Monday, February 23, 2009

Conversations in Stone

I was listening to a feature about the composer Thomas Tallis on an older Mars Hill CD this morning. During an interview with Paul Walker, host Ken Myers made a comment about Tallis's music that made me stop and think about something only indirectly related: the two men were talking about Tallis's fondness for writing music that made the most of his instruments and singers in the sense of writing for the highest sopranos, the deepest basses, and so on.
One of the men -- I don't quite remember now which of them -- noted that such music was necessary to fill up the great churches and cathedrals of the time, then observed we wouldn't need such music now, as often, all we have to fill up is a Morton building.
We -- the Church -- have become quite used to modest church buildings. We've had to close up some of our most beautiful churches because the areas around them have changed and there aren't enough parishioners anymore to care for and support them. We don't build great cathedrals because they are too expensive. We don't need such extravagance, we tell ourselves; we could find God on the golf course if necessary.
And that's true. God, being omnipotent and omnipresent, can certainly be found on the golf course, but that's not really the point.
The great cathedrals and many less-impressive-but-nevertheless-beautiful churches were built with a commitment to excellence and loveliness out of a deep desire to honor God, to reflect in an architectural way the abiding truths of Scripture and the Gospel about who God is, and how He is, and what He is.
I'm blessed right now to attend church in a church building that is traditionally beautiful, in familiar ways -- stained glass windows, a carved altarpiece, glowing woods and soaring ceilings, with a bell tower that, while difficult to maintain, stands out over the countryside like a sentinel. On Sunday mornings the bell is rung to call us to worship, a hush falls over the sanctuary, and my heart rests in the peace of it.
There are many other ways to incorporate beauty and majesty into a church building, some of them traditional, some quite simple and lovely, some more modern. My argument isn't with them.
The churches I worry over are the ones that sacrifice that translation of who and how and what God is -- that conversation in stone -- into the place where they meet. They miss an important opportunity to speak in brick and mortar, or wood, or stone; they substitute sensible thrift for extravagant sacrifice, and are all the poorer for it.

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