“The Lawn Chair Liberation Front: Thoughts Toward a Suburban Contextual Theology”

Sermons by The Reverend John Eric Gibbons
Part I: originally delivered on Sunday, September 27, 1992
Part II: originally delivered on Sunday, October 4, 1992
Preached again, with slight revisions on October 4 and 11, 2020
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


Part I

(Two lawn chairs are on the chancel platform as well as a smoking barbeque grill. Tall sunflowers adorn the high pulpit.)

Doonesbury has recently had a series of strips on family values.  And in a twilight zone sort of warp in the storyline, the comic strip was CONDEMNED BY THE COMMISSIONER OF COMICS, Garry Trudeau was deposed and the strip was taken over by an artist named Diego Tutweiller.  So in the new sanitized world, Joanie asks Mike, “What’s in the paper, honey?” And he says, “The usual – single mothers who work, homosexuals who teach, people who get AIDS…” And Joanie says, “You know, maybe it’s time we moved to the suburbs!” And then they say, “Good idea! More of us…” “…and less of THEM!” “A place where we can practice our values in peace and quiet!”

You know that I preach on those subjects about which I know least, but about which I wonder most.  This morning is no exception.  The subject is suburbia, and just as we all wonder about our personal place in the universe and what are we doing here anyway, so too I ask where are we and what does this particular place ask of us.  My wonderings come out of a particularly Judeo-Christian, maybe even Puritan, attitude which I haven’t altogether chosen but which is just there so what else can I do.  There are some faith traditions, like Buddhism, for example, in which it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference where you are or even who you are – you can be a Buddhist in a crowd or in a cave, you can be male or female, nationality is just another illusion; Buddhism is a cosmic tradition of being.  The Western tradition, however, is a tradition of context, history, place and identity.  Buddhists don’t agonize over questions of ‘who am I?’ or ‘what am I supposed to be doing here’; instead they say the sky is blue, water sparkles; next question.

However, some of the theology that excites me most these days is being done – and in the west theology is something one does, it’s an activity – it is being done by women, and by Africans, by Salvadorans, by people in the inner city and by many others who are asking ‘what does it mean to be a religious person in my particular circumstance and place?’ In this barrio, in this culture, in this body, whatever.  This is not melting-pot theology but spicy stew theology: multi-culturalism.  And, importantly, this contextual theology is not just being done by the poor or by people from the Third World but it can be done by everyone, including middle-age white guys and, or that matter, all of us.

Some remarkable work has been done recently, for example, in Canadian theology.  All of our Canadian Unitarian Universalist ministers spent a year exploring the distinctive identity of Canadian theology.  They did some profound work and building upon their actual experiences of winter and darkness and vast landscapes and geopolitics, they reached certain conclusions about the uniquely Canadian gifts to religious understanding.  And though you have surely guessed that I want to explore the possibility of a suburban contextual theology, the process is so important that I want to read to you an excerpt from the writings of Mark DeWolfe, a friend and colleague who, until he died of AIDS in 1988, contributed significantly to the efforts of these Canadian contextual theologians.  I realize that the very idea of a suburban theology sounds preposterous – and as you can tell I think that it does have a laughable aspect – but on first hearing a Canadian theology is only slightly less absurd – what, is hockey a sacrament, eh?, so I want you to catch a hint of the credibility of this method before I move on.  From his pulpit outside Toronto, Mark wrote:

“If we are to be realistic about our situation, we must begin to accept the fact that our true spiritual home is winter – a period of long dark nights, when what light there is does not dazzle but hangs low on the horizon, when even at noon the shadows are long.  Our space is not a space pervaded by the hot lights of the tropics, which fills the air like a butterscotch, or the lights of the Mediterranean which reflects water and sky in reverberations of high orchestral quality.  Rather, ours is a time and a space of ‘winter light’….  We must learn to be at home in the dark, and to distinguish the true sources of hope which lie not in the denial of our situation but in confrontation and acceptance….  The Canadian gift to liberal religion could well be theological insight on how to survive the dark without losing hope.”

The question, therefore, is what is our suburban gift to liberal religion?  It is a question that I don’t expect to answer this morning, but I want us to wrestle with it today and, making this into a two-part sermon, I will take it to the mat again (the next time I preach).  This morning I will do little more than survey the suburban landscape, the context for this brave new theology.  Next time, taking into consideration whatever may come of our discussion today, I will attempt to build a theology – or develop one to use a more suburban verb – founded on the distinctive attributes and needs of the suburbs.

