Saturday, May 27, 2006

Placing oneself: Barneys and grief

As previously mentioned (and here and here), the building in which my church (St Barnabas Anglican, Broadway, or 'Barneys') meets burned down recently.

As promised (and requested), some further thoughts on the matter:
I noticed in the days following the fire that there seemed to be two kinds of reaction, even where they were often mixed in individuals. On the one hand, some wanted to clearly say it was 'business as usual', the building was just a tool that is irrelevant to the 'real' work that Barneys does, that God was not any different, nor was our fellowship. On the other hand, some people wanted to grieve and acknowledge the grief of others at having lost something analogous to a 'family home'. So which is it to be? Or both?

How can we affirm the goodness and power of God in a world where things fall apart and burn down? We could deny the goodness of the falling-apart and flammable things. But that would be to deny that God was their creator, that "The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made" (Ps 145.9). If his compassion extends as far as his creation, how can he be good when the things he has made are subject to frustration and decay (Rom 8.23)?

We could include death inside his goodness, such that closure is a blessing that makes for beauty and poignancy, a way of multiplying good things by having one pass away to make room for another, a way of giving temporary things a extra specialness (like how Maccas special deals are special because this might be your one chance to get them. If they were part of the regular meal, then they would lose this glow). Or for the more refined, the apocryphal story of Michaelangelo's snowman: there is an extra beauty for the fact that it was but is no more. There is a melancholia and nostalgia that allows it to grow in the memory and imagination. Or consider the sunset: part of whose beauty is that now, just now, just here, is this particular configuration of cloud and colour; it will never be quite the same again as this moment. (Thought: is a blog an attempt to freeze and preserve what is wonderful about intelligent conversation, to make it always accessible? Just as a photo of a sunset is trying to pin down the butterfly of ephemerality). While there is indeed a bittersweetness to nostalgia based on transience, death remains 'the last enemy' (1 Cor 15.26).

A third alternative is to acknowledge the goodness of created things that leaves the tug in our hearts when they pass away, but to relegate this to 'mere creation': good but going. We are not to set our mind on such passing earthly things, but on the eternal. Earth is good, but heaven trumps earth. This is better than the first option, in that it can leave room for legitimate grief at earthly loss, and needn't imply a closure to creation. Indeed, it can become quite a useful stance when combined with C. S. Lewis' frequently stressed point that the best is not the enemy of the good. It is possible to keep first things first (trust in God, the location of Christian fellowship in Christ not buildings), without needing to deny secondary truths (how many great memories will always be associated with particular environmental contexts, and hence a sense of loss at destruction of that context). But I'm still not convinced that this is where our pilgrimage towards affirming creation ends.

The one who made the world, who dwelt with Israel in wilderness tabernacle and Zion temple even while filling heaven and earth, who abhorred not the virgin's womb, who took on human flesh (and not just temporarily, but who remains human in his present mediation: 1 Tim 2.5), whose ultimate goal is not the disentangling of heaven and earth, but their marriage (Revelation 21-22: notice that the new Jerusalem comes down to earth; God makes his dwelling amongst humans, not vice versa), this one will bring about 'the restoration of all things' (Matt 19.28; Acts 3.21), will make all things new (Rev 21.5), will resurrect the dead. Resurrection comes after death; unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. There will also be discontinuity, the resurrection of Jesus wasn't breathing life into a corpse, but transformation. It was not rewinding the sunset.

More can and must (at some point) be said here, but for now, notice that this God isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, in his freedom to bind himself to a contingent and limited creation, not to salvage what was good out of it into himself, but to dwell in it (and for it to dwell in him). He calls us not out of creation, but into it. His kingdom is indeed not 'from' the world (John 18.36) in its basis, methods and goals, but it is 'of' the world, in the sense that Jesus is the king of the Jews - and the Greeks and the whole world, as Israel's Messiah always was to be. And as we are thrown back into the world, we grow into the world, and it grows into us. As we do, creation is 'humanised'; this is indeed part of the mystery of our thanks-filled 'dominion' and 'filling' (Gen 1.28), which is also a 'serving' (Gen 2.15). Not a replacement of non-human by human, so that we squeeze all other life off the planet and die ourselves in regret, but a growing into, an integration. We become not less bodily as we grow in spirituality, but become more in tune with God's Spirit who breathes life into all things. This present life is not a secondary good that awaits its obsolescence in an apocalyptic inferno, but is a sign and anticipation of life of the aeon to come.

This, despite being by far my longest post, remains a summary and introduction to many more thoughts which I'll continue to explore in other avenues. Nonetheless, I think we can go beyond mere instrumentalism in considering the goodness of a building that we have grown into and which in turn has grown into us. The things of this world grow strangely glorious, not dim, in the light of the presence of God and in the hope of the resurrection. Christian response to loss is not a Stoicism that denies the importance of physical things, but genuine grief - with hope.
More posts on Barneys and the fire: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.
Ten points for being able to name the artist who painted the second image. And fifteen more if you can say where it is presently hung.

