Where’s The Main Part?

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December 1, 2011 by rebelwithalabelmaker

Towards the end of one glorious afternoon of free range lego building with my kids, I held up my masterpiece.  My lego passion is buildings—I am forever trying to put together a city with boys who mostly want to build tanks and weapon storehouses.  Today I had made a church that I was particularly proud of—complete with stain glass windows, a flaming chalice, rows of parishioners, and a tiny lego yoda at the pulpit. 

“Where’s the main part?”  Eric asked, frowning.

“The main part?” I echoed, confused.  I pointed to the pews and the lectern.

“Yeah, but where’s the main part?”  He repeated.  “You know, the church.”

“Here.” I pointed in confusion at the rows of pews.

“That’s where the adults go,” he said, “but where’s the main part of the church?”

I explain to him about the history of churches—how in my grandma's time, whole families would sit together on pews and listen to a message together.   He looks dubious.  He doesn’t think the kids would like that very much.  I said they didn’t, but explained about the value of obedience, and wisdom being imparted, and blah blah.  He has long ago stopped listening—hauling most of my parishioners outside to do battle with a pirate ship that has inexplicably sailed up the main street of town.  I know he absorbs some of it, though, because later I hear him explain to his brother about “old churches what hated kids”.   Thousands of years of human history are brushed away in an instant as “not the main part.”

"What's the main part?" is a big question for Unitarians.  Since some believe in God and some don't, a defined creedal statement isn't the "main part".  The building–with or without the kids' area–isn't the main part.  What is? 


So, what if I wasn’t trying to make my church building—the format—out of lego, but I was trying to create my religion?  What would I make?  A chalice?  A book?  Two lego figures debating?


I started with other religions.  I made a Catholic pyramid.


I’m not sure that Lego is the best way to tell you about Catholicism.  I think maybe to show you the heart of Catholicism I’d need to show you the sistine chapel, or immerse you in the notes of Ave Maria.  Something awe inspiring.  Lego is too goofy, too transient.  When I think of Catholicism I think of great works of art, painstakingly preserved and protected.  Great talents…


For Buddhism, maybe a wall of windows?.  I envy the Buddhist simplicity, their focus on life in the moment, and their comfort with the unexplained and unexplainable.   But lego, as a purchased plastic toy, doesn’t seem like the right art form to use to pay homage to Buddhism.  Maybe a dance would be a better choice.  Or a garden.


For Atheism, what would I use—maybe no bricks at all?  But the heart of Atheism isn’t found in what it isn’t, it’s found in what it is.  To represent the heart of Atheism, I might show you Darwin’s notes, or Einstein’s theorems, or images taken from the Hubble telescope.


How about Unitarian Universalism?  Would a lego image of Unitarian Universalism just be a bunch of brinks on the table?

Somehow I don’t think so.  That’s what I had right before I discovered UUism.  Stuff I’d pulled apart because it was wrong, or stuff that fell apart when you pushed on it.  Or stuff that demanded really twisting the pieces to get them to fit.  I had thrown away the instructions that came with the kit—knowing full well that they represented a lot of work on the part of someone way more competent than I—because I wanted to make something myself.  But I didn’t want to make something by myself.  I didn’t want to do it all alone.

I needed something.  Someone to say “I’ve been there, and it’s tricky.  Here’s a couple of ideas that helped me.  Tell me more about what you’re working on.”  Someone to say “There are others like you”.  And, “You can do this”.

 People will say “I can’t paint” or “I can’t sing”, but nobody will say “I can’t play Lego”.  As I studied theology, the murmured mantras of boys playing Lego wove in and out of my awareness.

I’m done.  No, wait. 

This piece we’ve always used for wings of space ships—put a bunch of those together and you’ll get a spiral staircase.

That’s no good—you can’t get into the inside of it.  Lets take it apart and put in hinges.

You make the base part and I’ll make the sides and she’ll make the muralley part that goes on the front and then we’ll fit them together. 

And, above all,

Come on in, we’re playing.

There are no long lectures about colour composition or architecture in the world of lego art.  There are no famous works to be studied and revered—but there are Beethoven’s of Lego.  There are exhibitions and museum displays of Lego creations.  But for Lego builders, the pulse of the art form rests not with the most brilliant, but with the kid who shouts “hey, cool!” and dives in.

