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Gimme Shelter – 10/5/2014

“Once upon a time there was a little house, way out in the country…” So begins the picture book “The Little House,” written by beloved Unitarian children’s author Virginia Lee Burton. The book has a few different characters in it but the house is really its protagonist. She, the house, is described as both pretty and strong. She sits on a hill in the green countryside, home to a growing, changing family, and she watches the world unfold around her.

She watches children playing and seasons changing. She watches the moon and the stars in the sky. Eventually she sees people come and go, and growth and development all around her. Trucks and cranes and steam rollers arrive, gasoline stations begin to appear, a little lane becomes a road becomes a busy city street. Finally, two giant skyscrapers are built up, one on either side of her, so that she can barely see the sky anymore. The little country house is out of place in the fast-paced, frantic world of the big city. She misses the scenery and natural cycle of her former country life.

The story’s happy ending is made possible when the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built the house stumbles upon her once again in the midst of the bustling city. She arranges to have the house moved to a new location, on a new hill, back out in the country. She gets a new foundation and a new coat of paint. And she is free again to watch the passing of the seasons, and the course of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky.

Virginia Lee Burton’s story reads like an indictment of city life and the bigger, faster, closer together ethic of urban development. But she insisted that this was not her point. In part, the story came from her own experience: her family had moved a house. She wanted to craft a story that would illustrate the passage of time for children: seasons come and go, children are born, grow up, and move away, even the land itself can change over a long enough scale. Making her main character a house made a special sort of sense, then, because houses and homes are the persistent witnesses of the lives that inhabit them.

Each year, I select a topic to return to in a sermon each month. This sermon is one installment in this year’s monthly series. The title for this series is “Site-Specific Theology,” and I should probably offer some explanation for what I mean by that. There is a concept in the world of art sometimes called site-specific art or in the world of drama, site-specific theater. The idea is to create some story or work of expression that exists specifically for and because of a given location. A sculpture that incorporates the building it sits beside, for instance, or a play about people living in a 19th century house performed inside an actual 19th century house. Site-specific art seeks to express and make use of what is unique about a place.

Site-specific theology, then, is about discovering the cosmic and spiritual implications of the places we inhabit. How do the places where we live, work, worship, and play express and even shape what we most deeply believe, and what we hold to be most sacred? This is the project I intend to undertake with you this year, and this morning’s installment is, as you may have guessed, the theology of the home.

In our wondrous and staggering diversity as a species, we have created for ourselves a dizzying variety of homes. Cape Cod, split-level, shotgun, and foursquare are just a few of the odd names of common styles of North American houses. In areas that are prone to flood people often build houses on stilts, and in areas with frequent earthquakes houses tend to be low to the ground. Except, of course, in the United States where we tend to ignore both of those rules.

In parts of the southern Philippines, there’s a long history of living in literal tree houses. A house fit for an entire family to live in year round takes a bit more work and attention than a fort intended for children, and the longer these houses are used the more they have to be taken apart and rebuilt, changing to adapted to the growth of the tree that hosts them. In the archeological dig at Catal Huyuk in Turkey, which is probably the oldest human building site we know of, all the houses are built together, sharing walls like overlapping, irregular squares. For the most part, they had no doors – people got in and out through holes in the ceiling. This turned the interlocking roofs of the town into a sort of elevated street-system. There were no separate, free-standing houses – everyone’s space literally touched someone else’s, even depending on those other buildings for the strength and shape of their own.

In Andalusia in southern Spain, you can find homes built out of or entirely into caves in the sides of hills and cliffs. The partially submerged structures maintain a more even temperature during hot summers and cold winter nights – an advantage of being literally embedded in the world their inhabitants inhabit. The Ndebele people of South Africa, on the other hand, have a history of living in round houses with mud walls and grass roofs. The distinctive quality of their homes is not so much their materials or location as the art that they make of them. The Ndebele have a rich tradition of painting their homes in vibrant colors and complex geometrical patterns. These paintings grow particularly detailed and ornate around the doorways of the house, pointing to the importance of the threshold, the place between inside and out.

This topic of homes and their meanings was particularly on my mind this week as my family and I just finished moving. Well – how many boxes are you allowed to have left unopened and still say you’ve finished the move? It was the shortest distance I’ve ever moved – all of about four blocks, from the old apartment to the new. It also meant leaving behind the home we’ve shared the longest as a couple and a family, the place where I’ve lived the longest as an adult. Why the move then? Because our family needed more space. First and foremost, a home is a necessity – we all need shelter. How we serve this need, and how much we allow our wants to rival and even supersede it, says a great deal about what matters most to us. A soft bed signals our need for comfort. An unlocked door indicates trust; or vulnerability. A neatly manicured lawn suggests the triumph of labor and science over nature itself. The location of the living space itself says something about who we will welcome, or at least tolerate, as our neighbors.

Virginia Burton’s story of The Little House also speaks to the role of a home as a witness to the passage of the lives within it. This can manifest in countless ways. The tradition of the doorpost or scrap of wallpaper where the children’s heights and ages are measured out, for instance. Every time I’ve moved I’ve had to undo the little changes and adjustments I’ve made to the apartment to try to get it back to the way it was when I first started renting. I remember in one case, a few moves ago, re-hanging the ugly, worn blinds that we’d replaced with curtains the moment we moved in. The scuff-marks on the floor, the nails in the wall, the salsa-splatter never entirely removed from the ceiling – every scrap of evidence of lives lived has some story or another behind it.

