Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Open Epistle to the Chicago Temple

Dear friends of First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple,
            Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ! I have gratefully served as a ministry intern for the last year among you, and God has blessed my time with you in a great many ways. I came to Chicago as a young adult missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries in 2010, and God led me to stay in Chicago for seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary. I grew up in a mid-size United Methodist church in the rolling ridges of central Pennsylvania. Not only was this Midwestern metropolis strange to me, but my interactions with different Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths stretched me in ways I had never imagined as country boy from Harrisburg. As a young adult missionary I worked at Interfaith Worker Justice, working with organizers and low-wage, immigrant workers of many faiths. At CTS, I am one of the very few United Methodists at that United Church of Christ institution. When it came time to choose a field placement as required by my degree program, I knew that I wanted to re-connect with my chosen faith tradition and serve in a United Methodist parish setting. God brought me to the Chicago Temple.
The Chicago Temple building from the
perspective of Daley Plaza
(photo credit Wickimedia).
            And what a setting it was! With a building that rose far above the streets and bells that chimed over
Daley Plaza and beyond, the Chicago Temple was clearly making its presence known. When I stepped inside the building, I was amazed to find that the main sanctuary was open to the public as long as there was a security guard present at the entrance. Being a cyclist, I went down to the basement washroom to change into more formal attire, and I discovered that there a theater down there—Silk Road Theater. You have so many ways of telling your story, First United Methodist Church!
            When I took the tour of the Chapel in the Sky, I learned the long history of public witness of First United Methodist Church, even before it was “at the Chicago Temple.” The stained glass on the 22nd floor showed the Wesley brothers, and other paintings, photographs, and memorabilia which highlighted some of the important events that have occurred in your church. Once finally in the Sky Chapel, the tour guide connected the woodcut of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, which is embedded in the altar of the first floor sanctuary, with the woodcut embedded in the altar more than 20 stories above it. The woodcut shows Jesus standing in a bank of clouds overlooking the Loop of Chicago from the perspective of the Sky Chapel. Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem because her inhabitants did not recognize “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:41-42), Jesus continues to weep for the city of Chicago because her modern residents likewise are blind to the things that make for peace.
            These are the stories that you tell the people who look upon your edifices, the visitors who wander your halls, the tourists who ascend to the Chapel in the Sky. These are stories of witness in the public square, hospitality for the weary, and the prophetic cry for justice in a world that has forgotten the things that make for peace. These are you stories, but they are also the Church’s stories, the stories told by the body of Christ. You are truly like the branches connected to the vine that is Christ, and you bear much fruit. Praise be to God for the fruit you bear for your sisters and brothers in Chicago and around the world!
            You proudly call yourselves “the church that stayed,” and proud you ought to be. When few other faith communities remained on Washington Street after the Great Fire in 1872, you stayed put. Your foremothers and forefathers realized that the location on Clark and Washington would continue to be the heart of the city. That street corner became even more important when the city government built its grand hall on the opposite corner. Then the iconic elevated train tracks connected the rest of the outlying neighborhood to that street corner in a circle that would give the neighborhood its name—the Loop. And so for the sake of the continued witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, you stayed.
            Like the heart of the body, the heart of the city brought its lifeblood into her center. The city’s lifeblood is her people, and indeed they have come to the Loop. Just as substances consumed through the mouth make their way to the heart, so did new people make their way to the heart of the city. Every kind of person made their way into the Loop, and so did many of these people make their way into your building on the corner of Washington and Clark. However, many of these people did not look like the members who had faithfully built and rebuilt on that street corner. There is a photograph in the office suite on the second floor, close to the pastors’ offices, and it shows the Chicago Temple men’s club in the 1940’s. It is a proud group of determined men, and every face is white. Let us praise God that no such photograph can be taken today! In any given worship service there is a diversity of people who lift their voices in praise and prayer: young and old; white, black, Latino, Asian; men and women; rich and poor and everything in between. Few other local churches in the United Methodist connection have this array of diverse people in their halls. Praise God for this diversity of people with which God has blessed you! Praise God with the stately organ and with the whisper of a harp! Praise God with the intricate harmonies of the chancel choir and the powerful emotion of the gospel choir! Praise God on bended knee, and praise God while standing with arms wide open! With whatever you have, however you are, whatever time of day or week it is, praise God!
