Such Extravagance

Church. The building, not the people. Church in a rented space in a strip mall; in a very old two-story house with peeling linoleum floors and creaking stairs. Once our church had been a funeral home, a place to remember the dead and now, it was a place to raise the dead in spirit.

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Holy Land Tour  Greek Orthodox church

 

Holy Land Tour

 

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Our church buildings have seldom looked like a church. No steeples or tall spires. Some had folding chairs rather than pews. The look almost always, sparse. Modest. A pulpit, a table called the “holiness” table and always, always, always, the mercy-seat. The altar. The place to humble yourself before God in prayer.

We were walking through the Vatican in Rome several years ago. Our tour group moving too fast for me to take in all the beauty. The ornate detailing and art wasn’t just in the Vatican but, it seemed, in every cathedral in Rome. Gold, marble floors and marble sculptures and stained glass that streamed light in a way it seemed heaven was shining  right down. It was a lot. Too much, I thought. I would have sided with Judas when he chastised Mary for using expensive perfume to pour on the feet of Jesus. Such extravagance, wasted, when it could have been used to feed the poor.

Holy Land Tour

Henry's iPhone pics

Israel tour

Nazareth

Last month we were in Israel and again, the churches were magnificent. The chandeliers dripped from the ceilings in the Greek Orthodox churches as gold painted frames hung heavy with paintings centuries old. I’ve been in museums with less. This wasn’t modern culture but the ancient traditions carried on. In days long ago when people lived spartan lives this was their church. I didn’t get it. It seemed to gloat in the face of their lack.

This was their museum, she said. Their education. This was their solace, their sanctuary from the day-to-day. Our tour guide was smart, this one. As she instructed us in the less obvious.

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Holy Land Tour

We had seen the dryness of the surrounding desert. We had glimpsed the nomadic life of the Bedouins and remember at one time, in that time, there was little beauty and much toil. I could see the dirt floors and imagine the smells of sweat that couldn’t be washed off with a daily shower. How the dust must harden like a scab and the escape the beauty of this house of God would offer. To know this beauty was lavished on you by a loving God. Yes, that is comfort from a hard life. That is worship.

I was critical of beauty being displayed in church. I was ignorant of the importance of that beauty. Of what it communicates about God, about his loving nature, his pleasure and joy to share such artistry. I failed to get how His story is told in the stained glass images. The Gospel message in pictures because few could read the words from the text.

Times are different. We are different. Not better, not worse, just different. The stories of our faith are told through multi-media. Projected on a screen, played from the stage by the worship band. Coming together still provides the solace from the week. Not the dusty grime of old but a calm for the harried pace of working parents just trying to get from Sunday to Sunday where they can exhale for a couple of hours.

The beauty once found in the buildings must now be carried in us. His beauty, in us. His radiance in kindness shown. His colors shown in our laughter and tears. We use to sing this old chorus that tells the true story:

“Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me

All His wonderful passion and purity

Oh, Thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine

Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me”