Where on earth am I? Having accepted your call, now I have to make sense of it all. Where am I, and how did I get here?
When Dorothy’s house finally crash-landed, that was her first question—where am I, and how on earth did I get here? Everyone alive shares Dorothy’s perplexity—such is the mystery of life.
Of course, I haven’t exactly landed in Oz--! So, where am I?
For individuals and for institutions, this profound question is really unavoidable, and it has to be revisited periodically even though one hasn’t been swept up in a tornado.
Once upon a time, I awoke to the necessity of this question. I realized one day where I was, that I was a straight, white, male in America, being of the tall persuasion (6’3”) with a theological education in America, all of which afforded me protections I barely recognized at first and gave me skills that would benefit me immensely.
But I happened to have studied theology in a university surrounded on three sides by the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago—the theological questions were determined by where we were. There, I developed a sense of where in the world I was.
Eliot Church lies under the same imperative, although you haven’t landed lately in a different country, or have you? The Newton of 2019 could well be considered a different kind of place from the one 20 or even only10 years ago, enough to make you feel as disoriented as the MSJ Team at another UCC church which reported being defeated by the acute needs demanding attention from every direction.
The ills of the world’s nations, and the tragedies in which individuals are daily involved, will disorient us unless we actively discern for ourselves where we actually have landed, as we sit in these sanctuary chairs, as we go about our Lord’s work, as we choose our homes and furnish them, as we decide what else we will do on this beautiful, God-given day. Asking this question is fundamental to our humanity, for its answer will reveal to whom we are responsible and what our responsibilities are.
We should ask it as individuals, but it is also incumbent upon an institution, a church, say, to turn this question over in our collective minds—where on earth are we, and how did we get here? It might make a good project preparing for our 175th Anniversary. If we took up these questions collectively right now, we would begin this way:
#1 We are on Earth, the planet Earth, this earth ever turning even as we change it.
#2 We are on indigenous land, where the indigenous people had lived for 10,000 years until we came here.
#3 We are in a democratic country, where we are free from the arbitrary rule of kings until the present administration. I watched last week while 20 people competed to be a Nominee for President—wonderful testimony to where on earth we are.
Beyond this point, the answers actually are not obvious. I will volunteer my own perception of where Eliot Church is, newcomer that I am, in the hopes of suggesting to you a fresh analysis by which to take stock of our mission in this moment.
Eliot Church, I submit, is a city church. Yes, you are in a suburb, in Newton, Massachusetts, but Newton is just your address. 474 Centre Street, Newton, is just your street address, but it is not where you are.
This should stir some puzzlement (as I see on your faces right now), because you all think you are in Newton. I perceive from this church’s outreach that you have the consciousness, but do not seem to own the identity, of a city church, and could this be what has held you up lately? It’s just a hunch, and I depend on you to think this over with me.
It seems to me this church’s suburban location anchors its work, whereas it should be de-emphasizing location because your heart is in regions beyond this immediate municipality. If true, this simple insight will reshape your approach to Eliot Church’s next steps down the road.
Sure, you pay real estate taxes to Newton, vote for Newton’s mayor, attend the Newton town meetings, are proud of Newton’s trees, and are grateful for its safe streets and good schools. The whole point of suburbs is to get away from the awful city, but not too far because we depend on the city!
But ultimately this supposed Newton congregation belongs to an immense organism called a city, called Boston in our case, or greater Boston, not to Newton at all. See these maps? Newton actually faces the city, and Eliot Church is nearly contiguous, being the closest of our 5 UCC churches in Newton to the central city.
This church occupies one single little precinct in a mammoth nexus of interdependence that, because wholly invisible, perhaps has not much impact upon your view of yourselves as being intimately part of the city and in the city.
The number and the scale and the complexity of urban systems in which Newton is enmeshed defeats any attempt to document or describe them—invisibly we are connected by money, food, and hope in four-dimensional networks as fine and numerous as capillaries.
For example, what’s under your streets, what lines sustain our fuel consumption, who pays our paychecks, where does that money come from and how did they get it, who trains the police, where are the ships from China unloaded, how many radio and tv broadcasting stations are there, what do the students eat and who puts it in front of them, who launders the uniforms of the professional athletic teams every night, how is water for that procured and where disposed of, and while we’re at it, how many toilet flushes per hour flow under these streets to Deer Island?
