I guess it could be worse. We could be called Vespuccians, but somehow it was the first name of the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci that stuck, though in a feminine form to match the feminine names used for Asia, Africa and Europa.
As it is, the Americas, treated as a plural, refers to the entire land mass in the Western Hemisphere, North, South, islands, everything above Antarctica. Properly used, the phrase “Make America Great Again” would refer to the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the descendants of slaves in Brazil, the Japanese in Peru, and even those strange neighbors to our north, with their bizarre sense of decency and the common good, a rainbow of races. If “Make America Great Again” means a taco truck on every corner, I’m all in, baby…
Recognizing that America included all of these people, some in the late 19th century, including Frank Lloyd Wright, advocated for a new term, Usonian, to refer to citizens of the United States. Usonia became the word for the US in Esperanto, as the many fluent in Esperanto in this congregation well know. Wright used the term Usonian for a style of home he designed, a sort of prototype for what became ranch-style houses, and tied it in with his conceptual work on Broadacre City, each home on a separate piece of land, all transportation by automobile, no safe space for pedestrians.
In this way it was unlike that other unrealized community concept, Disney’s “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” for Epcot was supposed to be a town, not a theme park, and it was focused on community.
For all of Wright’s brilliance and amazing work, and I do love his buildings, for all of the relational intensity of his two Taliesin campuses in Wisconsin and Arizona, Wright never really got people. One only need look at his personal life to know that he had problems with covenant. Or maybe it is better to say that he exactly got the American or Usonian spirit, the tearing away “Go West” individualism and the cult of the self worship that cares so little for community. Maybe Broadacre City, its separation, exactly captures the American spirit.
That odd little country thrust out into the North Sea, the land of that brooding Shakespearean prince, went in exactly the opposite direction decades later. A Danish thinker named Bodil Graae wrote a newspaper article called “Children Should Have A Hundred Parents” in the mid 1960s, and soon after, in 1967, a group started organizing to build what would come to be known in English as a co-housing community.
Co-housing is not to be confused with a commune, a co-op, or a condo, all similar terms that came into use in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Co-housing is one form of intentional community, not a monoculture like a commune, not isolated parties sharing a physical plant like a coop or condo, but instead family units living in individual dwellings that are designed to foster relationships. The design of these communities usually keeps cars on the perimeter, with homes facing a community house, a green, or walking paths. Most of these communities share some meals together in the common house, often have shared workshops, recreation areas, and focus, as originally proposed in Graae’s article, on providing a deep social structure for families with children, so they are intentionally intergenerational. Think of it as the exact inverse of today’s 55+ communities, a place where children are the goal rather than a violation of the rules.
There is a Danish word that has no English translation, hygge, pronounced “hue-gah” and spelled “hygge.” It is a sort of coziness, comfort, happiness and companionship all rolled into one term, good food and good company and a warm fire, intentional non-romantic intimacy. This is what the Danes were seeking when they thought up co-housing.
It should not be surprising, really, that the Danes care about people. This was the country that in 1943, when Hitler ordered arrest and deportation to death camps, collectively saved 7220 of their 7800 Jewish citizens. They were the only occupied country to actively resist the Holocaust. My favorite resistance cell from that time was the Elsinore Sewing Club, a cell operating in Hamlet’s hometown. Thousands alive today owe their existence to this Danish sense of community.
Several co-housing communities have been established in the US, though they are not quite as old, and they have to work against our culture and against our litigious impulse, both so central to life in these United States. While our lifestyle magazines may promote something that looks like hygge, it isn’t really part of our Usonian daily lives.
The Danish co-housing communities are almost as old as me now, and they’ve produced several generations of adults. You won’t be surprised, I think, to learn that people raised in co-housing communities seem to be happier, and by many standards, more successful, than those raised in what has been give an appropriately poisonous name, the nuclear family.
I don’t want to oversell the Scandinavian miracle. They are happier, have better social structures, care deeply for one another, but they’ve had to do some real work as their communities have become more diverse. Things were easier when they were more homogenous. The challenge of diversity has been with the United States from the beginning. But it has also been part of Christianity since the beginning, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, but all in Christ. Still, I believe the reason the Danes out perform the United States by most measures is because they design with the end in mind, and that end is the collective, not the individual. Community is the foundation of Scandinavian design.
Good design choices show up in scripture too, as do buildings, of course, none so much as that monstrosity with golden gilding that served the powerful at the expense of the poor. But it wasn’t just the Temple, soon to have no stone on stone, as Jesus predicted. Even the choices made for home construction appear in scripture, a house built on sand in Matthew 7. Then there was that unplanned sunroof on that one house…
And today, Paul and the construction on the foundation that is Christ. To be sure, Paul’s metaphor is a bit of a muddle, part Three Little Pigs, but with fire instead of a wolf, part the body as a Temple, a completely different vehicle for what he is trying to describe.