I have previously spoken of my vision of this church as a bridge between our private and public lives, but with your help I hope to discern more and I hope to further clarify who we are and what we can be doing in this place.  Liberal religion has often taken on a role as cheerleader in somebody else’s game:  we cheered on the civil rights movement, men sort of cheered on the women’s movement, we cheered on the Sandinistas and the spotted owl savers, and we’re 1000% behind the needs of our cities – and though our record is not entirely vacuous, we’ve been a whole lot slower to address our own racial and class structures, the pace of the men’s movement rivals the snail, and though our suburban water may be safe to drink, I’m not sure that we’ve been all that radical in addressing the environmental and transportation crisis that is evident all around us.  Last night I saw a First Parishioner at the new and improved Purity Supreme, and she was tearing her hair out, vowing to move away, simply because she finds the traffic here unbearable.  We smile and say ‘yeah’ but don’t really take this seriously.  Traffic is not the only issue, but seldom get to the heart of our own oppression.

Our own oppression, you ask?  I must have inhaled something; and indeed I did – though not lately.  Bear with me.  I grew up in a suburb of Chicago – white, conservative, conformist, patioed (remember that front porches were a rural or an urban thing – the porch was invented for privacy and then perfected into the deck), and I remember the good feel of a real neighborhood and I benefited from good public education.  I also remember that my adolescent friends and I were a little contemptuous of country people, and more than a little scared of city people.  I also remember the black women housekeepers who gathered at the suburban bus stops at 4:30 to go home…and, for all their assets, I remember that the suburbs were a tight shoe.  And so in the incendiary years of the late 60’s, under the influence of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and liberal religion, my suburban world exploded to reveal a new universe within me and out to the farthest star.  I was introduced to the teeming city and the remotest country, and I encountered people and ideas and possibilities undreamt of – and yes it meant social justice, and yes it meant spirituality and yes it meant some itch that I’ve been trying to scratch ever since. Even unto this very moment.  And though I do not want to recreate my own adolescence, the 60’s had some real downsides, I tell you this because it is my deepest conviction that there can be more to our lives than what we are living right now.  I want all of us, and our children especially, to feel that itch and sense the transcending possibilities that our lives can be more than they presently are and that this place can be more than it presently is.

There are some things about ourselves that we need to see, to which many are blinded and to which my own vision is clouding fast.  I’ve been a bit afraid to say this from the pulpit and yet because I say it frequently in private I want you to know some of the surprises that hit me when I moved here two years ago.  The biggest difference between people in central Massachusetts where I served for ten years and people here is that people out there were parochial and unaspiring (which is why I left and am glad I did), but they were relatively happy and content with their lives.  People here are worldly and aspiring (which I assure you is why I like being here), but we are far more stressed and discontented with ourselves.  I say this not in the least judgmentally, but I have been stunned by the numbers of us on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on medication – in fact maybe a few more should be and I could sometime be among them; I want to affirm the very real benefit of the treatments that are available to us.  But what does the anxiety, the stress, the isolation, the financial pressure, the traffic, the loneliness say about what we as a church should be doing, personally to get us through the day but systemically also because here is an oppression that is real?

I certainly am not trying to play a game of who is more oppressed, and there is a real difference between those who lack food or shelter or safety and our own commodity-rich circumstances, but as any of you who have travelled can testify, people outside of the U.S. take note of our spiritual poverty, the weakness of our families, our communities, our sense of kinship with nature and each other; our fractured sense of common-wealth.

Suburban isolation from the city is part of it.  I fear for our children to whom Boston could just as well be LA they know so little of it.  Even in the 60’s and 70’s I’m told that Bedford kids were sufficiently mobile as to know Cambridge well and a number of our kids did a thriving business in fireworks in the North End, but our children of the 80’s and 90’s are far more isolated.  Even the Burlington mall is a troublesome too-urban place for some parents.

I know there are exceptions and I want to take them into account:  The Bedford girl with a black boyfriend in Waltham. (….)  The Bedford 14-year-old who takes the T into the city to go skateboarding, and whose conversations with his mother are enriched by stories of different people on the bus.  Suburban poverty is also a new and real phenomenon and our congregation knows it.  The human yearning to get out of ourselves is not stifled altogether in these suburbs, but I feel the shoe is getting tighter.

