Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sacred Space

In his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Eugene Peterson points out that Revelation chapters 4 and 5 give us the "last word on worship." We see here that when the curtain is pulled back, and the saints are seen for who they really are. They aren't just the mundane, a bunch of folks gathered on a Sunday. They're the redeemed of the Lamb, whose real songs are in heaven, whose prayers rise like incense before the very throne of God Most High. The weekly worship services between Pentecost and Advent may be in "Ordinary Time," but they're anything but ordinary.

I am reminded too of how throughout the centuries, Christian worship often begins with a Scripture that proclaims God's majesty and who he is as the saving Triune Creator. He's no mere Deist god. And Jesus ain't our homeboy, either. We're people gathered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--an invocation that lets us know we're called to worship by a God not of our own making. "Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

When I lived in Istanbul I saw the remnants of Byzantine churches once glorious in splendor. Their yawning domes towered overhead, bedecked in glittering golden mosaics of the exalted, judging, reigning Christ (Christos Pantokrator). Angels fluttered up the walls toward the heavens. Myriad mosaics of Jesus' earthly ministry preached the gospel in many-colored images. Did these tell more of the glory of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian than of the splendor of God? Perhaps. But as I stood in their now-silent halls with the sunlight trickling in through their portals, I was reminded that I was in a holy place, and that worship is an otherworldly thing.

I know that the God of the heavens is also the God of the burning bush and of the manger. He comes to meet us in the stuff of our lives, in hiddenness and meekness. He is the God of the cross, found in poverty and suffering and meanness. Maybe Byzantium and Rome after her put the cart before the horse: the kingdom hasn't come yet. But when I found myself in these sacred spaces (which have also at times included the beauty of the forest and stream) I am transported in mystery and awe. I am reminded that there is more to God and his ways than just the brick walls and wooden paneling of my experiences and felt needs and concerns of the moment. There is a clandestine kingdom that is coming in which we worship and for which we long. There is a God whose Word and ways are above my own, and whose delights I have only begun to know (1 Corinthians 13:12). I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realms at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:3, 20-23; 2:4-7).

I love church buildings that seek to evoke God's beauty and God's story in their design for all the reasons listed above. Many evangelical churches have too quickly cast off visual adornments as mere trappings, even idols, the form of religion without its power. How many of the beautiful church buildings are devoid of life, love, and orthodoxy? Yet the beauty is really a good thing only misused in the hands of sinners, not the culprit itself. But I'm still torn. The church is a body, a people, an organism, not an address. Its money would, I believe, more glorify God by feeding the hungry and fighting injustice and and making disciples of those in darkness than by paying for stained glass and incense. But until we recover more of a sense of awe and wonder in our worship, we'll be the ones who remain impoverished, left to feed on Jesus our Homeboy or God our Life Coach rather than on the one who "for us and for our salvation came down from heaven."


Ryan P.T. said...

"The church is a body, a people, an organism, not an address."

The Church might be more than an address, but it's certainly not less. "The Word became flesh," in Peterson's suggestive translation, "and moved into the neighborhood"--not into the Platonic clouds. Our physical space matters, precisely because we are physical creatures.

"Its money would, I believe, more glorify God by feeding the hungry and fighting injustice and and making disciples of those in darkness than by paying for stained glass and incense."

You're not the first person to suggest that:

"Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me."

Andrew said...

What do you think about visual elements in church buildings and worship? Most Lutheran churches I've been in are, I think, the most astutely designed I've seen, being visibly sacred while ultimately serving to point to the Font and Table. Some would argue, though, that the sacraments are really the sole way that God has left to portray himself and his salvation to us today.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Excellent post.

I agree I think with what you're getting at. I would prefer simplicity with some ornamentation to help us realize the sacredness of our gathering, as you say here. Though I also think that some of the church buildings do evoke something that so many of our gathering places do not.

I would add to this that I would like more of a use of good liturgy, etc. Except for the common cup- :), I guess I am in large part (along with Anabapism) a conservative Anglican at heart.

Thankfully one day we'll all be in a space in which all this is true to the nth degree, and we'll be growing in the appreciation and reality of it all.