Monday, October 5, 2009

Seventh Annual William Channing Gannett Awards

The Gannetts: Domesticating the Infinite

Religious institutions are often accused and found guilty of having an "edifice complex"—a kind of idolatry through architecture. But church buildings are deliberate and meaning-conveying constructions. How they carve and contain space, how they endure through time and exert their influence on the human imagination through generations is part of the collective religious experience. The effect on the individual is often subtle but persuasive.

I have been greatly affected by our space, our one hundred twenty year old Church Home.

I adore our worship space for so many reasons. It is warm with wood. It is relatively intimate. Yet its symbolism is rich.

When created by the congregation one hundred twenty ago it was called a Church-Home. The symbolism is obvious: the Living Room opening into the Auditorium represents the family as the starting place. The fireplace around which the mythic family gathers is the central element. And that element repeats in the Auditorium—as this large room was originally called—to represent how the family's essential values and needs are at the heart of liberal worship. And the name Auditorium indicates that this room was also intended to be a home for community events.

So in one flowing space family, church and society are joined together.

I adore the hymn written to dedicate this space in January 1889; Here Be No Man a Stranger (though we're more likely with our contemporary sensibilities to now say Here Be No One a Stranger. "Here be no one a stranger/no holy cause be banned/No good for one person/not counted/good for all the land."

I adore the historic architectural style—not just the chapel-likeness echoing church and home on an accessible human scale. I find the Arts and Crafts/ American Craftsman architectural style very appealing. The overall effect insinuates the craft of artisans working with local materials of pine and limestone (it's known locally as Lemont Limestone). It is also something of a reaction to the industrial revolution/machine age, as well as the rise of the city. After all in 1888, when this building was constructed Hinsdale was, for some, a suburban retreat from the city, yet accessible to the city by train.

The building bows to the Chicago vernacular with the rusticated stone arches of Sullivan/Adler and other turn of the twentieth century architects who made the Chicago arch a signature of a great and very modern city—the Metropolis of the Midwest.

The general design of this building came from the religious imagination of the founding minister of this congregation—William Channing Gannett—who sketched a floor plan on a single sheet of ruled paper, which then was executed by a local architect. (There is suspicion that it was really a young Frank Lloyd Wright who designed it—an early “illegal” or “gypsy” commission.)

Mr. Gannett had an impeccable New England Unitarian pedigree—his godfather was the saint-like founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing; his father, Ezra Stiles Gannett was the Unitarian Association's founding president in 1825. William Channing Gannett was an intellectual protégé of Emerson and Parker, firmly joined to the radicals of the Western Unitarian Conference.

Mr. Gannett in the year he came to Hinsdale had forged the great compromise that kept the Christian Unitarians in fellowship with the radical Emerson/Parker wing. Perhaps no one else could have accomplished that. He also was a popular essayist. Mr. Gannett's celebrated essay, “House Beautiful” inspired his good Unitarian friend Frank Lloyd Wright. It was through Wright the magazine founded in Chicago at the turn of century took the name “House Beautiful.”

In my twenty-six years as this congregation's minister, I have been much influenced by that relatively long-ago minister, William Channing Gannett through the unspoken, yet powerful influences of this Church Home and also by what Mr. Gannett spoke to in that celebrated essay “The House Beautiful,” which extols the values that make a house a home. The phrase that sticks and resonates with me is "domestication of the infinite." It implies that what we find to be ultimately valuable—and I like the classic Platonic categories of the beautiful, true, good—should inspire how we craft our world.

For those of you relatively new to this congregation, for a number of years I gave a yearly sermon that I called the "Vulgarity Awards"—highlighting aspects of our common culture that I found egregiously ugly or destructive, regarding the human condition. They were rants, really. And one year when I ranted against a rising crescendo of media rancor and other forms of uncivil public verbal displays, I saw that I too was ranting—ranting about rants. I searched my intentions and realized that what I was concerned with was advancing ideals and values. So I changed the negatively toned Vulgarity Awards to the positive William Channing Gannett Awards, to highlight certain things that I find excellent and of which you might like to partake, things that infuse the here and now with timeless values through the process of the "domestication of the infinite."

I have five Gannetts to award today:

Bronswood Cemetery

One of the intentional and more successful forms of “domesticating the infinite,” that is bringing transcendent ideals into tangible forms, is now not so much appreciated as it once was. I’m speaking of what is known as the rural or garden cemetery.