18 comments:

Marty K said...

It’s interesting to reflect on the concepts of people and place. How do the two sit together? Are they inextricably intertwined or can we easily separate them? After Barney’s burnt down I wasn’t surprised to witness the avid agreement of fellow evangelicals with the Bishop of South Sydney when he said that the Church is the people, not the building. All this from the same people who would wholeheartedly agree with a definition of God’s kingdom as being “God’s people under God’s rule in God’s place.” All of a sudden our theology of place is thrown out the window when it’s feared that we might be putting too much emphasis on the material rather than the spiritual. Plato lives!!! Of course in response to this one might say that our theology of place is transformed after the Christ event; no longer is it centred on a tract of land in the Middle East, but it’s thrown forward to the renewed creation. But is it as simple as this? Jesus cried over Jerusalem. Now of course it wasn’t the bricks and mortar that he was worried about, but nonetheless it was as he “drew near and saw the city” (Lk 19.41) that he wept. The place had an effect, even if it was to draw attention away from itself to something else of significance, namely the pending judgement upon the people of Israel. While not being the whole story, and perhaps only operating on the level of “mere” metaphor (are metaphors ever "mere"?), and certainly with a reflection informed by scripture, places can and do seem to have some role in our spirituality. To this end it is proper and appropriate that for a time we grieve the loss of a building.
It would also be interesting to see what Alain de Botton has to say in his new book on architecture.

michael jensen said...

Send it in to southern cross I say!

byron said...

Thanks Marty - I agree entirely. That was just what I was thinking. However, I'm sure our good bishop thinks more than that line trotted out to the press and sundry (feeling quite free to put words in his mouth, or ideas in his head) of the church being the people not the building. Indeed, it was first from him that I discovered the depths and joys in Romans 8.18ff (not to mention much more besides). I'm sure he had more than his fair share of hope-filled grieving.

MPJ: done. We'll see what happens now...

Anonymous said...

not supposed to be a comment on the bishops theology...of course i would assume that he would have more to say than what a media sound bite would allow. more a circumstantial comment. no offence to any fans of the good bishop if it seemed that i was taking a swipe.

byron said...

Fans of a bishop? What a novel concept. I thought we were simply obedient servants of our ordinary.

byron said...

Of course, no offense to you either, Marty. I was just having fun... :-)

phillip said...

Well personally when I travel around England and see all the 'marvelous buildings' created to 'glorify God' I just see raised in stone a monument to exploitation, a ripping off of the poor to construct vanities more to do with satisfying the egotism of those in power and when Christians buy buildings they then have to try to impose tithing or find some mechanism by which to secure a regular payment from the 'membership' to maintain the building and the necessary Priest oops Pastor after all we've reformed from Romish errors, and of course the actual purpose of a collection (when necessary) which is the relief of the poor is corrupted, so burn them all starting with St Peter's Basillica after all Christ burnt the Jerusalem Temple and left us an example to follow.

byron said...

Phillip, I appreciate the way that Christian communities can get their spending priorities upside down all-to-often and bricks and mortar can replace hearts and hands. However, I'm curious: do you think there is any place for paid church leadership of any kind? Or any place for Christian communities owning buildings in which to meet?

Anthony said...

I'm going to have a shot, and guess that this is a Jessica Smith original. Presumably hanging in your house somewhere (the lighting looks suitably Camperdownish).

byron said...

It is indeed by the astounding Jessica (ten points), yet although the light was indeed Camperdown-ish when the shot was taken, it is now framed and hangs elsewhere.

Anthony said...

I've got this odd deja vu idea that I've seen it somewhere, but I'm going to run with the likelihood that I've only seen it on here. And guess that you've got it in your office now (guessing that Tim's given you one, of course!)

byron said...

You may well have seen it somewhere...

But not in my office. I don't have one (I'm only part-time) and it would be a little rude to hang a picture of my old church in it, even if it was painted by my wife.

andrew said...

I'd say that the picture now hangs in the rectory of St John's Anglican Church Ashfield, currently occupied by Rev. Katay and family?

Am I right?

byron said...

There is a similar one that hangs there (good memory!), but not that particular version. Hint: there were three versions made.

Anthony said...

I was there yesterday, and meant to check but forgot - I'll still guess at Moore College.

byron said...

Not MTC.

mike wells said...

could the painting be hanging....in Bishop Robert Fosyths office, visible just above the 't' of town hall as you drive down Kent St.
Finally, entered the hall of glory!!

byron said...

Mike - glory for you! Fifteen for the correct answer, and another eight for all the extra detail. How did you ever know? :-)