The poet Deborah Digges expresses the way a home can retain and carry with it a deep emotional experience in her poem, “The House that Goes Dancing”:

Not always but sometimes when I put on some music

the house it goes dancing down through the yard

to cha-cha the willows or up into town

to tango the churches.

This dancing, she eventually reveals, is an act of grief to process the death of someone dearly loved and missed. The frantic, erratic, self-destructive movements of a dancing house leave the marks of grief in their wake:

All our mirrors well shattered, our china, our crystal,

Our lightbulbs, our pictures have crashed from the walls.

A magnificent mess!—The doors off their hinges,

the windows wide open.

Beyond serving necessity and witnessing life, a home is a venue for hospitality. Even the most unwelcoming place – a hermit’s shack, for instance –

offers some invitation to be inhabited, even if only by the one person who is allowed or expected to be there. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar – the first family of monotheism, to whom Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their lineage – are generally agreed to have lived in a tent. Not much is said of the home itself in the Hebrew bible, but there is a Rabbinic tradition that the tent was kept open on all four sides, so that guests could be seen, could enter, and could be made welcome directly, no matter which direction they approached from.

Henry David Thoreau famously built a cabin for himself at Walden Pond when he went into the woods, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Reflecting on the work of building the cabin, he writes,

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?”

There is some natural satisfaction in meeting one’s own needs with one’s own work, but in the years since Thoreau lived, our society has gone dramatically in the direction opposite the one he advocated. For my part, I have to consider that good – if I were entirely dependent on my own skill at carpentry in order to have some safety from the elements, I would be in a lot of trouble. But more than this, the fact that almost all of us live in buildings built by someone else doesn’t make us all beneficiaries of stolen nests. It points instead to how interdependent we are, how much we rely on the work and ingenuity of others in order to sustain our own lives.

In their book, “A House for Hope,” Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, two major figures in modern Unitarian Universalism, use the structure of a house as a metaphor for structures of religious belief. At the foundation is theology in the classic sense: what is believed about God, or whatever force or idea lies at the center and forms the basis for all other beliefs. The walls are the ecclesiology: our beliefs about how we ought to work, worship, and be together. The roof is soteriology: beliefs about what human beings need saving or rescuing from, and how that salvation can be realized. The rooms between the foundation, walls, and roof constitute how we understand ourselves and our relation to the universe and whatever is holy in it. This is sometimes called theological anthropology, but it also intertwines with pneumotology: beliefs about the spirit, or the ways in which humanity interacts with the divine. The threshold between inside and out represents missiology: how we understand our purpose, and what message we have to express by our words and deeds. Finally, the garden around the house represents eschatology: our beliefs about where things are going and what the point – and the destination – of the universe are.

This Thursday night, I will begin leading a class studying this book and the richness of this metaphorical structure, and there is still space left for anyone interested in going deeper. But for this week, I would like to invite you to turn the metaphor inside out and apply it to your own home. How do the contents of your walls connect to your relationships to other people, and in particular to the spiritual dimension of those relationships? Are they covered with photos and keepsakes, evidence of a vast network of family and friends, or are they relatively bare of signs of any other people? The one is not necessarily a good thing, nor the other necessarily bad: old photographs can just as well be markers of broken relationships as healthy ones, and a bare wall might signify a disinterest in the material in favor of time with actual humans.

The same sorts of questions can be asked for each dimension of the house: does a solid, dependable roof foster a strong sense of what we need protecting from and how to go about it? Or does the absence of leaks and cracks make a person more insulated and complacent, less awake to the real dangers and challenges of life? The shapes of our spiritual homes cannot be divorced from the conditions of our literal homes: the two sides talk, and a distortion in one can have serious impact on the other. Consider the case of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA, which Sarah Winchester built after inheriting the Winchester repeating rifle fortune. Originally seven stories of bizarre, nonsensical architecture, full of stairs to nowhere, doors that open onto walls, and windows that look into interior rooms at odd angles, the house is rumored to have been built under instructions from a spiritual medium channeling the ghost of Sarah’s husband. Whether true or not, it seems clear now that another major influence was Sarah’s prolonged depression. The condition of our minds and hearts effects the way we shape the world around us, and the world around us has a role in shaping the condition of our minds and hearts.

“Once upon a time,” begins the story of your spiritual home. It may not be a little house in the country. It may be a loft apartment, or a house boat, or a tent with four doorways. Whatever the shape of our personal theological house, it is up to us to map it for ourselves – to acquaint ourselves with the limits and potentials of what we believe. In this sense we must be both song birds and cuckoos, to stretch the limits of Thoreau’s metaphor: we must acknowledge and appreciate that we did not and never could have built all the elements of our theological house on our own. We benefit from the search for meaning that preceded us, and we gain much shape and strength from the spiritual dwellings of our neighbors, like the houses in the ancient village at Catal Huyuk. And yet, we also must practice for ourselves the spiritual carpentry necessary to repair and remake the houses of our spirits. So by that work, friends, may we feel moved to sing.

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