October, 2014

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 them.

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