David: Ambition Denied

Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Sunday, July 22, 2018   
Trinity on Church UC, Kitchener 

Text: 2 Samuel 7 

We talked together early in worship today about our homes: starter homes, dream homes, the homes we are in and ones we still imagine.  We’ve been starting conversations like that each Sunday this summer, longer each time – hopefully connecting us together, even if they don’t seem to you initially too connected to the bible text you hear later in the service. 

We’d heard another full chapter of David’s story before I spoke, this time about David in middle age, a middle-aged guy with a nice house in Jerusalem.  David says to Nathan the prophet, his spiritual advisor:  

‘I live in a house of cedar, while God is living in a tent.’ 

‘Poor God! From my plenty, let me give God a bit. God should have a nice house too. Let me ‘make it right for God’, like Mike Holmes does for people on the TV!’ Nathan says ‘sure’ – why look a gift horse in the mouth, or talk back to David?  

But that night, Nathan has a dream. This temple idea is not David’s to choose, but God’s to give, and Solomon’s to build. God’s been doing fine in a tent, through all those years since Egypt, through Exodus, Joshua, and Judges – and even 1 Samuel. God will be faithful – but not according to David’s script. 

When did God ever complain about being in an ark in a tent? In all the stories in Torah, what was God complaining about? Injustice: people trying to be more important than they should be, or doing less than they should do. Mistreat people around them, or land given to them, and God’s people will get an earful. But God’s fine with a tent throughout: the ‘God-in-a-box’, ‘ark-of-the-covenant’. 
God wants so much less – and offers so much more – than just ‘happily ever after for David’. David’s not the end of history, but the beginning of a new variation on the patriarchs and Moses. David will be remembered by his legacy and succession, not by a building. For billions of Christians, he’s known primarily as an ancestor or framer of the context for Jesus Christ. 

How does David’s story fit yours, or ours as Trinity congregation, or the UCC? I’ve been reading our archives in Toronto, since nobody seemed to remember much before some ‘good old days’ in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I wanted to read the records of our older days, in worship bulletins and board minutes, to see what those who originally stewarded and built this legacy intended for it. 

One generation begins.  At Trinity, our first ‘biblical span’,  ‘three score and ten’ the psalmist sings, runs 1841- 1911.   We were immigrants, homesteaders, small-town hustlers without much social security. The Methodist Mafia, they called us in Victorian and Edwardian Ontario, socially and financially a step below the more established Presbyterians, who would resist union.  

Trinity folks belonged to the Orange Lodge or Oddfellows (IOOF) but minutes objected to fraternizing with the Masonic Order.   We called each other Brother Smith – not Mr. Smith – close to our Puritan and evangelical roots, the circuits of ‘saddleback preachers’, and ‘camp meeting’ revivals among Wesleyans. Our lists distinguished new ‘on trial’ members from full members in weekly ‘classes’. 

The next generation builds on that foundation.  At Trinity, our second ‘biblical span’, 1911-1981 began by occupying a new church on Frederick after ‘pitching our tent’ in the Salvation Army Hall and the Opera House during construction.   We were 900-1000 at Trinity, respectable, ready to ‘win the world for Christ’ with our own local missionaries in Japan and in China. 

This ‘respectable’ generation was ‘the’ church in Berlin, till a Trinity member proposed renaming the city ‘Kitchener’ during the Great War.  We affirmed ‘Christian order’ through 2 world wars, increasingly identified with the social welfare state and interdenominational charities, liberal attitudes with less temperance talk, no mandatory ‘class meetings’, and morning Sunday School. 

Our ‘third’ generation is halfway through our 70-year span.  Trinity has been studying our navels, picking at lint, studying our options for decades.  For all our talk of ‘inclusive diversity’, we’re old, white, and well-schooled. We are (or were)  ‘MUSH’ professionals (municipalities, universities, schools, hospitals), not rich business leaders or skilled trades working people.  

We find it hard to be entrepreneurial, partisan, pragmatic or parochial.  We prefer to study and delay, like academics or bureaucrats.  What would earlier generations make of us?  Ask those who have left us in these decades! 