 Which is why they discourage people from taking kids into the Louvre.  Perfection does not welcome playtime.

We live in a world that has overindulged on perfection.  Through mass media, we are immersed in a world of masterpieces.  Images of the most talented, the most beautiful, the most altruistic, the smartest…  this is the right time in history to witness greatness.  For the parishioner who looks for a worship service that inspires awe, or intellectual stimulation, or entertainment, exhibits abound inside and outside what we might define as the religious world.  There are mega churches and TED talks and Avatar in 3D.  Come see, we are invited in thousands of ways, surrounded by a glut of exhibits, each clamouring to find an audience. 


Look.  Listen.  Read.  Learn.  Watch.  Buy.  Get.


But nobody is inviting us over to play. 

We play anyways.  People mostly buy clothes, but knitting is making a comeback.  We buy vast libraries of recorded music, and also gather around a teenager with a guitar.  We read great books and attend worship services, but we also have coffee circles and facebook and off the cuff youtube videos because as a culture we refuse to be sentenced to life in audience mode.  Religion as a museum or performance is dying—churches can no longer compete with the work of best selling scholars or comedians or scriptwriters.  But that’s not what the world is most hungry for.  The world is most hungry for the space to create and play.

 Theology that moves and plays and listens is not theology without structure, or substance, or content.  It has all of these things, but they’re not etched in marble or painted onto the ceiling of a great cathedral.  They can move.  They can be incorporated into what you’re already making.  They can be dumped on the carpet, or carried in a pocket.  The psalms of lego that my sons murmur as they play, sprawled on the floor in front of the living room fire are psalms I also find woven subtly through the words of historical Unitarian and Universalist theologians.


Do you think this will hold weight?  Let’s try.


This piece we’ve always used in this way—we can use it like this, instead.


That’s beautiful.  What is it?  How is it held together? 


Can we put a hinge there, so that it can be opened up?


You make that part and I’ll make this part, and then lets see how we can put them together.


It doesn’t join well at the corner.  Let’s take it apart in chunks and change this part and put it together again.


And, above all,


Come on in, we’re playing.


Come on in, we’re playing.  You can’t say that in a church that sees itself a museum or a broadcast station.  Because, you don’t say that to an audience, you say it to builders.  Builders don’t threaten us—we’ve always done that well.  It’s okay if someone adds hinges so it can open up, UUs have done that for centuries.  It’s okay if the spoken Amens are echoed by amens on twitter.  It’s not only okay for the minister to put the sermon  on youtube, it’s also okay for congregants to post their thoughts on the sermon on youtube.  Or on facebook halfway through the week.  Let’s build a church where the line between in and out is fluid.  Where parishioners don’t say “come be a Unitarian” but instead say “hey, our minister’s made a sermon out of that great blog post you wrote” and the invitation isn’t to buy into a structure, but to join in a conversation.  Let’s build a religion that is truly at home in an interconnected web.  Let’s build a religion with porous walls and movement in and out.  Lets build a religion that breathes.

 Museums of religion are dying—struggling to protect the great works of art that they want to keep static.  But religious playdates—well those spring up around the aging institution like dandelions through cracks in concrete.  



It was a great church lego church that I made.  It took me way too much time for something that will be taken apart and forgotten.  We don’t remember our lego buildings any more than a parishioner remembers the exact content of a sunday sermon.  Hours and hours spent on crafting something beautiful, wiped away.


Maybe one day my kids will get it.  Maybe they’ll say that “our family is one that believes in quality time and nurturing creativity and cooperation through mutual blah blah blah”.  But I doubt it. 


“Mom?” Eric asked me, a couple of weeks ago, “Maave told me she loves Lego and I told her that we love lego.  When you’re back from Chicago, can we invite her to come over and play with us?”


When you’re back from Chicago, he said, she can play with us.  Not because of how talented a builder I am.  After all, my church is beautiful, but you can find better stuff on Youtube.  I’m not the best lego builder.


But I’m his Lego builder.


I’m the one on the living room carpet with him.  I’m the one who loves him.


And he’s a smart kid.  He knows the main part of something when he sees it.


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