            Yet, as your building rises into the Chicago skyline, you also walk a fine and dangerous line. It is the fine and dangerous line of any prosperous people with a richness of stories. You may fall into the sin of idolatry of a story that is only your own and not of the body of Christ. As you choose which stories to tell, you also choose whether you a modern Tower of Babel or God’s house of prayer for all peoples.
            In his book, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Soong-Chan Rah engages the story of the Tower of Babel that is found in the 11th chapter of Genesis. A common interpretation of the story is that God punished the people of Babel for their pride by confusing their languages and scattering them throughout the world. However, Rah points out that such a communication failure should not be confused with racial and ethnic diversity, which is already recorded in the previous chapter. Rah says that the precondition for the people’s offense is fear and distrust. The people do not trust the promises of God, particularly that God would protect them and not destroy them again in a terrible flood. The people feared that God would not keep them safe. This seems like a reasonable fear considering that the Babel generation probably grew up with stories of the flood from which their ancestor Noah was spared. Build a tower tall enough to escape a flood just in case God changes God’s mind!
            However, God did not create humankind to live in fear. No, God’s intends for us to live freely, and we should love God and love one another. If we are high up in a tower, how can we love our neighbor? Are we closer to God if we are high in the sky? Is not God in the alleys of the city as well as the penthouses of the skyscrapers? When God saw the people building a tower to heaven, God knew that only a small number of people would fit in such a tower. The rest would languish in the margins, forever making bricks to endlessly repair a tower which was never part of God’s plan in the first place. When God saw this, God confused the people’s speech so that they would have to find other ways to relate to each other. God caused the people to turn away from their vain labors and care for each as they explored a world waiting for their unlimited creativity. We should praise God for stopping the construction of the Tower of Babel so that people would learn to love one another in new, creative ways.
            On the other hand, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a different kind of building, a temple which would include all the peoples of the world. In the 56th chapter of the book, the prophet has already seen how the returning exiles of Jerusalem would rebuild the temple to continue the sinful ways of their predecessors before the Babylonian captivity. Therefore, Isaiah speaks of a temple where the eunuchs who hold fast to God’s covenant will have an everlasting name, and the foreigners who join themselves to God will be made joyful in God’s house of prayer. God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is. 56:7).
            Despite God’s righteous anger against the people of Jerusalem, God remained faithful to the exiles in Babylon. God brought them back to the ruined city under the leadership of Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city, and God raised up Ezra to restore right worship on God’s holy mountain. However, God’s people were blessed to be a blessing for the rest of the peoples. God’s people should show the rest of the world how to love the widow, the orphan, and the stranger so that all the world would come to know God. All who seek God and cling to God’s promises would find a place in that holy house.
            Which building do you have, First United Methodist Church? Is the Chicago Temple a modern Tower of Babel meant as an escape from the doubt that clings to you every day you see your city change even more? Or is the Chicago Temple a house of prayer for all peoples where the eunuchs and foreigners, the lost and the weary peoples of Chicago can find the blessings of God? Oh, please make up your mind, First United Methodist Church, so that the huddled masses can find the true house of God’s promises!
            The stories you tell the outside world sound like you want to be God’s house of prayer for all peoples. And indeed there are many things you do that are consistent with those stories of peace, hospitality, and justice. You host a meal that provides food for hundreds of needy people on Saturday mornings. You keep your sanctuary open for any person seeking respite from the restless cold outside. You support other organizations that seek justice in the halls of political power. You play music that lifts the spirits of anyone who can hear the melodies soaring through air. Praise God for these good things that make for peace!
            However, very often your worship is wholly of the Anglo-American tradition, and a quite elitist strain of that tradition at that. While lifting one person’s spirits to God on high, it is a clanging cymbal to another person. This may be true of any one tradition which is held above all others, but in a diverse body of people like the First United Methodist Church, myopia is not only unnecessary but also sinful. Your children grow up in your halls not knowing what diverse ways of worshipping God exist in Chicago. How can this be when your own body is so diverse? Let us not only honor African-American forms of worship and Christian practice during African-American heritage month, but throughout the entire year. This is true for the many other cultural traditions that your people bring into the Chicago Temple. Do not limit yourselves to only one way of worship and Christian living, for that is the way of Babel and not of the God of all peoples.
