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From Vietnam to great church buildings

Chancel of Lansing Central United Methodist Church

In his September blog, the Rev. John Boley engages in a “dialogue between the past and the present” while addressing God’s people in an historic church.


Clergy Assistant to the Bishop

So, this past Labor Day weekend, my wife Diane and I tried to set up some time with our three children, two daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren. They all live in the Ann Arbor area now. But it didn’t work out. All of them had their own plans and couldn’t squeeze in any time for their old parents. We felt rather rejected. Actually, it’s deeply satisfying that they have their own full and productive lives.

But suddenly we had some time on our hands – a Labor Day weekend with nothing on the calendar. And what I did with that time is that I binge-watched the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. I missed it when it came out a while ago, so I started watching it on Netflix over Labor Day weekend. I finished it up this past weekend – over 15 hours of video footage and commentary on Vietnam.

It was not exactly an uplifting project for a holiday weekend. “John, what did you do over Labor Day weekend?” “I re-lived Vietnam, what did you do?” Well, no one can accuse me of not knowing how to have a good time.

To be clear, I did not serve in Vietnam. I missed the draft lottery by one year. But the truth is that I’m still angry about Vietnam. And it’s been close to 50 years. The horrible violence and loss of life, the lies of our government, the gross miscalculations – it all haunts me to this day. But why would I binge-watch this series? The simple answer is based on that saying attributed to George Santayana – that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. A more complex answer is that the past is always with us in our individual lives and our society’s consciousness, and it informs our lives in ways that we cannot fully comprehend or articulate. The personal psychology of why I would do that is that I need to come to some reconciliation over that era and I need to have history inform that reconciliation. Actually, I watched that series with less reaction and emotion that I would have anticipated – so perhaps some reconciliation is finally coming.
But what does all of that have to do with what we are doing this evening at Lansing: Central United Methodist Church?

“We are not bound by our past, but informed by it; we are not limited to our tradition, but guided by it.” 

In preparation for this evening, I looked up several definitions of history. Of course, there are many definitions related to the recounting of past events. But the best definition I found is that “History is a dialogue between the past and the present.” I like that. What that suggests is that we are not bound by our past, but informed by it; that we are not limited to our tradition, but guided by it. And we don’t worship the past, nor do we condemn it, as somehow being superior or inferior, instead, we live in the present, work for and be in hope for the future, while we learn from the past. History performs a function. 

So we’re here tonight to celebrate the great history of this building and congregation. It is truly remarkable – one of the longest standing worshipping communities in Lansing, housed in this unique building on this unique corner at the center of the city. I’ve forgotten some history of this congregation that I used to know, but who can forget the impact of this building on our lives for those of us who have been present here in any capacity over the years. It is great to celebrate this building, to give thanks for its stewards over the decades, to thank our municipal partners for celebrating history in the community, and to find ways to go forward into the future as the current stewards of this structure.

The building itself indeed is unique. It has the same architect as the state capitol building across the street, and you can imagine how this building was truly a Lansing community center back in the day, with this Fellowship Hall being used for all kinds of activities. The sanctuary, the gym, the bowling alley, Mary Sabina Chapel, the dining room/dance floor – a unique building indeed. I can still imagine horses being stabled underneath the Sanctuary. When I became pastor here in 1997, it was especially important that I become a presence in the building. So, I spent hour upon hour here for all activities and events and meetings. It took months just to learn where all of the light switches are. I think I knew every inch of this building, including the dungeons down below and the city steam system down there. I’ll never be in a more unique structure.

I remember the first time I was in the building, on an evening in February of 1997. It was a cold, snowy winter night, but the building was full of basketball leagues, dance events downstairs, and meetings and Lenten study groups in the meeting rooms. The building was alive, and you could feel the pulse. That is when our church buildings are at their best when they are pulsing with vibrancy. If they are static and seen as a monument to the past, then we are in trouble, and its congregation has little hope.

“Congregations which see their building as a tool to enhance ministry to the congregation and the community, with external focus, those congregations are healthier and have a greater future.”

As a United Methodist pastor in Michigan for 25 years in my various appointments and capacities, I have been in most of our 800 some odd United Methodist churches around the state. And what is very clear is that if a congregation worships its building, and perhaps even has plaques and outdated art all over the place, and has come to believe that the building is the church, then that congregation has little hope for the future. Congregations which see their building as a tool to enhance ministry to the congregation and the community, with external focus, those congregations are healthier and have a greater future. And what is also clear is that congregations which place too much focus on the past, or who have as their primary mission a longing for a return to the glory days of the 1950’s, they don’t have much hope either. As we enter into a new era of the Church of Jesus Christ, sometimes called the Emerging Church, the Holy Spirit is reforming the Church to support those who embrace a different future than what has been in the past, even as the dialogue between past and present is a critical tool in determining that future.

So, the challenge is steep. Our celebration tonight is good, but it comes with a huge caveat – a caveat in the form of a question. How do we hold onto this great building and let go of it at the same time? How do we take pride in a great building like this, be good stewards of it through maintenance and care, make it comfortable, up to date and inviting, and yet don’t allow it to take over our thinking so that we think that the building is the church? It is critical to preserve great buildings like this in attractive ways for future ministry, but how do we refrain from going over that edge to think that the building is the church?

I’m not sure I have any greater answers to that challenge than I did 20 years ago. But I do know that that challenge cannot be met without constant prayer and an external focus; without a continual embracing of the City of Lansing; without a constant embracing of the prophetic role of the church in this place of being across from the political center of the state; and a constant and real understanding that this congregation’s ministry is not to its building, but instead is to its members and to the community at large. In the meantime, we indeed give thanks for the visionaries and stewards who have gone before us and have left us this magnificent building to house our ministries and steer our passions. 

~Note:  This Drinking the Cup is adapted from a presentation that John Boley made at Lansing Central United Methodist Church on Thursday, September 13, 2018 in celebration of the Lansing Central facility  becoming a historical site at the federal, state and local level. Boley served as Senior Pastor of Lansing: Central from 1997 to 2002.