This sermon is prompted by some national demographics.  We have become a suburban nation.  The 1990 census reported that roughly half of the U.S. population is suburban – up from one-quarter in 1950, one-third in 1960. Until 1920 most Americans lived in rural areas.  Let’s test out these statistics:  raise your hand if your family lived in the country in 1920.  By 1960 the nation was evenly divided, one-third rural, urban and suburban.  How many of your families were still rural in 1960?  And now the rural population is down to 25%, urban 31% and the suburban piece of the pie is largest with 44% and growing.  This year is the first presidential election in which a majority of voters will be suburbanites, which is why both candidates have largely adopted a suburban strategy, ignoring both rural and urban voters and courting us.  This explains the obsessive focus on the middle class.

(updating statistics)

The singlemost self-description of the middle class is that of taxpayer:  the suburbs were designed as enclaves of private property and ownership not just of homes and small businesses but of government so that as little as possible of our money or labor will go to people we don’t know or purposes that are not immediately our own.

In John Kenneth Galbraith’s new book, The Culture of Contentment, his most damning indictment is that those who achieve middle-class or better status invariably attribute it to their own virtue, “we got here because we deserved to get here,” whereas a lot of it is simply demographics – we’re getting richer because the poor are getting poorer and the balance of power is in our favor.

Let me teach a short course in suburban planning.  Around the turn of this century, an anti-urban attitude began to develop in the U.S.  The gleam was off the machine age.  (Parenthetically one can argue that western culture has never been fond of cities.  Adam and Eve bore two sons, Cain and Abel.  After Cain slew his brother, God sent him away to wander the face of the earth.  God promised him protection so long as he kept wandering, but Cain refused God’s protection and went to the land of Nod where he built the first city and named it after his son Enoch.  Thus, the first murderer is also the first city builder.  And later biblical attitudes aren’t much more positive.)  But in the 20th century, the modern architect Louis Sullivan is typical when he describes being taken to Boston as a boy.  “As one might move a flourishing plant from the open to a dark cellar, and imprison it there, so the miasma of the big city poisoned a small boy acutely sensitive to his surroundings.  He mildewed; and the leaves and buds of ambition fell from him.”  He would have run away, he reported, but his father took him on rejuvenating trips to the suburbs, “on long walks to Roxbury, to Dorchester, even to Brookline, where the boy might see a bit of green and an opening-up of things…”

John McMahon, one of the first suburban planners wrote a book titled Success in the Suburbs in 1917 in which he described the suburbs as a happy marriage of city and country, a marriage that would produce particularly happy children:  “It is amazing how the family will thrive in its new arrangement.  Pale cheeks will grow rosy.  Members of the family will get acquainted with one another, finding with relief that they are not ‘all monotonous Henry James characters’ after all.”

So the suburbs grew rapidly.  Where I grew up in Illinois there arose Park Ridge and Forest Park; and around here the rusticated outposts of Lexington and Bedford and Billerica came to be described as the suburbs which Dorchester and Roxbury no longer were.  In the 30’s we even had a Resettlement Administration to build and populate new greenbelt towns.  And then came Levittown, and Columbia, MD and Reston, VA.  Even into the 60’s planners spoke hopefully about the ‘new towns movement.’

But it didn’t last.  By 1969 David Riesman in his essay “The Suburban Sadness” acknowledged that he is “one who loves city and country, but not the suburbs.”  And in a 1977 urban planning text which I picked up at the Salvation Army store, it is said that (and listen to this carefully) “Most social commentators regard today’s suburbs more with loathing than with love, finding them homogenous, conformist, adjustment-oriented, conservative, dull, child centered, female dominated, anti-individualist – in a word, impossible – places to live.”

Child-centered? Female-dominated? Interesting, isn’t it, that those would be pejorative descriptions.  Ad fragile though our educational systems may be, schools remain the predominant reason for moving to the suburbs.  And far though we have to go in gender politics, perhaps it was the tight shoe that many Stepford Wives were forced to wear that gave new impetus to the women’s movement.

This weekend I met a woman who had moved to Bedford 30 years ago from her family home in Chestnut Hill.  Her parents worried that she had moved too far into the country.  Sue and I moved here, in part, because we wished to be closer to the city.  Yesterday a parishioner who has lived here for 23 years said that she moved here for the privacy; until yesterday she had never seen the Bedford Day parade and had avoided it like the plague.  Newcomers, on the other hand, seem to be hungry for the sense of community that only a church or a suburb can provide.

Suburbs have been loved and loathed.  I think that we live in an era ready for reassessment.  Suburbs need neither be refuge from the city nor a tight shoe from which to escape.  Surely we are not here because there are ‘more of us and less of them.’  We are not here ‘to practice our values in peace and quiet’.

