Landmarks go up and down

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ONE sunny winter morning I came upon an old, white, wooden church that was on its way out of this world. Several men from a wrecking company were tearing it down, board by splintery board, nail by squeaky nail. I stopped near the front steps and looked at a ``No Trespassing'' sign, wondering whether I should prowl around anyway, dodging falling windows and overhead beams, or behave myself and move on. That was, after all, a yarmulke on my head, and surely if I abided by heavenly law, I should abide by earthly too.

Spotting me lingering, a big-muscled, smiling worker way up on the roof called down, ``Hey buddy, didn't you see the sign?'' Shielding my eyes against the sun, I peered up at him. ``I didn't know this church had been condemned,'' I said.

``It hasn't been condemned,'' the worker answered. ``But they're building a bigger one someplace else, so this old landmark has got to come down.'' While he ripped off more shingles with his crowbar, I couldn't help wondering what would become of the church mice that surely lived there. This was their churchmousery that was being torn down. When I was a child I'd read many tales about church mice, heroic little fellows that harmed no one and did countless good deeds without ever asking for thanks. Some of them had wings, and at night, when children at wakeful windows saw them, they flew up into the sky and carried messages of hope from the bright moon to the lost sun.

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Why couldn't churchmousery and church somehow be salvaged, be kept as they were in all their seen and unseen goodness, and become something equally wholesome, a refuge? For instance, an aviary for hooty owls. Their melodious hoots could drift out over the city day and night, calming hearts, sweetening sleep. True, hooty owls had been known to swoop down, famished-eyed yet chortling, and snatch up mice. But who was to say that the peaceful feelings stored up inside the church might not prevail over the predatory ones?

Who was to say that the church might not become even a kind of Peaceable Kingdom? First for hooty owls and church mice. Later for cats and canaries. And someday even for foes among humankind. A Noah's Ark of reconciled contraries in permanent dry dock.

Finally I asked the worker, ``They can't just leave it standing sort of up for grabs?''

``Look out below!'' he hollered, and tossed some shingles off the roof. Then, ripping away again, he answered, ``It's got to go. A bank's coming in here.''

A bank, of all things! I had to smile at the irony of it. Being Jewish, I had been brought up mainly on the Old Testament, but I had read the New Testament, too. I knew it was Jesus who had chased the money-changers out of the temple. And now here it was the money-changers chasing Jesus out. The sign said, ``No Trespassing,'' but wasn't a trespass much greater than the legal kind being permitted?

I said goodbye to the church and left. A few weeks later I went with some other members of my synagogue to a Christian service, as part of a striving toward more Jewish/ Christian dialogue called ``Ecumenical Days.'' After the service there were refreshments outside, and I took the opportunity to describe my recent experience at the church to the clergyman and to ask him how he felt about the New Testament story being reversed.

He leaned against the trunk of a tree, a man almost as tall as the rafters of his own church. He had a beard of silver curls, as full and long as my rabbi's black one, and kindly eyes that seemed to ask your question's pardon if his answer was inadequate. He said simply, ``I don't believe any chasing was going on over there, David. I think a church just wanted to get bigger, and a bank found all the room it needed. I think choosing, not chasing, was going on over there.''

When I relayed this answer to my rabbi later, he nodded and said, ``Yes, that makes sense. And we, of all people, ought to understand it. We are called the chosen, but we are really the choosing, people.''

One day I went to see what the new bank looked like. It looked like all banks, beaming welcome and trustworthiness. High above it were floating tiny white clouds. To my fanciful eyes they looked like celestial mice, and I took them as a sign that the church mice had come back, exchanging churchmousery for bankmousery. Hiding in secret holes they were, cloud-white, glowy-eyed, tempering the noisy pride of money with their ancient, humble music.

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