Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 8:54-61) transports me to the Salemtowne Retirement Village in Winston-Salem, where I spent the past few days helping my in-laws downsize in preparation for their move from independent living to assisted living. These are always difficult transitions, so I am grateful for the good spirit Ed and Jean are bringing to the move. Many times the work was punctuated by Ed’s comment that has become a refrain for him – I’ve probably already told you this, but we landed in a great place. Sometimes Kim will ask him what he likes about it, and he’ll talk about the friends, the programs, the food. One time she asked, and he paused a minute before answering with enthusiasm: The carpet! It feels so good on your feet. Sometimes Jean will share and point out various parts of the place she likes as we walk down the halls: the furnishings, the China in a display cabinet, the artwork on the walls, the lighting. She also loves the layout of their apartment space, especially the window out onto the green space of the quad. Every night, the living room becomes for a few moments a sanctuary, a space for their evening devotions. Jean reads a Psalm and a meditation by Martin Marty, and Ed prays a beautiful prayer. Whatever memory challenges he experiences throughout the day, he is able to fully access his core self during these moments of devotion and prayer. It is a beautiful thing to behold.
A big part of my downsizing work this week was going through Ed and Jean’s vast library, culling out what they want to keep in the new setting, and what to do with the rest. At times, I’d get sidetracked reading through something that caught my interest. One example was Paul Tillich’s book, On Art and Architecture. All I can remember from reading Tillich in seminary was his esoteric language defining God as the “ground of being” and religion as “ultimate concern” and his participation in the utopian community of New Harmony. I don’t remember learning how the famous scholar of systematic theology found as much relevance and significance in aesthetics as he did ethics. He had a particular concern and hope that Protestant churches would develop an architectural tradition similar to what the Catholic church had done in building the great cathedrals of Europe. He didn’t want contemporary churches to mimic the past, though. He was highly critical of Riverside Church’s attempts at neo-Gothic architecture; he found the mimicry of earlier periods, Gothic or otherwise, dishonest. Tillich lamented that the Protestant emphasis on the audial (hearing the Word) over visual (beholding the mystery of God’s presence) meant that architecture had been neglected. He hoped for a renewed emphasis on this medium of the grace of God, a medium that would communicate a “sacred emptiness,” a de-cluttering of life that leaves room for the numinous presence of the Holy one.
Tillich’s emphasis on the importance of art and architecture gives me an important balance to the very Protestant-oriented iconoclastic teaching of my religious upbringing. We always poo-pooed the idea of the church being a building, reminding ourselves over and over again that the church was the people, not the steeple. Our arguments over church architecture were limited to questions of comfort (padding on the pews) and style (the color of the carpet). But I do remember a time there in Gashes Creek Baptist when our pastor, Preacher Crayton, was preaching his way through the historical books of the Old Testament, and he spent a lot of time on the building and blessing of Solomon’s temple found in I Kings, chapters 5-8. I don’t remember what his 3 points or his poems were in these I Kings passages, but I do remember taking note of how much holy writ was devoted to details of the temple’s architectural design. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, why God would care so much about a building. I could grasp the end of the passage, after the lengthy description of the temple, and the lengthy prayer of dedication for the sacred space, when Solomon ended it all with a “therefore” statement: therefore, devote yourselves to the Lord. The point of all this attention to sacred space, whether it is a vast temple or a 100-person sanctuary with red carpet and padded pews or a small apartment with a window overlooking green space, is devotion. There is some kind of connection that my Protestant mind hasn’t completely grasped yet, a connection between aesthetics and ethics, between the design of a sanctuary and the devotion to the sacred, but Paul Tillich and my in-laws are helping me come to a deeper understanding of it all.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.