The tradition of Rosh Hashanah is one of new beginnings.  Now that we are beyond loving or loathing, what makes this place different from all other places?  What do we need here; what can we do here?  With your help, there will be some answers to these questions next time; but right now I have to check the barbeque.

Amen and blessed be…and take us away, Steve!


Part II

(There is a lawn mower on the chancel platform, one lawn chair and a cardboard model of a suburban house and yard.)

Prompted by the economic decline both of our cities and our farms, and hastened by the automobile and by new high technology industry, the suburbs emerged in the 1940’s and 50’s as something new on the American scene.  Bedford, Acton, Chelmsford and most of the towns where we live were no longer stable rural villages.  At first they were changing but still familiar: grandparents might still live in the city or in the country nearby, and Dad might still walk to town from which he could then commute to the city by train or even streetcar; and one could still see one’s neighbors or friends at the pharmacy, the hardware store, or the restaurant in town center.  And with babies booming and women simultaneously unencumbered and discouraged from working, mothers made houses into homes and developments into neighborhoods.  In some ways, at least, the suburbs were the best of all possible worlds – and people swarmed to their success.

We know what happened.  Education and economics took some of us thousands of miles from parents and grandparents.  The streetcar and train service deteriorated and were discontinued; main street clogged with muscle cars; and god save you should you ride a bicycle.  CVS, Bradlees, McDonald’s and the mall replaced the small businesses of town center.  (A pharmacy was certainly still needed because the three best-selling drugs in the country became an ulcer medication – Tagamet, a hypertension drug – Inderal, and a tranquilizer – Valium.)  Women joined the workforce, by choice and by necessity, and latch-key children became a new phenomenon and the neighborhoods became much lonelier places.  In some ways at least, the suburbs in the 70’s and 80’s were the worst of all possible worlds; and to the rural communes and to the gentrified city, some fled the suburban failure.

And what of the Church of Suburbia?  Just as the suburbs themselves were fresh and different and hopeful in the 1950’s, so too the church was a happy but homogenized and brainless sort of place.  As president, Ike said it best:  “Every American ought to have a faith to live by, and I don’t care what it is!”  A Protestant church council advised its suburban pastors:  “Subject matter should project love, joy, courage, hope, faith, trust in God, good will.  Avoid condemnation, criticism, controversy.  Sell the good news!  The training of Christians on cross-bearing, forsaking all else, sacrifice and service is out of place.  As apostles, extend an invitation, “Come and enjoy our privileges, meet good friends, see what God can do for you!”

The Unitarians and Universalists went along with and resisted the suburban tide.  Most of our urban churches closed and moved to the suburbs.  In the late 40’s, for example, the Universalists whose national headquarters were in Boston, realized that there was not a single Universalist church in all of Boston.  Embarrassed, their board bought, remodeled and subsidized a new church, the Charles Street meetinghouse, a church whose architecture, by the way, was copied when this building was built.  The Charles Street meetinghouse flourished for a while in the 50’s, but finally it too closed and now it’s condominiums.  Despite a few exceptions, Unitarian Universalism became an overwhelmingly suburban religion.

We were as materialist as any suburban church a generation ago – or even more so as reflected in the joke I assume you know about the man who wanted his Alfa Romeo blessed.  One after another, the man visited the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Congregational, Baptist and Methodist clergy; and each responded, “a blessing – sure! – but what’s an Alfa Romeo?”  Desperate, the man sought out the local Unitarian minister.  “An Alfa Romeo!” the minister exalted.  “I love Alfa Romeos!  But what’s a blessing?”

And yet, however materialist, suburban Unitarians certainly resisted the brainless, conformist tag.  There is the oft-told comment that when confronted by the sign with two arrows, ‘this way to heaven,’ ‘this way to a discussion of heaven,’ Unitarians invariably opt for the discussion.

But that was then and this is now.  What I want to suggest this morning is that some of the old stereotypes and judgments no longer apply.  The suburbs are not islands of idyllic prosperity.  They are not prisons of conformity.  They are a place like any other place, with assets and deficits.  The suburbs are neither to be loved nor loathed.  No longer are we so self-righteous, neither need we be self-contemptuous.  Most of us seek blessings even more so than Alfa Romeos and at least some of us would take heaven any day over a discussion; though a discussion in heaven would probably be perfect.

After sketching an overview of the suburbs last Sunday, I’ve promised to attempt a suburban contextual theology, an answer to the question ‘what is the distinctive gift that this place can make to religious understanding?’  Frankly, it is easier to ask the question than answer it.  But here goes.  My theology has three tenets (it’s a Trinitarian theology):  access, abundance and privacy.  Each is also a mixed blessing.