What was the point, when we set out as Trinity?  If a few of us had use of a lot of money - oh, yeah, we do!  For what, and for whom, is it entrusted to us?   We forgot!  We ought not run it like annuities or pensions, but venture capital! We build and grow in our turn, or we decline and fall and die. We’re so scared of dying that we are killing ourselves, even as our financial security grows. 

General Council gathers this weekend in Oshawa. I visited yesterday for the ‘Festival of Faith’ and was disappointed by the turnout.  Trinity is not alone in struggling with our ‘third generation’ mission. Bob Fillier from B.C. told me he will be proposing a project to restate our ‘brand’ or particular purpose as a reorganized United Church.  God knows we need it! 

‘Iridesce’ is a projecting inviting UCC members to talk about our experiences since the 1988 affirmation that all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, are welcome as members, and that any member may offer themself for ordered ministry service.  Many bemoaned how few churches are ‘Affirming’ or welcoming still – I mourn our tragic loss and unholy alliances of 30 years.  

God, and God’s church, are doing fine, and will do fine.  I keep begging you to visit neighbouring congregations and service missions already doing good well. Why start competing in unfamiliar missions?  Take some care to see whether our denomination, and our congregation, are helping God, and God’s church, or making distinctive contributions to a discourse that will outlast us  

Our ambitions for ourselves and for our own are too small and unworthy of what is entrusted to us.  I was angry at clergy in 1988 who ‘led their people’ out of the United Church, abusing their power to polarize communities.  Few thrived or even survived.  I am still sad, and angry, though, at how we who are left have become narrower and less equipped to engage a wider demographic.   

Augustine did his best work in Hippo, as Vandals besieged his Roman provincial capital in North Africa, the breadbasket to feed Rome.  His ‘City of God’ was not a project or plan as much as an exercise in contrast, to clarify what to conserve and to seek in a time of disjunctive change. Yes, the barbarians are at our gate, and we will lose again to this wave of cultural change.  What do we save? 

How does David’s story fit yours, mine, and ours? Do you remember starting out, scared, ambitious, your ‘starter home’? Do you remember changing homes, and jobs, and reaching family milestones? Most of us now live in a ‘house of cedar’, nice homes in a good neighbourhood. What’s our ambition now? 

Many of us know what it’s like to become somebody’s parent or grandparent, rather than the star of our family show. These are legacy and succession issues, ‘roots and fruits’.  They are not tales of the ‘power and glory’ of self-made men in their prime. What if we’re the supporting cast, or even the back-story, like Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’? 

I live in a house of cedar, while God is living in a tent. 

Worry less about what you belatedly build for God. Pay attention to what God builds for you. It’s not quite as concrete, ‘the house and lineage of David’, and it starts before David offers blueprints for God who lives uncomplaining in a tent. God, God’s church, are doing fine, and will do fine.  Take some care though to see whether our denomination or congregation are helping make it so.  

I sent you all home with excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s 1940 poem “East Coker” (appended below online).  Faced with the Blitz bombing in England, the poet resumed writing.  I suggested that old, white, schooled people might offer a similar gift of humbly finding words for what we know differently in our age and maturity than we did in the pride of our ‘prime’.   

Northrop Frye, failed as a summer student preacher, incapable of small talk, was ordained anyhow, thank God. I used to crash his lectures, and have a volume of his prayers and sermons, in addition to his literary criticism. He wrote about T.S. Eliot’s “Idea of a Christian Society” with approval: 

"The particular continuum into which an individual is born, Eliot calls his culture or tradition.   By culture Eliot means 'that which makes life worth living': one's total way of life, including art and education, but also cooking and sports….  

He speaks of culture metaphorically as the 'incarnation' of a religion, the human manifestation of a superhuman reality. A culture's religion 'should mean for the individual and for the group something toward which they strive, not merely something which they possess.” 

Frye claims with Eliot that ‘culture’ is – or perhaps should be - shared by the ‘highbrow’ elite and the ‘lowbrow’ popular masses, as the elite (whom Frye taught) were responsible, according to Eliot, for articulating the unconscious culture of their societies.  Eliot would like, says Frye ‘an audience that could neither read not write’, and wrote for their enjoyment, not their academic load. 

