I’m about to break the number one rule of starting a new pastorate–I’m going to tell you what I miss about my old pastorate. Actually, I’m going to show you.
The pictures in the bulletin were taken in the sanctuary in my last church. No filters, no doctoring…those were pictures I took with my phone. Aren’t the colors amazing?
When I arrived at Pilgrimage in 2001, I went despite the building. It’s a simple building, constructed of concrete block, one level. At the time, the floor of the sanctuary was covered with utilitarian carpet the color of blah; for seating we had metal folding chairs.
Unlike the rest of the room, the stained wood ceiling was striking. It soared up from one side of the building to the other. From the ceiling’s highest point descended a wall of windows–four sets of three windows each. An energy saving feature, the windows were designed to allow in sunlight to warm the space with passive heat in winter.
Great plan, bad execution. The light was so bright, people couldn’t see. Every Sunday was a road to Damascus experience. Of necessity, the windows stayed covered all the time.
When we decided to renovate in 2008, I got a call from the church member who was overseeing the project. “How about stained glass windows?” he asked. In one of my less-inspired moments of pastoral leadership, I assured Ric that we were NOT a stained glass church. He asked me to think about it.
Five minutes later I remembered Merridy, a woman who attended our church. Want to guess Merridy’s profession? Stained glass artist. I sent her info to Ric, who immediately reached out. Later, Merridy told me, “The first time I came into this space and looked up at those covered windows I thought, ‘What a waste.’” After Merridy got through, the windows were whatever the opposite of “waste” is. They’d gone from a nuisance to something that could create the kind of beauty you see on today’s bulletin.
Truth be told, I’m still grieving the loss of the colors. The windows themselves are beautiful…but the colors they cast! As the sun creeps across the sky, the colors cast by the windows creep across the room. It’s like the artwork in the room changes every second of the day. The room is alive now; it breathes. My first task when coming to work each day was to see what the light and colors were doing.
So, why am I telling you this story about the stained glass windows in another church I served? I tell the story because that experience taught me the importance of having a beautiful space in which to worship. The alterations to the sanctuary changed how we worshiped together. Before, we worshiped despite the space. Afterward, we worshiped WITH the space. Those windows taught me that beauty invites us into God’s presence as few things can.
The beauty of this room also invites us into God’s presence…the openness of it, the dark-stained wood, the stained glass windows. Something inside you shifts when you enter this space, doesn’t it? It invites reverence, maybe even awe. Take a moment to take in the space.
Why does beauty affect us so deeply? John O’Donohue described beauty in this way. He said, “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves. No one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”
Beauty as homecoming…a rightness, a sense that things are as they should be, that we are connected to everything around us, that we are home.
So. Jesus in the Temple…cracking a whip, over-turning the tables of the moneychangers, running out the animals being sold for the sacrifices necessary for religious rituals. I get the sense most of us here like this Jesus…like, really like this Jesus. Getting angry about religion selling its soul? Sticking it to the Temple authorities? Standing with those who are being exploited? Oh, yeah. I’m guessing we like this Jesus a lot.
But Jesus’ invitation here is about much more than simply living our faith out loud and speaking truth to power. For Jews at that time, the Temple was the actual dwelling place of God; for them, the Temple was God’s literal home. If you wanted to encounter God, you had to go to the Temple. So, when Jesus claimed that his body was now God’s Temple, he was giving notice that God had relocated. God was no longer only to be found in the Temple and the old way of being it represented. Now, the best place to find God was in Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ zeal for God’s house became zeal for the new thing God was doing in Jesus. Where the Temple once had been God’s home, now God’s home was wherever Jesus went.
After a couple of millennia of following Jesus, this seems like old hat to us…but to the religious authorities at the time? This notion that God now had a new home? That the beauty of the religion they followed had shifted to a place outside their purview, outside their control? That was dangerous….dangerous enough that those religious authorities eventually colluded with the Roman government to kill Jesus. (We often speak of Jesus’ anger in this scene. But the more dangerous anger would seem to be that of the religious authorities, the people in power. In our own society we’ve seen the devastation that ensues when the powerful become angry…and, even more so, when their anger becomes law.)
What new thing might God be wanting to do here at FCUCC? What once beautiful systems or traditions no longer give life or could be reawakened by refocusing on the new thing Jesus hopes to do in our midst? Where is the beauty of our faith located now?
In recent weeks, we’ve talked about the steady rhythm of breathing in God’s love and breathing out God’s love, the yin and yang of gathering for worship and acting the world into wellbeing…in the pretty red doors, back out the pretty red doors, in the doors, out the doors…How crucial it is to have a space in which to breathe in God’s love and renewal, so that we can leave this place to breathe out God’s love and renewal as we seek to heal the world.
And how beauty renews us! Beauty nourishes our souls… It also jumpstarts our imaginations, our creativity. Beauty invites us to see things in new ways. Can you imagine trying to change the world without experiences of beauty?
On Friday, I attended “On the Row,” a staged reading of pieces written by inmates on death row in Arkansas. The pieces described different aspects of the men’s lives—how they felt about themselves, about what they’d done. What it was like to be isolated 23 hours a day.
For his part, one man described his cell. Bed, polished steel mirror. Cream-colored walls. When he said “cream-colored walls,” it hit me—there’s no artwork in those cells. Bare concrete walls. Twenty three hours a day.
The sister of a man executed by the state of Arkansas had some artwork created by her brother there Friday night. He was a gifted artist. And I was glad to hear that, if family pays for art supplies and has them sent to the prison, inmates are allowed to create art. But the simple act of choosing artwork that inspires you and putting it up on the wall—that doesn’t happen.
The over-riding theme of “On the Row,” is the power of redemption…the possibility of people who’ve done hard, even horrific things to be transformed. When I heard the words “cream-colored walls,” I wondered—How does depriving people of beauty facilitate their redemption? Or, to put it another way—Does depriving people of beauty actually militate against redemption?
Gary Dorsey is a member of the last church I served. Ten years ago or so, Gary, his wife, Jan, and daughter Ella moved to Atlanta. Gary had taken a job as a religion writer at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Some of you minister types might have read Gary’s book, Congregation. It’s a great snapshot of congregational life. Jan was hired as an editor at the same paper.
Six weeks after arriving in Atlanta, Gary had a massive stroke in his brain stem. Most strokes of the type Gary had are fatal. Folks who survive either lose significant physical control—becoming “locked in”—or they lose cognitive function. Gary lost cognitive function.
In the early days of Gary’s recovery, I invited Jan to share with the congregation some of her experiences of the recovery process. As often happens with traumatic brain injuries, the words Gary spoke didn’t always make immediate sense. Once you thought about it, though, it became clear that the words he said were connected to deeper truths.
Once, when Jan asked Gary how he was feeling about things, Gary told her: “You are my cathedral.” “You are my cathedral.” You are the one who keeps me connected to the holy. You are the one who keeps me connected to beauty. You are my home.
Maybe Gary had it right. Maybe we’re all cathedrals. Maybe Jesus’ point that day in the Temple was that, through him, we are the ones who keep each other connected to the holy, we are the ones who keep each other connected to beauty. Maybe we are home for each other.
Perhaps the best way, the only way, to redeem the world, is to enter each other’s presence—all others’ presence—with the reverence with which we enter this space. If we did that, if we lived consciously as if we are cathedrals for others—and they cathedrals for us—If we entered every encounter with every person as if we were on holy ground, what might happen to this world? What might happen to this church? Might we find a new way forward? Might we create something beautiful? Might we find that, at last, we are home?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018