The first overarching feature of suburban life is that we have unique access, geographically, economically, politically, educationally, socially.  What we want is within our reach, more so in the suburbs than anywhere else.  The financial district and Fruitlands are equidistant.  There are days when I decide whether to have lunch at the Cambodian restaurant in Lowell or to picnic at Great Meadow.  Jobs may not be plentiful or secure but there are more here than anywhere.  Great schools are here.  Fewer and fewer suburbanites take advantage, but there is access to the city, for education, employment, culture.  Access is synonymous with freedom and the suburbs are freely-endowed.

Abundance is the second tenet of a suburban theology.  When Globe columnist Linda Weltner spoke here two weeks ago, she concluded by saying that the myth of having it all is a myth because, in fact, we already have all that we need.  It was a quintessential suburban conclusion – I don’t think it would be accepted anywhere else.  Here, however, it’s right as rain.  We do have all that is needed for our fulfillment in body, mind or spirit.  And then some.  In skills, in leadership, in human and natural resources, in money and in things, there’s more here than anywhere.

The third tenet of this suburban theology is privacy.  One can have anonymity in the city and solitude in the country, but the suburbs are a bastion of privacy.  Last week I noted that private property was the reason for suburbs in the first place – a home of one’s own.  Privacy goes further than property, however.  The suburbs give privacy to individuals and to families, but government too is a private enterprise in the sense that it is closely held by its constituents and accountable only to those within the suburban town lines.  We have our own schools, our own security services, our own maintenance personnel.  We take care of our own.  I say this not in jest or derision because I believe in privacy – privacy is synonymous with individualism, and with decentralized authority, and with grassroots democracy.

But now here’s the rub:  each of these suburban assets carries obligations.  Let’s start with access, our freedom to choose.  It’s use it or lose it.  I have trouble describing this so let me tell a story.  Last week there was a Social Responsibility Committee meeting.  As you know, out of it came our new focus on hunger which we hope will generate a number of actions, the first of which will be our commitment to cook and serve a meal at our local feeding program, the Community Table.  It’s a small beginning in the global effort to end hunger but a beginning nonetheless.  Like a lot of meetings, the one last week had a lot of “we could do this but then again we could do that, and then again there’s this.”  Much discussion, not a lot of action, but some.  After the meeting I talked with Marcia who mused about her 30-some years of experience in UU churches.  “Like most groups,” she said, “they did a lot of hand-wringing.  It’s a rare group which is so immersed in the reality of need that they know precisely what to do and just do it.”

When one is free to choose one is also free to wring one’s hands; our privileged access must be exercised or it will shrivel to inconsequence.  The suburbs are places where we have access to a lot of strings that could be pulled in the service of our values – strings to people and to power, strings that too frequently are limp and untouched.

Then there is the obligation of our abundance.  No sermon is more overpreached and more underpracticed, so I’ll be brief on this one.  “Things are in the saddle and ride humanity,” said Emerson, one of Concord’s more bourgeois sons.  There was a time when every minister preached about “voluntary simplicity,” and now I read many sermons about the politics of relinquishment and they make perfect sense… “relinquish our covetous and consumptive ways” … “relinquish our fierce individualism and replace it with compassionate mutuality” but for all the talk of relinquishment I don’t see many people giving up much.  “You go first,” we seem to say, “no, after you…no, after you.”  Taxes are to suburbanites what krypton was to Superman; but now he’s dead and our entitlements remain unscathed.

And yet despite my cynicism, I believe that the right calls to relinquishment will be willingly heard.  The 1950’s church of suburbia advised against preaching sacrifice, cross-bearing and the like.  Perhaps that’s why that church is dead?  From my own generation’s perspective, I know there is an unfilled yearning for sacrifice and for service.

And there is another way to look at abundance.  Leadership, for example, is nothing more than having something left over after taking care of oneself.  A suburban theology accepts the opportunity and obligation of abundance.

Privacy carries its obligations also.  Its underside is isolation and exclusion – isolation in that suburbia permits, even encourages, a certain disconnection with ordinary social intercourse; exclusion in that we sometimes erect barriers to exclude those who are judged different – by race, by class, by sexual orientation, by ability or disability, by most any silly category we can think up.  Thus the opportunity and obligation of this suburban theology is that we open ourselves to the hands-on face-to-face experience of difference.

