Leases 'N Pieces: Old First E-pistle 08.01.15

Wednesday night, there was an update meeting with KSK Architects. Philip Scott was reporting to our Old First team their progress on the evaluation of our buildings.

KSK is gathering information on building and systems conditions, replacement schedules and costs as well as potential improvements to the efficiency and usefulness of our property. I am expecting the architects will have some very interesting data and ideas — and lots of material — for us to cover. We are expecting their study of our property, including price estimates, in finished form in September.

Then we will have some serious work before us: digesting of all they share with us, and through some yet to be determined participative process to involve the whole congregation, making some decisions about how to proceed.

The one part of the conversation I want to reflect on with you was our discussion about how we might possibly reconfigure the chancel area of our sanctuary. Various design options will be included in KSK’s study. And it will take a lot of talking within our church to determine what we think will work best for us.

So, rather than discuss specifics or any one proposal, I want you to think with me about “the give and take” involved in such a project. It’s not actually the design questions before us, but what they tell us about life itself that I am pointing to here.

In a fairly brief conversation, the inevitably of having to compromise and find “middle ground” became painfully apparent. Such imperfect compromises and ‘not getting everything we would like’ are going to be unavoidable and necessary. They are a function of how many different needs a space like our sanctuary is trying to meet.

But, I confess, I actually found myself feeling sort of resentful. Why can’t there be perfect solutions? Isn’t there some brilliance or hard work… or magic that can somehow locate the exact spot at which mysteriously all the claims of competing needs can be met fully? Wouldn’t it be lovely — because we are talking about a holy space after all — if, from heaven, a perfect solution would descend, be granted to us?

Let me give some examples of the impossibilities we are facing:

Enough room vs. a getting lost in great empty plain: If we want more square footage on a platform for when we do space-demanding activities in worship — like a children’s pageant at Christmas time — as well as for other, appropriate uses by outside groups… say, musical performances… we risk creating too much empty space at the front of the sanctuary! A width and a depth that will leave the pulpit and the communion table, the chancel furniture that is also symbolic for so much more, lost in the emptiness of too much open space.

~ We don’t want the at the pulpit on a “normal Sunday” to look lost… or our preacher to appear like s/he is preaching from a living room where the family has moved out and all the furniture has been taken away.

~ Similarly, we need space for activity at the front of the chancel without pushing the communion table and the pulpit behind it too far back, and leaving them feeling separated from where the people are. Alternately, we risk having too much dead space behind the communion table and pulpit if they are forward and there is a void behind them.

With the chancel’s current configuration, most of the action takes place in front of the communion railing (hence the worn carpet). But since people tend not to sit in the front rows of pews, the preacher can be left with a great distance between the pulpit and the worshipers. We don’t want either side to be left feeling — at least visually — like there is a vast, unbridgeable divide.

The height of the pulpit vs. the massiveness of the reredos (the whole monumental Egyptian revival “temple doorway” that serves as the backdrop for our chancel).

~ Some feel that theologically, the pulpit should be nearer to the level of the congregation, so the preacher isn’t “talking down to the people.”

~ Alternatively, we also want to make sure that the pulpit has enough height so that people in the pews have clear site lines to the preacher.

~ We also need to make sure that, if the level of the pulpit is lowered, the reredos does not begin to “overwhelm” the whole vignette at its base.

~ There’s one more complication too: we need the platform to be accessible for folks for whom mobility is a challenge. But you need a foot of ramp for every inch of vertical height. The taller the platform, the longer the ramp.

‘Musical idolatry’ vs. versatility for musical performances:

~ I’ve heard that for secular musical performances, it would be preferable to have the piano up on the platform. And we do not want to have to hire piano movers and move it around.

~ But, when we looked at drawings with the piano on the upper platform, we felt that the piano might dwarf and overshadow the pulpit and communion table, making it look like music was more important than the worship it is to be a servant part of.

Those are just a few examples, but the trade-offs just kept arising — with almost every issue that came up. What was a solution for one issue or factor inevitably caused some difficulty or new problem in another.

The intractability of the dilemmas and the balancing acts they pointed toward made me think appreciatively, even sympathetically of Aristotle and his Doctrine of the Mean!

Ok, I tend to be pretty optimistic, so I have not totally given up on the possibility that we’ll fine-tune the various possibilities to “just right.” (If you have any ideas, please share them!)

But as I think about the dilemmas of situations without perfect solutions, I cannot help but notice, “what in life isn’t with some compromise?”

If one were to insist on a life without any give and takes, trade-offs or happy medians, one would either have to live alone (and even then?), or become such an overpowering tyrant so as to dominate everyone else and one’s environment into some sort of complete surrender and submission!

Could we really defend “a good life” that was defined by always getting one’s way? Our faith tradition suggests, rather, we are to figure out and effect some sort of harmonious co-existence. Shalom. Mercy. Compassion. Justice.

The Japanese have a term “wabi-sabi” that connotes a comprehensive worldview centered around the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is about beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” (For me, it’s why a rose is most beautiful just as it’s passed its prime, and it’s a bit too open, and very very soon the first petal will drop.)

Wabi-sabi is close to what I’m talking about. But I’m referring less to transience and how time changes everything. (Although, I guess, that’s true too, but no so troubling to me.) I want to point more towards the beauty of a pragmatism that prescribes compromise and meeting half way. A undogmatic philosophy for daily living that might considered distinctly Christian.

It begins by making our peace with life and our world as they are, imperfections, disappointments and concessions included. Starting where we find ourselves. And then building on forgiveness, understanding and compassion with which we are called to in the face of the brokenness and separations that permeate our known world.

Maybe it could be called “Leases ‘N Pieces.” It also counsels an acceptance of imperfection… because different things don’t always fit together smoothly, and everything is only ours tentatively anyway, on loan to us from God.

“Leases ‘N Pieces” accepts, begins and works with all the competing agendas that come of various needs of truly different individuals, actions and communities. Instead of letting us throw up our hands in exasperation at the impossibilities as insurmountable roadblocks or unbearable, it directs us to stay present and involved until we come upon those middle ways, and more to the point, to see the beauty in the give and take and the communities that appreciate and forge such tentative solutions as possible and necessary.

Beloved, we have been positioned and called to live abundantly in broken communities and a material world of limitations. There will be contentions, push and pull. But there can also be give and take. And surprises when what someone else wanted turns out to be better than what you thought you wanted.

This is the wise counsel of a spiritual tradition that calls us to live and work and worship together in harmony. And gives us churches to practice that faith.

Together, we learn to listen. And to compromise. And to trust. And to believe that it’s not so much the beauty of perfection as the beauty of working things out as best as we can. First with one another. And with ourselves. And ultimately with Life Itself.

We will see how this all works out. But before hand,

I’ll see you in church,

Michael