A Table for Marsh Chapel and Beyond

I have just completed the table that accompanies the lectern I wrote about earlier for the Boston University School of Theology. The folks I have been working with on this at the School are now assembling it for use in the University’s Marsh Chapel and other locations where they want to gather for worship.

The table is a double dropleaf round table built to center worship for the School community. Its base is made of black walnut with holly inlays. The top is made of maple. The curved upsweeping legs remind us of the act of lifting up our hands and hearts in praise and thanks. The top creates a circle that declares the equal participation of all in the act of worship. The round table, long a symbol of gathering for the negotiation of peace, symbolizes the work of reconciliation at the heart of Christian worship.

In the center of the top is a glass tile mosaic created by Sylvia Johnson Everett. The blue swirling spiral reminds us of the waters of creation and baptism that continually regenerate new life. At its heart is a cross, with its blood red drop of sacrificial love, the green of new life, and the gold of resplendent victory.

The dropleaf design, with the accompanying low lectern, enables someone to preach at the table while seated. This is especially helpful for people in wheelchairs, who received no attention in earlier centuries of worship life. With the addition of the base for the lectern, people can also preach at the table while standing, keeping together the sharing of the word with the sharing of food and drink at the table.

I will now turn to construction of the processional cross that accompanies this table.

Posted in Arts, Woodworking, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Making My Way in Ethics, Worship, and Wood

I am pleased to announce the appearance of Making My Way in Ethics, Worship, and Wood: An Expository Memoir. In this book I lay out the main way of thinking that has emerged out of my personal experience and cultural environment over the course of my life. I call it an “expository memoir” because it focuses on a succinct description of my patterns of thinking as they have developed over time. It’s “Bill’s thought in a nutshell,” but not simply as an abstract mental world. Rather, I tried to become more self-conscious about the way my upbringing in Washington, at my family’s farm, through educational institutions, and in marriage, children, and divorce has shaped my concerns and thought. Every thought has a body generating it, so I have tried to hew to that belief in this narrative account. I have “made my way” in an often idiosyncratic way, or as my old friend Jon Gunnemann has said, “taking my own tack.” It has often meant hacking through a jungle where others haven’t wandered, sometimes a little lost, often hidden from the main road. So I invite the reader to join this little journey even as I have tried to share what I saw along the way.

Geography has also shaped this work of the mind. I grew up along the Potomac River, with its division of North and South, Blue and Gray, Pentagon and Capitol. The Appalachians lay on my horizon, God’s slumbering backbone with its caves and coves, its forests and trails. Three years at St. Albans School of Boys, nestled under the National Cathedral’s growing spire, shaped my diplomatic sensibilities. The New England of my forebears tutored me in matters of theology and social science, laying the groundwork for my professional career. My years teaching in a Catholic seminary profoundly reshaped my sense of worship, symbol, and ethics. Divorce and remarriage jolted me out of a shallow moralism into a deeper awareness of God’s grace. Travels into Germany and its Lutheran heritage expanded the horizons of my eyes and ears. India’s ancient cacophony and South Africa’s struggle for greater democracy profoundly affected my sense of life’s plurality and longing. And all along the way were friends who entered my life to open doors as well as eyes and ears.

Woven all through this way were concepts of covenant and federalism, public and reconciliation, and the ensemble of “oikos” connections of work, family, faith, and land. Themes of ecology steadily shaped my thought in the last thirty years, while a turn to working with wood and constructing worship furniture spoke to the connection of worship and ethics that has flowed through my work.

And, of course, there is more. I hope this memoir not only offers a kind of summary overview of my thought but stimulates readers to reflect on their lives and they ways they have thought about the world around them. I am pleased that the publishers (Wipf and Stock/Resource Publications) chose to use Sylvia’s stunning tapestry “Terrifying Joy” for the cover. It offers an opening into the light so brilliant we cannot see what it holds. Our journeys always contain elements of both feelings, even as our sometimes frantic hopes urge us on our way. As you read about mine, may your own gain a little more illumination.

The book is available right now through Wipf and Stock, Amazon and your local independent book store. A Kindle version will appear shortly.

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Under Howard Thurman’s Tree

Howard Thurman entered my consciousness sometime in the 1960s, as I was taking up my graduate studies at Yale. As Dean of the Chapel at Boston University (1953-65), he was already being quoted in sermons, and his poems and prayers were appearing on bulletins and newsletters. I was immediately struck by his eloquent voice as an almost mystical thinker who was also engaged in the ferment of the Civil Rights movement. I felt a strong resonance with this message, since I was aware that my temperament and gifts led me to work on the deep cultural symbols that must legitimate lasting social change. But it was only later, when Luther Smith, a leading interpreter of Thurman’s life and work as well as my good friend and colleague at Candler School of Theology, spoke about Thurman’s singularity and depth on a regular basis, that I began to appreciate the profound message he had brought into religious life and its public engagements.