Here my thinking has been influenced by a wonderful book I mentioned last week in our discussion, a book titled The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg and subtitled “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day.”  It is the best applied theology I’ve ever read.  For a long time a friend and I have joked about opening the First Unitarian Universalist Laundromat, and I am pleased to discover it’s no joke.  The book is about what are called “third places” – not home, not work, but a place where diverse and differing people gather to put aside the concerns of work and home, and simply hang out for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation.  They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of a democracy; and they are a diminishing aspect of American social landscape.  Simone deBeauvoir once said that the thing that she missed most in America was the decline of the drug store – not the CVSes but the drug stores that were also cafes and refuges.  Here is another woman’s recollection of a drug store:

“I grew up in a small, industrial town just outside Akron; I was born in 1933.  Long before I started to school, my dad would take me along on his every-evening walk ‘down to the corner’ for a coke.  It was a ritual.

During the course of the years, the owners changed; one pharmacist selling out, another coming in.  But the soda fountain remained.  It functioned as the gathering place for the neighborhood men who didn’t frequent the bar across the street.  Neighborhood women came in, made purchases, and went out.  The men gathered to talk.  I was usually the only child, sitting on the high stool, sipping a cherry coke, or a lemon coke, happy to be there with my dad.

The adult I’ve become has often looked back upon the corner as a strong formative force in my life.  I can’t be quite certain, but I believe it was there that I very early became aware that the world was much wider than Barkerton, Ohio; that there was a city, state and national government; that what happened in government affected people’s lives; and that people participated in government.  I suspect that it was all those conversations overheard at the drugstore that made me feel comfortable with conversations about ideas, and at home with man-talk as well as with woman-talk over the kitchen tables of the neighborhood.  I suspect that it was at the corner that the roots were planted for a lifetime interest in politics, economics, and philosophy (none of which were part of the world at home), but which were the core of this third place.”

I suppose this lets the cat out of the bag.  One day your minister is featured in the newspaper as a homebrewer; the next he wants to turn the church into a tavern or a laundromat or a drug store.  Community-building is what it’s about.  Actually, this brings me back to the lame joke about the discussion of heaven.  Because of our access, because of our abundance, and because of our yearning for a community beyond our private selves, we in the suburbs are in a unique position to rekindle the art of conversation.  So far we limit our discussion to a half hour on Sunday mornings:  What would it take for us to initiate more conversations?  “Revelation,” says James Luther Adams, a Unitarian Universalist theologian who truly knows what he’s doing, “in our tradition happens in the human encounter of conversation.”  Remember that the next time someone asks you for your views on revelation!

We need not be grandiose.  I’ll be specific.  The ice cream social we sponsored on the common last summer game a taste of what a vital town common might be.  It’s something we should do again.  People came here and actually told me they were surprised to discover that this church isn’t dead!  Linda Weltner’s lecture is another example.  We could be the catalyst for community conversation – public forums, debates, conversations about what it means to be a community.  I have an idea!  What would it take to get kids hanging out on the Common again, eh?  Or to get us hanging out there?  I really want to brainstorm these possibilities with you: what would it take for more people to come here just to talk?  Children, adults, single people, those who need much and those who have much to give?  Talk is our theological imperative.  Maybe you think we are all talk and, if so, I think we should go with our strength.  For better or worse, I believe that – for us – talk is a prerequisite for and concomitant with action.  The trick is to engage in meaningful conversation, not just aimless talk.

A suburban theology is a hard thing to imagine and I don’t think Harvard’s going to invite me back to lecture.  But we do have some assets:  access, abundance, privacy.  And we do have some obligations:  exercising our access, sacrificing and serving from our abundance, and reaching out beyond our private precincts.  And we sure can talk….

Why not finish up with grandiosity?  Ray Bradbury once wrote a critique of suburbia in which he referred to “Juggernaut Shopping Malls” which smother and crush the real places.  But instead of building high altars to consumerism, Bradbury urged that we ‘invent’ a ‘People Machine’:

“What are we talking about?  Not just a shopping center where people come to buy one sheet, one shirt, or one shoe, but a place where lingering, staying, dawdling, socializing are a way of life.  A refuge from the big city, or sometimes worse, your own parlor.  A place so incredibly right that mobs will rush to it crying ‘Sanctuary!’ and be allowed in forever.  A place, in sum, where people can come to be people.  The idea is as old as Athens at high noon, Rome soon after supper, Paris at dawn, Alexandria at dusk.”

Or Bedford at about 11:00 on Sunday morning.