            We also know that your beautiful building and elegant programs require vast sums of money to maintain. Based on the faithful planning your predecessors, First United Methodist Church does not have to raise funds to maintain the infrastructure of the building, which is quite unique among the local churches of the connection. However, to manage the complex workings of the Chicago Temple, you find the need to attract people with an understanding of vast sums of money. Often these rich people garner special attention that the poor people of the church do not garner. The wealthy people receive special opportunities to lead the church that poor people do not receive. Of course there tasks that knowledgeable managers of money should do in the church, but these roles should not be given greater honor than other roles. Why should the chair of the endowment receive more honor than a teacher of the children? Did not Christ say that in order to enter the reign of God we must become like children? Did not Christ also say that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the reign of God? Beware of your riches, First United Methodist Church, for in it may lay your hidden sins.
            God brought your foremothers and forefathers to this city and to this street corner for a great purpose. You should be a witness to God’s power and mercy in a city that does not know the things that make for peace. You, as a fruitful branch of the true vine of Christ, know some of the things that make for peace. You must distinguish your building, the Chicago Temple, from the other buildings around it. As you welcome the stranger, increase your hospitality so that all may find peace and rest. As you raise up the songs of heaven, broaden your worship so that all may join in your singing. As you cry out for justice for the marginalized, sharpen your critique of oppression that all may find freedom.
            When the Holy Spirit came upon the believers on Pentecost, the believers immediately began to speak in languages that everyone in the city of Jerusalem could understand. As the diverse people heard their own languages, they questioned each other how simple country people from Galilee could know so many different languages. First United Methodist Church must similarly amaze the people of the city by speaking the different languages of the city’s people. Pastor Blackwell, when he was with you, called for the mayor to take the business and civic leaders of the city to the top of the Willis Tower and show how every part of the city is theirs as well. You, First United Methodist Church, who chooses to stay in the heart of the city, must also look out and realize that all the peoples of the city are theirs as well. Your worship must speak not only to the residents of the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park but also to Roseland and Humboldt Park. By choosing to stay in the heart of the city, you must accept the lifeblood that the city brings to you.
            Changes in the city and the church are coming and indeed already are here. The Holy Spirit will guide you through your transitions, but the Holy Spirit will also change you as she guides you. Trust God’s Spirit, for God does not break God’s covenants. Hold fast to God’s covenant with you as the church that stayed. There is still life in that heart that beats in the center of the city! Just as the city has brought her lifeblood, the diverse peoples of God, to you, you will also pump lifeblood back through the arteries of the metropolis. With each heartbeat, send hospitality, welcome, joy, peace, and above all, love, to the far reaches of the city to which you are vitally connected.
            As you continue to cope with the departure of Pastor Phil, trust the guidance of Pastor Wendy, and Pastor David. They have received a double portion of the Holy Spirit, and they are more than able to help the church change and grow in love.  Already you have strong relationships with the Northern Illinois Conference and with the varied seminaries of the city, especially Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The leaders of the conference and the seminaries will help you as you change and grow in love. I see a bright dawn on the horizon for you, First United Methodist Church, and much of it comes from the children and young people among you. Teach them your stories, and they will add to your stories with their vibrancy, imagination, and energy.
            Even more, trust your new senior pastor, Myron McCoy. He has been tested and refined in the fires of ministry, and he will boldly take you in directions which you may not anticipate. I encourage you to follow his leadership. I am confident that he will not lead you astray, and with his guidance you will discover blessings which God has already given you but of which you had not been aware.
            I sincerely thank you for all that you have given me: financial help, professional guidance, and spiritual support. As God led me to serve with you for the last year, God will keep us connected in Christian love. Trust God and take courage in God’s promises. God will truly make you a house of prayer for all peoples, and your stories will echo throughout all the city. Grace and peace be with you in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.