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Pastor's Monthly Newsletter Message

October 2011

“Compassionate Play?”


"The drab seriousness of our lives points to a poverty of the spirit."


Dear Friends,


            When I was a student at Pittsburgh Seminary, I used to love to explore the city.  On a free day, I’d take the express bus from East Liberty to downtown.  There in the shadows of the tall buildings, I would simply meander, investigating the side streets, strolling along the rivers, resting on park benches, watching the busy people of the world as they went about their lives.  I was one of those strange fellows who would stand on a street corner and actually gaze up at the architecture: gargoyles, cherubs, florid details in concrete and granite.  Another seminary student (whom I later married) used to make fun of me for having a favorite bridge, which of course was the Sixteenth Street Bridge, with its sixteen winged seahorses and four enormous globes in tarnished bronze.  When I had finally seen enough, I would walk—yes, walk!—almost six miles back to my dorm room at the seminary.  On the long trek home, I would pass through downtown, the Strip, Bloomfield, Garfield, and East Liberty.  You see so much more when you travel by foot.


            Nowadays, I almost never go into the city.  And when I do, it’s with a specific mission and a rapid-exit strategy: a quick trip to Presbytery headquarters, an evening at the symphony, a hospital call in Oakland.  Exploring the world on foot is still my favorite pastime, and even in Pittsburgh, there’s still plenty to discover.  But my life is less carefree than it once was.  There are people counting on me to be in certain places at certain times.  Besides, I live in an outer suburb, and I work in an inner suburb; life offers me few reasons to cross the Monongahela.  I’m sure all the stone gargoyles and winged seahorses are precisely where I left them, but who has the time to gape at mythical creatures when there’s so much work to do, so many places to go, so many duties to perform?  How is it that our sense of playfulness and wonder fades as we become more responsible?  Imagination and frivolity are discouraged in adults, but why?


            Our modern world is flatly utilitarian.  You do the things that you must do.  You take what you need or want.  You only give what you are required to give.  And at the end of the day, there’s little place left for beauty, or wonder, or play.  What would our world—even our city—look like if past generations had been as individualistic and as strictly functional as we are?  Because earlier generations valued “the greater good,” they built highways, dug tunnels, laid railroads, designed parks, and put up dams.  Not only did they erect bridges, but they adorned those bridges with fanciful sculptures of fairytale beings—just because they believed that life is meant to be beautiful.  Today, many people consider it an intrusion on their personal liberties if they are asked to give back to the communities on which they depend.  This is evidenced by the fact that we cannot afford to maintain the infrastructures left to us by past generations, much less expand them, or improve them, or embellish them with sculptures.  No one has time (or money) for gargoyles!  The drab seriousness of our lives points to a poverty of the spirit, as if we have no time or energy left for anything better than mere survival


            My prayer is that we will resist the oppressive utilitarianism that tries to dictate all our living.  I pray that you and I will take time, again, for playfulness, for wonder, and for beauty.  If we welcome these things back into our hurried, harried lives, then we will soon discover that we are saner, and happier, and healthier.  But more than that, sharing our lives with beauty and imagination will have an additional effect: it will make us more compassionate.  And that is something our world desperately needs.


In Christ’s Peace,