The nineteenth century had a curiously robust culture of death” associated with the Romantic Movement. In this country the culture of death gained impetus with the death of George Washington. For example, school girls embroidered tapestries with weeping willow trees, tapered cedar trees, poppies, and urns—they and their like symbols of grief for the great man.

One of the great cultural events of the New Republic was the establishment in 1831of Mt. Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston, with the entrance in Cambridge and most of the grounds in Watertown. It opened with a procession of carriages, a large gathering of Bostonians, and a famous speech by an esteemed orator of the day, Judge Joseph Story, who spoke about the purposes of this “place of repose.” Rural or garden cemeteries quickly appeared throughout the suburbs of American cities

The rural or garden cemetery imitated classical Greek practices. It removed the grave from the pallor of the church's traditional graveyard, taking it to the sunshine and fresh air of nature. In an inspired and carefully crafted landscape, a park of philosophy and even recreation, human mortality could be contemplated under liminal influences. Liminal influences included the borderlines between the living and the dead, the earth and sky, water and land, the cycling seasons, night and day, and so on.

These cemeteries have become places that serve the needs of the living, beyond the original intentions to contemplate through liminalities the meaning/reality of mortality. Mt. Auburn for example is an arboretum with over 700 species of trees as well as a bird sanctuary visited by hosts of bird watchers throughout the year.

Chicago has two famous and early garden cemeteries: Graceland and Rosehill. Either is worth a visit. But you really don’t have to venture so far as the northside of Chicago to find an exquisite setting. In our own backyard is Bronswood Cemetery, 3805 Madison Street. Bronswood, originally known as Hinsdale Cemetery, was founded in 1887, almost coincident with this church’s founding.

Now, I find this season, full autumn to be a most liminal time of year. Indeed, All Hallow’s Eve is grounded on tan ancient Celtic calendar when it was believed the veil between the realms of the living and dead grew thin and raged and could be breached.

I encourage you to take an aware and contemplative leisurely stroll through the rolling landscape of Bronswood. It’s a setting with experiences that will encourage you to return time and again.

Forrest Church

I present my next Gannet to my colleague Forrest Church who died on September 24th, a day after his 61st birthday, following an up and down struggle with esophageal cancer. Forrest was the best known Unitarian minister of his (my) generation. Son of Idaho Senator Frank Church, Forrest served as minister of Manhattan’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church over three decades.

He was a prolific author of more than twenty books on a variety of subjects including early Christian prayers and hymns, a biography of his father Frank Church, the theology of Paul Tillich, Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion, and the role of religion among the founders of the American Republic. He chronicled his response to imminent death in Love and Death published last year.

His successful ministry in transforming All Souls into one of the larger UU congregations rested on his scholarly eloquence, on his social activism and community involvement, and on his personal transparency. To the chagrin of his children he spoke openly from the pulpit and in his public writing of his alcoholism and divorce, the latter a public scandal.

Toward the end of his life Forrest spoke more and more about Love, hence the title of his recent book Love and Death. He declared, “The only thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”

His notion of Love—theologically reasoned but also true to the human condition lived by one who loved—will be Forrest’s lasting legacy, particularly for UU’s who will find his liberal message of being saved by Love healing and comforting.

Relative to the intentions of the Gannet and the “domestication of the infinite,” Forrest Church strove to bring one of the greatest of all Ideals, Love into our common world. I suspect his final book, to be published posthumously; The Cathedral of the World will extol not only a contemporary Universalism but also historic Universalism’s call to love oneself, to love one another, and to love the Divine.


In the mid 1970s a computer-science visionary, Ted Nelson, coined the word intertwingled. He declared “everything is deeply intertwingled,” meaning that there are myriad links creating a great web of connection.

Whenever I think of the Internet, the World Wide Web, I think of a great intertwingling—an enchanted realm of ideas and images.

I award a third Gannet this morning to Google, the internet behemoth that is just beginning its second decade. Google's mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

I love the search engine that began the empire. You probably know how a misspelling of the word googol (10 to the 100th power) became Google which quickly became a new verb “to Google.” I remember some years ago when I first Googled my name and up popped a succession of web site references.