Charles Taylor’s term ‘social imaginary’ develops this idea of articulating the unconscious culture.  In his essay “Modern Social Imaginaries” (2004), he says:  

I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. 

I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my focus is on the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but in images, stories, and legends. It is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. 

It’s hard work, ‘a raid on the inarticulate’, as T.S. Eliot puts is in “East Coker”, articulating the unconscious culture.  We used to do it well, in our church denomination.  Judging by popular response, we’ve lost that touch.  I think that Northrop Frye, the failed preacher and beloved professor, worked at it to serve indirectly the masses he couldn’t reach directly.  I’d argue that T.S. Eliot knew enough of the world from working in Lloyd’s Bank after school years, and from relying on sales of his writing from the 1920’s on, to appreciate the same goals.  

‘I live in a house of cedar, while God is living in a tent.’ 

Everybody is eager to tell our few members how to spend the $5.5M entrusted to us.  Ambitions include buying or building a new church, entering competition with existing local churches or charities.  Having slept on it, like Nathan, our leaders have challenged and deferred those ambitions, pending clarity on what God’s promise or invitation is to a few old white schooled financially secure folk. 

It’s not intrinsically bad to be old, white, schooled, and financially secure.  God made you and sustains you, and ‘God don’t make no junk’.  You are beloved, and gifted, in a particular way with peculiar opportunities.  What will you do with what you have got?  What have you learned from the pride of your ‘prime’ to the greater humility of being parents and grandparents, no longer the star performer of this ‘house and lineage of David’? 

We have in the past year resisted the ‘quick fix’, the right answer to the wrong question, the peremptory solution to something not broken or problematic.   Breathe, as David did after Nathan’s denial of his ambition to build a temple, and imagine our legacy as we do for our children’s children.  Breathe, as Eliot did while bombs fell in London and England in the 1940 Blitz. What are we now conserving, uniquely, to show and tell for the generations?  What matters most? 

What word do you have for our hearts, O God, give us ears to hear.  Amen. 

T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ Poem 

“East Coker” 

(excerpts, from parts 1 and 5) 

 In my beginning is my end. 

 In succession Houses rise and fall,  

crumble, are extended,  

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place  

Is an open field,  

or a factory, or a by-pass.  

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,  

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth  

Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,  

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.  


 Houses live and die:  

there is a time for building  

And a time for living and for generation  

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

 And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots  

And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto….  


So here I am, in the middle way,  

having had twenty years—  

Twenty years largely wasted,  

the years of ‘l'entre deux guerres’  


 Trying to use words,  

and every attempt Is a wholly new start,  

and a different kind of failure  


 Because one has only learnt  

to get the better of words  


 For the thing one no longer has to say, 

 or the way in which  

One is no longer disposed to say it. 


 And so each venture

 Is a new beginning, 


 a raid on the inarticulate  


 With shabby equipment always deteriorating

 In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, 

 Undisciplined squads of emotion.  


And what there is to conquer

 By strength and submission, 

 has already been discovered  

Once or twice, or several times, 

 by men whom one cannot hope

 To emulate—but there is no competition—  

There is only the fight to recover

 what has been lost

 And found and lost again and again:  

and now, under conditions  

That seem unpropitious.  


 But perhaps neither gain nor loss.  

For us, there is only the trying.  

The rest is not our business.  


 Home is where one starts from….  


 As we grow older  

The world becomes stranger, 

 the pattern more complicated

 Of dead and living.  

Not the intense moment Isolated,  

with no before and after, 


 But a lifetime burning in every moment  

And not the lifetime of one man only  

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.  


 There is a time for the evening under starlight, 

 A time for the evening under lamplight

 (The evening with the photograph album).  


Love is most nearly itself

 When here and now cease to matter.  

Old men ought to be explorers  

Here or there does not matter  

We must be still and still moving  

Into another intensity

 For a further union, a deeper communion  

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,  

 The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

 Of the petrel and the porpoise. 

 In my end is my beginning.