Building our Cathedral


Some time ago, I purchased the book Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett after a recommendation from my sister in law.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the book, it is set in 12th century England, in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.     It tells the story of a very poor priory, whose church was built around the skull of a fictional Saint, and had long since fallen into disrepair.  Along comes a master mason named Tom Builder and together they undertaken a 50 process year process of turning that small church into a great cathedral.

The story intertwines actual history of the English Monarchy, the politics and corruption of the church, and the design and devotion that went into the creation of these fantastic cathedrals.      The book is about 1,000 pages long and is immediately followed by a sequel about the same priory 200 years in the future.  The sequel also comes in at 1000 pages.   As far as historical fiction goes, the books are fantastic.

I mention them, because since reading the books, I have been fascinated by the design and symbolism of the cathedral.  I have learned that every cathedral tells a collection of stories.    The cathedral tells the story of the builders, the carpenters, the stone masons, and the priests and peasants who worked to erect it.  

They also tell the story of God.    A life time can be spent studying the architecture and symbolism of the typical cathedral, all of which seems to be so frequently lost to people in our day and age.  For example, if you were to enter the typical medieval cathedral you would do so from the west, because a westward entrance symbolized the gateway to heaven.   Upon entering you would most likely be at the foot of some statute or painting showing the Baptism of Christ.    That statue would remind us of our own baptism or entrance into the family of God.  The cathedral itself would be shaped like a cross.  These are just a little of countless symbols and endless theology that is built into these great churches.

These magnificent buildings were more than just places of worship.   They were connections, or hand holds, between earth and heaven.   They were celebrations of who God is and how he was seen and how he was to be worshipped.    All the town folk, whether they were nobles or the servants at their beck and call, would devote their entire lives and wealth to the building of these great churches.   They would give all they had to ensure that THEIR cathedral was the richest, grandest, and most celebratory of God anywhere.

Mind you, these were not entirely selfless acts.  

The church packaged the giving of gifts, labor, and money to the church as one way to save your eternal soul from hell or to shave off time from the purgatory sentence of a lost loved one.   These indulgences were one of several reasons for the protestant reformation itself.    Despite the disgust that the modern church sees these acts with, in the end, these great structures would never have been built without them.

Along with their grand histories of devotion and celebration of God, each cathedral seems to tell a story of corruption, pain, and extortion as well.    Sometimes these buildings took hundreds of years, thousands of laborers, and endless bargains with God and sometime the devil, before they were completed.     Through it all, those that still stand today are incredible in scope and majesty.  For some the cathedral is merely the Bishop’s seat in a particular region (and that’s more or less exactly what the word “cathedral means) and for others was the very site of all God’s authority, divinity, control, and presence, and that is certainly seen in these buildings.

I find myself knee deep in all this talk about cathedrals because in the midst of my day to day a couple of weeks ago, a few words from a song caught my attention.    I was listening to some bubble gum pop music, not really concerned about what station I was plugged into.   The station was background music to a trip to the hardware store, to the supermarket, and the like.  As I was weaving my way through that to do list; I heard the words -just a snippet of lyrics mind you – from some unknown singer.  In the end, it was a dozen or so words that caught my attention. They were something like this; 

“I kneel with you, and I grab your hand, and together we build our cathedral.”   

As I tossed the words back and forth in my head, I started to think about things a bit differently.   Maybe it was a bit of an epiphany that I received as I drove around greater Keene.    I started to think that perhaps, even today, 1000 years after many of these cathedrals were built that we are still called to be like those stone masons of long ago.    As I thought about it, I realized just how badly and just how frequently we fail.

Without turning this message in to some great liberal tirade or using this moment as a pulpit for my politics, I need to tell you of a moment that occurred this past week.    In the way of some back story, most who know me, know that I am passionate about what I believe.   At the same time, there is a reality that I try to embrace in my conviction; life isn’t black and white, no matter how greatly I want it to be.   If there is one thing that will get me angry quicker than anything else, it is when people in their ignorance or in their egotism tell the world that there is only one way to see the world, one way to embrace the world, and only one way to live in it.

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you might have seen that I have become quite active in several discussion groups built around the United Methodist Church.   As I have said from time to time, for me, Wesleyan theology and United Methodism has always been about serving and celebrating God, not in a black and white world, but in a world that is shades of gray.  I see that as a distinctive piece of who we are.   I see it as part of our heritage.

Yet,  When I found myself face to face with the call of numerous clergy people to embrace some of  most vile  examples of intolerance, arrogance, egotism, homophobia, and exclusion that I have seen, I was left speechless.  Hearing hate packaged in nice pretty boxes all in hope of encouraging a call to some new and improved reformed Methodism, left me so angry I couldn’t sit still.   I found myself asking where is the Grace?   Where is the love?   Where is the Jesus?  

I decided long ago that these people, often the most vocal among us, would not be my voice.  I will not allow this voice to become either mine or the voice of Jesus to others.  At the same time, I learned that responding in anger only served to make both sides look foolish.    As people of faith, we are called to be better.   We are called to respond in better ways that meeting anger and rage with anger and rage.   In response to these conversations, I decided that I needed to meet ignorance and intolerance with grace.    I needed to be a voice of grace rather than a voice of anger.

Speaking up in this manner is not easily.   I got the Italian, Scot, and bit of Irish in me that genetically program a predisposition towards impatience at my core.   It’s not always easy for me to remain calm in the light of those who call themselves Christian but tear out pages of our Bible and ignore them completely.   Over time, my response of choice has been simple:  I remind others that there are many voices in the United Methodist and Christian Church, and we are called not to believe the same things, but to take the journey back towards God together.   We are called not to a foundation in conformity, but towards grace in our diversity.   We are called to be about the business of God, despite our differences whatever they may be.  On that promise of open hearts, open minds, and open doors we build our cathedral.  

