The lesson of the Malibu tile

Malibu tile decorating the Serra Retreat Center

Malibu tile decorating the Serra Retreat Center

– Blogging from the Clergy Women’s Retreat

Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, Calif., where Brethren clergy women are meeting this week, is decorated with the most wonderful tiles. They are set in walls and floors and railings and garden paths.

The tiles were saved after the Malibu Potteries tile factory burned in 1931. According to a history of Serra, 9,000 boxes of tile were salvaged and stored away. The tiles were put into use when the Franciscans purchased the abandoned Rindge family mansion, and the building was completed as a retreat center. But in 1970 another fire destroyed the building. Tiles were once again retrieved and salvaged, and now add color and beauty to a rebuilt center.

In some places tiles are formally placed, and showcased with care. In other places, like one of the garden paths, pieces of broken tiles are strewn in a kind of crazy quilt, no less beautiful than their formally placed kin.

Our retreat leader, Melissa Wiginton, has commented that she loves the values of the Church of the Brethren. She asked us, what are the God-given gifts or values that we Brethren caretake? She named this a “hermeneutic of retrieval,” meaning that our calling as a church is to make sure these values–these gifts from God–are retrieved from the past and available in the future.

Women have been using a hermeneutic of retrieval for a long time. The classic example, of course, is quilting. For generations, women retrieved bits of cloth that were still good, cutting them out of old clothes that were no longer wearable, to sew together into something new and useful and beautiful. A bit of that old summer dress that you loved so much you wore it out, was salvaged from the rag pile to grace the corner of the quilt on the guestbed that helped welcome visitors to your home.

Women don’t do this only through quilting. How many pairs of jeans, rendered unwearable by holes in the knees or stains on the hems, have shown up the next summer as shorts? How many yogurt cartons are washed and show up later in the fridge holding leftovers?

My husband has a hermeneutic of retrieval as a handyman. He saves old pieces of wood and parts of machines and household hardware that he acquires along the way, in case he can re-use them. A set of hinges on an old door that he replaced for a client, for example, may reappear where needed to put a sagging door back in place, right and true.

It’s going to take women and men working together to caretake the gifts entrusted to our church. When Melissa asked what gifts God has given Brethren, the group responded by naming peace, service, community, simplicity, women in ministry, humility, continuing the work of Jesus. I wonder, what other gifts should be added to this list?

And what will the Brethren gifts look like after they are retrieved and made into something new in the future? Will the Brethren values be beautifully formalized? Or strewn about with abandon to become a spiritual version of a crazy quilt? Will future generations see them set in the philosophical walls and spiritual foundations of the worldwide Christian movement?

None of that we can know. Our present job is to take care of our church’s gifts. We must pick out the bits of beauty and usefulness in the old cloth, and keep them for the new quilt to piece tomorrow. We must keep an eye out for the old set of hinges that will polish up beautifully, to put the door to the future in place, right and true.

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Director of News Services
Church of the Brethren