Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Leaving This Old House
On the occasion of our building dedication, October 20-21
My mother sold the house that had been my childhood home in 2000, just three years shy of fifty years from the time she and my father bought it. I hadn’t lived there for a long time, it was too much for her to handle in her mid-eighties, it seemed very wise for her to move into a more secure retirement environment near my sister, etc. In other words, it made all the sense in the world to her and to us. But it was still a poignant time. So many wonderful memories of family, neighbors, adventure and, of course for her, the special place shared for so many years with my father. There is an inevitable grieving that occurs when cherished artifacts of the past must be left behind.
I’ve driven past the old house on a few occasions. The new owners raised the roof on my old home, and extended the kitchen out the back for a great room to accommodate the needs – or perhaps more accurately, aspirations – of a family living in what had become over the years a very wealthy suburb of New York. Our comfortable home didn’t have a master bath suite, didn’t have an updated kitchen, didn’t have a family room. Four people sharing the upstairs bathroom seemed to work for us all those years, but certainly wouldn’t meet the expectations of today’s thirty somethings on the Gold Coast in Connecticut. You can still recognize the old place, but any deep sense of personal attachment is long gone.
Today the CTS community, past and present, will gather to dedicate our new building and begin the process of saying goodbye to our old house. As a relative newcomer I mostly see the flaws – poor accessibility, awkward classrooms, a confusing rabbit warren layout of offices, terrible heating and air conditioning controls. The list goes on and on. The sooner we move the better!
But I know that for many this building holds important meaning. Classrooms where beloved professors shaped persons for ministry. A quirky old library, complete with card catalogue where hours were spent reading and writing. The chapels where faith was nurtured and where some even got married! The commons where residential students shared life together. Memories linger here. Lives and loves and vocations were launched here.
Next year the University of Chicago will gut the building. Old 5757 South University may have been good enough for feisty, can do CTS, but it certainly won’t do for more upscale UofC! The exterior won’t change a lot, but the interior will be transformed. Like my modest old post-World War II salt box, old CTS will be moving up in the world becoming a fancy, elegant new space for a very different kind of family with different tastes and expectations. In a couple of years we’ll walk by and search in vain for much of any sense of familiarity and connection.
When the ashes of some former presidents and professors were interred years ago in the cloisters there was the presumption of permanence. This was to be a “final resting place.” Now those remains have been lovingly transferred to a beautiful new resting place in the garden on the east side of the new building. But who knows how “final” this will be? No doubt CTS will inhabit the building at 60th and Dorchester for many decades. But do any of us assume that the needs of theological education will always match the spaces we’re about to dedicate.
The song is surely right: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” The seminary is a people, too. But the song isn’t entirely right, for the church also is a place, a space, a home and a witness in stone and wood, metal and glass. We may no longer harbor the illusion of permanence in our ecclesiastical spaces, but that doesn’t mean we don’t create them with a high aesthetic striving, or care for them with responsible stewardship, or cherish and grow attached to them as the containers of sacred stories and precious tales. The one understanding enables us to leave them when we must. The other causes us to grieve when we depart.
This week we begin our leave taking and start our homecoming. Like our ancient ancestors, we live between tent and temple. Each has its allure. Each its danger. One allows us to be nimble, responsive; the other gives us grounding. One warns us of the idolatry of place and the assumption that what is transitory can become permanent. The other warns us of the heresy that assumes matter doesn’t really matter.
When my mother sold my childhood home I knew it was the right thing to do. Things aren’t permanent; clinging to them only keeps us from going where we need to go. But it was sad, too, for as much as we knew that it was the family, not the house that was important, the house was inextricably linked to the stories and tales; teasing them apart took time, and was painful. When I drive by the old place and see the “improvements” I fight irritation that somehow the new family didn’t think my old house was good enough, as is, for them. I wonder whether they share the same values that marked my family’s life. But who am I to judge what will make my house the right home for them, or whether they are the right family for my house?
All of this will be part of the CTS story over the coming months. Today and tomorrow most of the attention will be on the shiny new space at 60th and Dorchester. Over the next two months we’ll be finishing the punch list, getting technology installed, and preparing for the move. It will be a busy, exciting time. But some will want to pause here at this old house for a time, remembering, giving thanks, and saying goodbye. No place is permanent. But every place is important. So let’s linger a bit, but not too long, then close the door gratefully and with grace, hand over the keys and head with expectation to the house that will be our next home on the CTS journey.
John H. Thomas