I use many Google products: the search engine that is the most visited site on the Internet with over half the traffic of all search engines; the Google blog resources where I’ve built 8 blogs for professional and personal use; the Google sites where I have a web presence for sermons and to promote my funeral and memorial resources. All of these are free.

I use Google products to organize my photos—Picasa. I find addresses and chart my driving with Google maps. My favored email account, with layers of organization and search capabilities, is Google’s gmail. My books are listed and some excerpted in Google Books. (Did you know that Google has set out to digitalize all the books and documents in print. Its contents are amazing. For example, Judge Story’s address at the dedication of Mt. Auburn cemetery in 1834 that I mentioned earlier can be read via Google Books.)

I am a citizen of the Internet, a wanderer of the World Wide Web, thanks to Google.

It is said that the unofficial company slogan, coined by a founder, is “do no evil.” Fortune magazine has called Google the best workplace in the country; and it has contributed to society through environmentalism and philanthropy.

I love Google for its various tools that I use. And I love Google as a portal to an intertwingled realm of endless information.

La Cabinita

I often award a Gannett to a favored restaurant, usually a small and intimate place, figuratively off the culinary beaten track. This year the honoree is a cheerful and intimate storefront Mexican establishment La Cabanita in Brookfield on Ogden Avenue. It’s family owned and operated. The owner Ralphy speaks of offering an authentic Mexican restaurant experience.

Recently it underwent a renovation of sorts, removing cheesy, time-worn fiberglass booths for friendlier and more attractive tables. Festive artwork was added to the walls. A counter to order take out from and an open kitchen/grill complete the space. Floor to ceiling windows look across a parking area; but the plus side is lots of sluicing sunlight, cheerful and warming. I like to sit by the windows.

A friendly waitress will serve you. The food comes quickly. The fare is what you would expect, tacos, burritos, tortas, sopes and gorditas, tostatas. They serve breakfast and dinner plates, including soups.

I’m addicted to the chile relleno tacos on handmade tortillas, which cost a little extra but are really a treat.

My ultimate criterion for a restaurant is how it makes me feel. La Cabinita makes me happy—for the food, but also for the overall warmth. It has an unpretentious grace and family-feel, which fits the criteria that William Channing established in The House Beautiful.

Charles Fisher, RLA, PC

My final Gannett awardee is one of our very own, Charlie Fisher, and follows in the path of last year’s awardee Nancy Holt. Nancy received a Gannett for her many efforts in making our Church Home (and religious education building) more home-like. Nancy worked closely with Charlie in transforming our grounds into gracious and usable space.

Charlie grew up in this church. He is a registered landscape architect with his own business. His motto “Embracing the World's Great Garden Traditions” only hints at Charlie’s passion for the artful and ecologically sensitive crafting of public and private landscapes.

On our grounds Charlie designed the natural playground on the west end of the Religious Education Building and the adjacent butterfly garden which is a registered Monarch Way Station. For years the Religious Education Building presented a stark façade to Maple Street. Now its softened by Charlie’s planting of low trees and flowering plants by the sidewalk in front of its long length. Charlie had a hand in the planting around the “Peace Pole” near the Church building on the east lawn. Generally, Charlie watches over the trees and various plantings, such as the planting in front of the sign on the corner of Washington and Maple Streets and the memorial bench on the north edge of the east lawn.

A few years ago Charlie presented a master plan for the east lawn, including a gracious parabola and a council ring in the style of the famed Chicago area landscape architect of the early 20th century, Jens Jensen. (There’s conversation about making the council ring a memorial.)

Charlie favors designs and plantings that are harmonious with this wonderful area of the Midwest. His aesthetic, sense of beauty, is rooted in history as well as nature. And as his website declares, he is “inspired.” I think has a romantic vein—as a true artist should.

Charlie is hands on and conscientious. He is always working on our grounds and has organized others to help out. Just last week, when we faced the remains of our flower exchange in the vases at the front of the pulpit, Charlie said he would take the remainder home and eventually compost them. Charlie has strong values and morals to go with them.

I don’t doubt that some of his values/morals along with his aesthetic were influenced by our Church Home as it embodies the principles and precepts of the “House Beautiful.”

I can think of no more worthy or exemplary recipient of a William Channing Gannet Award than Charlie Fisher, because Charlie strives to “domesticate the infinite.” through his art of crafting landscapes.

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