Eliot Church belongs less to Newton than to the giant ganglia interpenetrating us, despite all the superficial appearances to the contrary, like your Newton street address. Eliot Church thinks about city issues and acts on them, Eliot leans outward (with ministries to the homeless, to immigrants, and involvement in the climate crisis), but does so as a suburban church.
Except, Eliot is a city church by my lights. Do we own this identity explicitly, or at all? Does it guide our decision making explicitly? Does it affect our self-presentation explicitly? Are we perceived that way by our own members, and just as importantly, by others?
This is important because errors of perception, or of self-perception, cause lost opportunities. We all know that from personal experience, don’t we? What if we were to revise our view of ourselves, acknowledging that we are in and of the city, and henceforward call ourselves a city church? How might the response to us be different if the sign out front which reads “Be the Church” were rewritten to read: “Be City Church”? Like City Year, just City Church?
Why do I think this will matter?
Think about cities for a moment: a city is a veritable engine, an indispensable cultural artifact, a triumph, a human miracle—given how irrational people are, it’s a wonder how rational a thing is any city!
But let us remember that the city is also an object of divine concern.
A city was Jesus’ destination when the time came—Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, a place he had to go if he wanted to minister to the ultimate political and religious powers of the nation, all at the most vivid and intense intersections of good and evil.
In our passage from Matthew (23:37-39), the city inspires compassion in Jesus, evoking a wish to gather its people up under his protection, like a hen gathers up her brood under her wings, like birds hovering over the nest as Yahweh promised in Isaiah. In the parallel Luke account, as he approached Jerusalem and anticipated how it might react to his presence, Jesus wept.
The inventory of the city’s sins and betrayals of God, Jesus says, hides from their sight what the prophets had preached incessantly, at the cost of great danger and suffering to themselves by the people and its leadership.
This passage comes at the end of entire chapter long list of imprecations by Jesus against the religious leaders of Jerusalem who not only have been powerless to restore worship and righteousness there, they abused and (in one case) murdered the prophets who inveighed against them over the centuries. Jesus tagged Jerusalem as a symbol of the rejection by the nation of God’s messengers and God’s Word. It was to this symbolic center of faith, a city, that Jesus had to come.
And appropriately, so must we as Christians, and we are poised to do so. Suburbanites that we suppose we are, we should be identifying with the city of our sustenance and minister and prophecy in it.
Because: the fate of the city is our fate. To miss this, is to foreshorten our scope, as it seems has happened here at Eliot, judging from everything you’ve told me so far.
We carry the burdens of the city’s fate with us wherever we go, whether we know it or not; far better to do so consciously, wherever we walk, talk, and sleep, including in our prayers.
You may object that I am already trying to change you; but truly I just want to give you a different way for you to see yourselves. If the shoe fits, any changes that occur to you will be up to you to make.
Now, if I could just play the role of the Wizard of Oz for a moment, I would paraphrase the part where he says to the scarecrow: you don’t need a brain, you have a very good one, you just need a diploma. And so here: you don’t need a city, you are right in the middle of a very good one, you just need to place it prominently in your self-concept. My daydream would be to hire Christo to shrink wrap the church in film printed with City Church City Church City Church.
Otherwise, all we have for a building is a monument to our own prosperity and not a witness to where on earth we believe ourselves to be.
Here are some real benefits of this analysis--
First, it will dissolve the gap between host and stranger, between charity and beneficiary, between “us” and “them.” We belong to the City of God, really, where there will no longer be charity or mission, no more white guilt or black resentment—instead there will be solidarity and fresh approaches to the issues which bind us together though we tragically live apart.
Second, we will be made uncomfortable—because in cities the Stranger is the norm, but this is good. Our new outlook will result in our occupying a larger, public and stranger space shared by very different people whom we will discover to have concerns very similar to ours.
Third, it will render the whole concept of church “membership” questionable. We say all are welcome and we mean it, and that anybody can join the congregation. True de jure, but not so true de facto, given the steep climb required to become part of this hierarchical family with a pater familias (the clergy) at the top, even when clergy are female. Don’t you know that despite our claims of extravagant welcome, we place a filter over our door because membership is well understood to be a condition of participation. We must graduate from being a private community that is about as exclusive as the Hasty Pudding to becoming a public community.
Did you know that the New Testament ends, the whole Bible for us ends, with the vision of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, descending on us? I take that to be our guiding symbol.
We haven’t discussed how we got here yet—that is another, and more sobering, story for another day. First let’s be discussing soon where on earth you think Eliot Church is. And after that, I would love to hear from you personally as to where on earth you find yourselves as individuals.
My city church!