Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 8:10-30) transports me seven years back to an old cinder block building next to Spivey’s Carp Lake in Fairview, a building first built by Bill Spivey as a roller skating rink in the sixties, and most recently occupied by KD’s Bar, a honky tonk sometimes referred to by the locals as the Fairview Knife and Gun Club, due to the frequency of Saturday night shootings and slashings. The members of a newly formed church, Ecclesia Baptist, which had been meeting at the volunteer fire department, purchased KD’s Bar, and were ready to renovate it and make the transformation from honky tonk to worship center. Finding people eager to take away the neon Budweiser and PBR signs was the easy part. Cutting through the layers of grease and grime and God knows what else that had accumulated on every surface took a bit more time. But the difficult and dirty work was accomplished and the church made the move, with prayer and praise replacing the two-step and fist fight. I’m sure the neighbors were offering prayers of relief and thanksgiving as the church dedicated its new sacred space. And I’d like to believe that the charter members were as deeply moved by the presence of God in Bill Spivey’s old cinder block building as the people of Rafael Guastavino’s Saint Lawrence Basilica were when it was dedicated back in 1909, or the people of King Solomon’s Temple were when it was dedicated back in 832 BC.
One thing we can gather from the opening remarks Solomon made when that dedication service took place those many centuries ago: There was both ambivalence and ambiguity around the existence of a space designed to be sacred, a structure designated as the house of God. As a dark cloud filled the newly constructed temple, making it impossible for the priests to continue with their duties, Solomon interpreted the mystery for them, saying that the cloud indeed was the presence of God, because God dwells in thick darkness. The King went on to question the very idea that any temple could contain the presence of God, But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! And he concluded the opening remarks with lengthy penitent prayers, seeking forgiveness for the corporate sins of the covenant community.
Tensions and confusions over the creation of sacred spaces is as real today as it was for Solomon. Solomon and the folks at Ecclesia, like worshiping communities around the world throughout the ages, struggle over tensions between theology, ethics and aesthetics. What is the role of beauty in our spiritual lives? What is the role of the person whose vocation is to craft beautiful things? How do we distribute our energy and resources between maintaining the building and ministering to the poor? Some traditions have taken an iconoclastic, an-aesthetic view – keeping the architecture and design as simple and unadorned and inexpensive as possible. But then, over time, this kind of design might become fashionable and trendy and high dollar (like Amish or Shaker craftsmanship). And at the end of the day, we are left with the question of why: why do we even need structures that we call “God’s House” when we know as well as Solomon that God is ever present and cannot be contained in any structure? And, adding to the ambivalence, the anthropologists teach us that the building of temples throughout humanity’s history has generally been a project to justify and reinforce dynastic or imperial power. We see that today as places of worship are used to commemorate national wars and warriors. No wonder Solomon spent most of his dedication speech seeking God’s forgiveness. The temple was destined to be both a house of prayer and a house of imperial power. Our houses of God are not so different, as we create spaces that can provoke violence as well as invoke peace. And so we do well to pray with Solomon, as we continue the ambiguous project of crafting beautiful spaces that allow our spirits to soar, be they structures of cedar or Spanish tile or cinder block, in hopes that these spaces will one day diminish the shooting and slashing that seems to be endemic to our world.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.