And can we talk about the construction choices he gives us? A house of gold, silver, precious stones, or one of wood, grass or hay? That golden house might scream out wealth, but it is definitely lacking in hygge, in warmth.
Paul is right, of course, in his claim that the foundation of the church is Christ. His image of what is constructed on the foundation is very much like that other great line from scripture, you shall know them by their fruit. Results matter.
The spiritual cannot always be quantified, so we don’t want to get carried away, but the zero expectation, zero accountability culture in most churches ignores an important parable found in Luke. Jesus tells us of the unproductive fig tree that is given one more chance, one more load of fertilizer. No fruit next year and it gets the chop. Far too many churches sow seed into the same barren fields year after year, wasting their time and resources, and when there is no harvest, they shrug and repeat.
But I’d rather focus on the question of design, and not just because I was a studio art major and love art and architecture. No, the simple fact is that we live into and become shaped by the structures we inhabit, physical and spiritual. This is true of our bodies, our homes, our towns, our systems of church governance, the very arrangement of the pews, the placement of furniture on the chancel. Does the design aim for relationship? Does it convey a top down authoritarianism, some individuals above others? Does it value objects more than people, some people more than others? Does it seek to control? Does it box people in?
Who do we want to be with one another? What do we value? Are we designing our spaces, our practices, our programs, for what we value?
We want children and young families? Great! Do you have a Crying Room? Are the spaces for children bright and clean, or cluttered and dingy? Have you asked young families what they need in their lives?
You want young adults? Have you designed spaces that make them comfortable? Have you taken the time to look at the sort of places they hang out? Have you listened to what they want?
Several years ago I interviewed with a church that said they were passionate about reaching young adults, then showed off their newly renovated parlor, a project that cost some serious coin and that made them very proud. It was my grandmother’s den all over again, doilies and frilly lamps and communicated “This is not a place for young people.”
All it lacked was someone to pinch my cheek and tell me I was a “good boy.”
So many churches house preschools, hallways and classrooms screaming out school, which is great for those kids who thrive in school but maybe not so much for those kids who have a terrible experience of school, or for that matter, for their parents who already feel terrorized by the PTA and an endless cycle of fundraising and don’t need to feel that they are back in that same head space on Sunday morning.
The life of a working parent is incredibly demanding, they need to be spiritually fed, and instead they walk in the door and we expect them to teach Sunday School. Are we designing a church that feeds them?
Do we design our time together to promote what we say we value? Are our meetings and gatherings about relationship or about hierarchy, a task list or discerning God’s will? Are we nourished, both literally and spiritually, when we gather?
Structure is necessary, but the design often produces the result. If we are obsessed with rules and policies, we will reap a harvest of legalism.
I return again to Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, to the contention that our children are learning a watered down meaningless faith best described as “moralistic therapeutic deism” precisely because that is the religion that has been embraced by the adults who run their programs. Christian education should first and foremost be teaching Christ, the powerful Hebrew tradition that was his ground, the cry of the prophets seeking justice for the poor and the immigrant, for if it is not about Christ, why are we gathered?
Is Christian education program designed to educate Christians, or just to produce generically good people? For if it is the latter, parents can get that for their kids on the soccer field, where they can learn teamwork and determination for a fee.
Is the worship service, this worship service, designed to feed only the mind and not the spirit? Are the faithful only to be religious consumers, or are they to be active, worshiping together, the meaning of the word liturgy literally the work of the people? Do our rituals retell and embody that great story of which we are apart or are they empty habits based on what someone likes twenty years ago? Are you working at this thing we are doing together this morning? For this is soul work.
Do we design our missions and charities to empower people? Or do we provide a quick fix that makes us feel good, then walk away in self-righteousness until we can once again ride to the rescue?
Do we sit in rows, passively, or do we build relationship? Do we seek hygge, with one another, and with that Divine Mystery we name as God?
These are hard and uncomfortable questions. What are we trying to create as we design and redesign this thing we call church?
What shall we build together? What do you plan to make of this life of faith? For we say we are building the kingdom of God one life at a time. What gift do you bring to that project? And if there is no love, if we have not designed for covenant, for transcendence, are we building in vain?
How are you designing your own life, your schedule, your spaces? Is there room for mystery? Is there room for the Christ discovered in others? For we engage in the act of redesigning our lives every day, making plans. Is your day structured by holy love?
Let us design our own Epcot, Experimental Prototype Church of Tomorrow, a gathered people who understand Jesus as foundation and model.
Let us become a community of disciples, overlapping circles of human and holy hygge. That community will evolve and change, some experiments will fail, because that is the way of life, and we choose to design for living, so there may be some redesigns. Let us be a community of co-worshippers, co-travelers, co-designers with that amazing artist we call God.