Last year, as we hunkered down into our individual inward journeys during the first phase of the pandemic, we were also being taken on an inward journey as a people into the often repressed memory of slavery and racism in the heart of American life. The explosion in the streets was also a deep earthquake in the self-understanding of people in all walks of life. I was drawn back to Thurman and began to read his autobiography, With Head and Heart, and when I finished that I took up, with renewed interest, Luther’s deeply insightful exploration of his thought and work in Howard Thurman: Mystic as Prophet. In it, Luther points out how Thurman’s mystical sense of deep unity with all of creation and with all of humanity lay at the core of the vision of reconciled community that motivated and oriented him to the work of overcoming the deep injustice and alienation at the core of our racial divisions. It is this unity of mystical depth and public engagement that has also energized the work of Richard Rohr, OFM, who turns frequently to Thurman’s writings for inspiration

As I was digging deeper into Thurman’s remarkable life and vision, I got a call from a team at Boston University School of Theology asking if I might consider constructing some furniture they could use in BU’s Marsh Chapel, Thurman’s home during my graduate school years. I had already made a table and lectern for the School in 2012. It had found so much use, including in preaching classes, that the lectern had mysteriously (!) broken. We agreed that I would repair it (a life-time warranty…) in time for the hoped-for resumption of classes.

Marsh Chapel, built in 1949, is a stately gothic edifice that embodies what the general public thinks “church” should be: a rectangular space, stained glass windows, timbered ceiling, the audience (yes, audience) seated in pews facing forward to hear and observe the sacred words and actions at the front of the space. But there was a problem, the team  pointed out, both spiritual and physical. How could a person in a wheelchair possibly get to the elevated pulpit to preach with the same authority as a standing person? And how could they find a way to “gather at table” in a fellowship of equality on the same level? How could the space created by a table and lectern be portable to other locations? How could the temple once again be a tabernacle among the people? (That last one is my question!)

As I thought about the demands of a worship space accommodating persons in wheelchairs, I recalled Thurman’s most famous work, Jesus and the Disinherited. How fitting that we would be talking about constructing worship furniture that would accommodate this group of “disinherited” bearers of God’s witness! Moreover, that these demands would lead us to emphasize how the worshiping community gathers around a common table that receives them all equally is yet another powerful version of Thurman’s vision.

All of this worship should be open to the many expressions of faith that actually exist in their community—something dear to Thurman’s heart. And there was one more question: what symbolism might shape any inlay in these pieces that would evoke attention to the diversity of faith expressions in the community  as well as the unity of the God of all creation?

Regardless of the various degrees of conscious remembrance of Thurman that still exist among the folks at BU, my own crafting of these pieces is imbued with what I know of his spirit. As I thought about symbols embedded in his own vision, I called Luther for a long conversation about Thurman. In it, he suggested that I look at the symbolism of the oak tree as embodying something central to his life. It is to the oak tree near his boyhood home in Daytona Beach, Florida, that the young Howard would retreat in order to claim his fundamental rootedness in the divine creativity and love. It is an image that recurred in his meditations throughout his life. And so, I have put an inlay of an oak tree on the lectern tablet from which future seminarians will preach in Howard Thurman’s school and chapel.

We live in a time when we are trying to resurrect the image of God in trees, birds, soil, and even human beings. The image of Howard Thurman’s patient teaching and praying in the shade of his beloved oak can help us stay centered in our task. I’ll report back to you as these pieces emerge. Here’s the lectern.

Posted in Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments

Falling On Our Knees

Our knee is on creation’s neck.

Her breath is halting, weak,

Strangled by our disregard, our cold contempt.

Our mother, she is crying out beneath our weight,

Beseeching that we love her.

Let her arms envelop us

So that we all can breathe,

Can feel the pulse of common blood

Within one heart,

So that engorged with pain

We fall upon our knees beside her,

Pray to her

Lie prostrate by her body

Her tears baptizing us within the flood

Preparing us for resurrection.

 

Like many of you in the past year, I have been struggling with the haunting image of the brutally indifferent murder of George Floyd. At the same time, like you, I am living in the shadow of the Great Extinction we are causing by our radical changes to the atmosphere and our climate. The images came together for me in this poem, which I share simply as a means of meditation on the moment of judgment and possible renewal in which we live.

 

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