds of Tibetan prayer bowls; the annual Celtic service
with the Shanachians, a ceilidh group; the African rhythms of Thula
Sizwe; the haunting mysticism of the Russian Orthodox liturgy;
the klezmer sounds of Sephardic Judaism and circle dances around
the Lord’s Table; and of course jazz. As a founder of the
Berks Jazz Fest and long-time festival chairman, I introduced jazz
worship services, including a Dixieland Service on All Saints Sunday.
Our exploration of diverse spiritual styles was not confined
to Sunday worship, but also found expression in the arts and alternative
healing ministries. We offered classes in yoga, Feldenkreis, and
tai chi, and held regular reiki and jyorei sessions, often after
worship. Keith Haring, the internationally-known graffiti artist
who died of AIDS, was a member of the church. He gave us a sizeable
donation which became an endowment for the arts. Since roughly
eight per cent of the congregation were either professionally employed
in the arts, were performers, teachers, or received training in
music, dance, and the other arts, it was only natural to use their
talents to help them or others explore their spirituality through
creative expression. A Stanislavsky class in method acting led
to chancel dramas. Liturgical dance and even Christian clowning
were part of the program. With five part-time musicians on the
staff, three choirs, an orchestra, and various ensembles, the congregation
attracted people through music and the arts, but they soon found
that their quest for relevant spiritual expression was being met
in other ways.
A weekly “Soul Café” explored spirituality
in film, discussed contemporary events and social justice issues,
explored divergent paths to expressing one’s faith, and used
open poetry sessions, called “The Poetic Image,” to
foster creativity and discussion. Using grants from the Pennsylvania
Council for the Arts and the Haring Endowment, we also had “Soul
Cabaret,” a series of international performing groups ranging
from the Indonesian gamelan to Costa Rican trombones to the Russian
balalaika with a children’s dance and choral group.
The essence of what we sought to accomplish was to create an
open and diverse environment for worship and spiritual expression
where persons could encounter a God who was speaking to them in
a language they could understand. In the course of my ministry
we welcomed into our fellowship persons who were raised as Mennonites,
Jews, Catholics, and even Methodists, as well as persons who remained
practicing Buddhists, Wiccans, Quakers, and others.
The church of my youth was destroyed in the Martian invasion
that took place in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Its steeple came crashing down into Ferry Street in Newark, New
Jersey, when the aliens surfaced from beneath the street, as frightened
residents scattered before the onslaught of the deadly rays. Steven
Spielberg had used St. Stephan’s United Church of Christ
as his headquarters while filming War of the Worlds. While much
of the destruction was computer generated, it was nevertheless
disconcerting to see my church destroyed by an alien invasion.
It was symbolic of many inner city congregations that had failed
to become relevant to a changing neighborhood and different spiritual
expression. It transitioned from a congregation that numbered over
3,000 the year I was baptized to less than seven when it finally
ceded its ministry to another denomination and to another age.
In other writings I had referred to St. Stephan’s as the “Church
of the Vanishing Jesus.” One of the unusual features of the
church was its large ornate enclosed pulpit. Its central and elevated
position above the altar emphasized the importance of the sermon
in worship. Since “faith comes from what is heard, and what
is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17),
preaching was dominant in its tradition.
To make sure that it was the word of the Lord that was emanating
from the pulpit, there was a large statue of Christ, with hands
out-stretched, and mounted on a pedestal affixed to the rear panel
of the pulpit. The panel was on a pivot which could be turned when
the preacher entered the pulpit. Most likely the intended theology
was that the preacher stands in the place of Christ and speaks
for Christ when delivering the sermon. The reality was that Jesus
leaves when the pastor appears, or that he turns his back on what
is being said about him.
Matthew Theis was the first minister to come to St. Stephan’s
from the Reformed side of the merger with the Evangelical Synod
of North America, being steeped in the Mercersburg Theology as
taught at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He was horrified at the
thought of being Jesus’ “supply” or substitute
preacher, so he refused to ask Jesus to leave. It was better, he
maintained, to have Jesus in back of him, bestowing his blessing
upon the pastor’s words.
Matt Theis was a large man, looking every bit like images of
Martin Luther, and like Luther, he loved his beer. One Sunday morning
he mounted the pulpit to stand in front of Jesus, but the two of
them could not fit in the same space, and Matt accidentally broke
the arms of the statue. The plaster Jesus was removed from the
panel, and the next week Pastor Theis’ sermon was, “Christ
Has No Hands but Our Hands.”
Jesus has been restored to his rightful place above the altar,
but most of the recent pastors have chosen to preach from the lectern
rather than ask Christ to leave.
I had never had a problem with the theology of the vanishing
Jesus. Mercersburg emphasized the sacrament of Holy Communion as
the outward and visible sign of the presence of Christ among us
and the primary focus of the church’s worship. The Incarnation
was a central ingredient of the faith, for not only was God manifest
in Jesus of Nazareth, but God is still present and speaking in
the world today. Matt Theis was right: Jesus does not leave us,
but is in us as we live out the Christ-like life. Nevertheless,
while I don’t require the presence of a statue to remind
me of that, somehow the departure of the physical Jesus emphasized
the continuing work of the Holy Spirit through his disciples. Today,
we must be the Christ to others, and recognize the Christ-spirit
in others and help them become aware of the God that dwells within
In my valedictory to the congregation of St. John’s, I
reminded them that the only constant in the universe is change,
and that the first word of Jesus at the start of his ministry was
metanoia – “change your mind.” To be relevant
to those who still hunger for spiritual direction, the church must
constantly seek to adapt the Gospel to a new age. God is still
speaking, but it is the translation that will be important.
The Rev. Dr. Harry L. Serio