As I seem to have posted this sentiment very frequently of late,  I have received a flood of less than friendly emails.   Despite never outlining my own particular theology and rather presenting the potential of the presence of an opposing view, I have received countless emails from many who call themselves United Methodists with the sole purpose of attack.  The accusations are direct and raw.  Some are heartbreaking.

 I have been called a heretic.   I have been called mentally ill, gay, and anti-Christian and anti-Jesus.  I have been told that I have no grasp of reality, I believe in nothing, and that I am leading my ‘flock’ to a fiery eternity in hell.  I have been told by some that it would be a cold day in hell, before they would allow someone like me in their church.  

In the end, it is not only discouraging but forces me to ask just on what foundations do angry Christian builds their cathedrals.

I am thankful that the air of intolerance is not great through the New England region.   Although some of the emails I have received have been from people I know and just down the road, we are seen  in New England as not only unlocking our doors for our community, but swinging those doors wide open, and standing right there with a hug for anyone who seeks us out.   Truth be told, most of the email I have received have been from folks in Alabama, Texas, Georgia and places well south of where we stand.   I guess those few emails that come from this part of the country are the very reason why none of us can or should remain silent about what we believe.  The breeding ground of intolerance, anger, hate, and exclusion is our own backyard.

 It doesn’t matter if you buy my theology or my politics, it matters if yours never comes out.   We can disagree on everything, from theology to the Red Sox, but there are ways to do that with Grace and Love.   I believe that as we build our church into a place where we can chose to be in loving conversation with each other, despite our differences, we are moving from that small church towards establishing ourselves as a cathedral.

On that note, I would like to share a letter that I received just a  few days ago.

Dear Pastor Scott,

I am a candidate for ministry in the Northwest Texas Annual Conference*, since my graduation from seminary in 2005.   I too attended Asbury Seminary.     I am not sure how to clearly express my thoughts, but I want to express my thanksgiving to you, and your comments.

Almost a decade ago, my brother came out of the closet.  Although part of me knew it for many years, I don’t think I wanted to admit it.    My parents shut him off completely, and only recently have I come to understand who he is, and the great difficulty that he has had coming to grips with whom he is.  It makes me very sad to think how much more difficult I made it for him.

I am embarrassed to admit that I held some rather broken views on this position.    I also admit that I am unsure of where I stand today on the issue.    I struggle with following what my peers say, in light of who I know my brother to be.    My brother holds himself with more Grace than anyone I have ever met, and seems to want nothing but to express love and compassion for others.    How can I tell him that I have to hate such a giant part of who he is?

As I struggle to understand these things there is one truth that I must admit.   I am filled with an overwhelming sense of shame.   I feel ashamed that as I move forward in the ministry that I have to do so at the expense of a piece of my soul.   I know that I will never be freely able to express my concerns, doubts, fears, and struggles where I serve, as the sentiment is so strongly against anything but a traditional line of thinking.    I am ashamed that I have made a choice that involves following God at the expense of fully loving my brother.

I thank you for finding the words, and perhaps the courage, to say what I want to scream out but am too cowardly to do.

You are in my prayers, and I hope someday, we will all feel free enough to speak freely, and from our hearts.

Your Brother in Service,

Pastor “JOHN DOE”

 

I think about his letter, and I am uncertain.   On the surface, I feel thankful for the encouragement.   I am afraid that I am saying stuff that will someday come back to haunt me or my career in the church, and as such, I do so with great hesitation.  The encouragement is a bit of fuel for my fire.   

At the same time, I see the hesitation that has silenced this one pastor, and future leader of our church.    I can’t help but ask when his time will come to speak up.   When will he choose to be a different voice?   Will he get lost in the system and the red tape before he ever finds a voice?  

How is his silence building this cathedral?

In his words, I find my heart a bit broken too.   

Our God loves us with unconditional, undeserved, and unreserved love.    Why are we so insistent of living in such fear of him?    Are we so afraid of being bolder and more innovative in our faith and what this great tyrant in the sky might say, that we become eager to embrace whatever set of rules that the loudest among us throw our way?    I can’t help but believe in the very disturbing reality that Jesus came to us 2000 years ago, and ever since we have been trying to replace his freedom with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that he corrected.

Look around at where you sit on Sunday.   Some might describe their surroundings in very crisp and clear terms.   I sit in a wooden/stone/brick church.   Its small/large/medium.   There are some crosses, some pews, and some hymnals.   

Today, I pray you see beyond that.   Today, I remind you that you are the stone masons, the laborers, the nobility, the priests of a new generation.   You are a new generation of cathedral builders.  We kneel together, we grab each other’ hands, and together we are building a cathedral.

In the end, despite the symbols, traditions, art, and stone of this place…the only cathedral that is pleasing to God is the one that provides us the path back to him.    The tools to build this cathedral are Grace, Hope, Joy, and Love.   

I pray that each of us will not only find our voice, find our gifts, find our passion, but encourage it in others.

(EVEN IF,…OR ESPECIALLY IF… IT IS DIFFERENT FROM OUR OWN!!!)  

In the end, if  the church isn’t a place to share our doubts, our hopes, our dreams, our fears and our faith, (even if yours truly thinks you might be wrong) it will remain nothing but a small, work in progress, that stands but misses the point.

I say let us build the cathedral.  

 

(The Pic is from Ken Follett’s website at http://www.ken-follett.com/pote/illustrations.html)
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