Cathedral Thinking

Some time has passed, and the people prosper in Jerusalem. There is, in a manner of speaking, a housing boom. Thinking of the fine new buildings that are beginning to go up in his fortress city, King David realizes how different they are from the simple tent in which the Ark — the Holy of Holies — is still enshrined.

Surely the time is nigh to build a house fitting for the glory of the God of Israel. And so David makes plans to build a beautiful, large temple. The prophet, Nathan, even encourages David to do what he has ‘in mind’ (2 Samuel 7:3). Nathan affirms David in having a vision. It’s a good and important thing to do. After all, a people without a vision, perish. Right?

Well, for reasons not clear nor explained in black-and-white, Nathan suddenly changes his advice. David is told that he will not live to see the temple built. But rather David’s son will. The glorious vision will not be his to see through. Something is missing?

At the Synod Assembly of our church a couple of weeks ago, the Principal Dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, David Pfrimmer, shared with all delegates the vision of the seminary. He began his report by saying that when he was interviewed for the job some years ago, the committee had asked him: “Why would you want to be Dean of WLS?” And he responded that he didn’t want to be Dean of the Seminary; what he wanted was to help position the seminary so that it would be a viable, growing, institution of learning for the 21st century.

I’ve taken his statement as instructive for leadership in the church today; that is, to take the long view and ask the questions that will get at what it is we are really about as a congregation, to develop a vision that hopes and reaches toward future realities that we face.

Let me illustrate. David Pfrimmer put on the screen some architectural depictions of two new buildings that will soon comprise the seminary campus, and which will cost some $50 million to build. But he framed the vision not around the buildings themselves, but about why they were building them. This is critical.

For example, one of those buildings will be a large, multi-purpose chapel; why? The seminary expects to be the only post-secondary learning institution in Canada that will provide a program in Sacred Music; therefore, a building to meet that vision. Also, a special dormitory/residential building will house graduate students; but their design and features will meet particular needs of a growing characteristic among graduate students on university campuses today — older, single students from abroad who need facilities that provide more than just a bed, a desk, and a shared washroom/kitchen. They need a design that creates and fosters community; therefore, a building to meet that vision.

You see, it’s not building a structure based on assumptions from the past; it is building structures that meets future needs and emerging realities. 

Maybe the Lord had more work to do with David before the temple was ready to be built. Maybe the people still had something to learn about God’s purposes.

The 12th century began a wave of cathedral building throughout Europe. Magnificent large cathedrals were built. These mammoth building projects, without the benefit of modern construction equipment, were a tremendous feat. Cathedral vaults reached heights of 80 to 160 feet. The spires and towers could be twice that height.

Not only did it require vast amounts of material resources; it was a task that would take many years to complete. The average cathedral took 80 years to complete and some took over 200 years of continuous labor. The current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome required 150 years of work to complete by 1656. More so – the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, with its two great bell towers, each bursting more than 500 feet skyward, required 350 years of work spanning six centuries.

It involved a generational effort. The generation that began the cathedral would not live to see it through to completion. The first generation passed on their building skills and in many instances their tools, to the next generation, which did the same to the third generation, so that there was an unbroken continuity in the construction. The first generation hired the architect, who not only designed the building, but also supervised its initial stages of construction.

How did they do it? How could they generate such enthusiasm and commitment and sacrifice, all for the sake of others who would come after them?

After all, the vision of that first generation would only come into reality long after they were gone. They labored in faith, believing that the “seed” they were sowing would ultimately grow to maturity. They passed on the responsibility of the vision to the next generation. They built into their children a reverence for the task, and a sense of meaning and purpose. They imparted to the younger generation a vision that would govern their lives.

Cathedral thinking is about us getting excited about something now that goes beyond our own personal opinions, desires, and preferences. Cathedral thinking is about setting the stage now for what others besides ourselves may enjoy and benefit from. For the sake of something larger than each of us.

Buildings are only shells. What constitutes the inside neds be established and strong before any shell becomes worthwhile. What’s the pointof having a shell if there’s nothing vital on the inside — a purpose, a vision that drives us?

As a church, as a congregation, we do not exist simply to die; rather we exist to live for a very long time. This is the attitude of hope, not defeat; of vision, not tunnel-vision; of embracing fundamentals not debating secondary issues.

Jesus described his own body as the temple (John 2:19-24)). In our liturgies we pray for the “mystical union” we share with all believers in the Body of Christ. We celebrate that truth in the Holy Communion where we affirm our belonging to the Body of Christ, the church. We also pray that in the eating of the bread in this Holy Meal that, as we go from this place today, we may become “bread for the hungry” in the world. As such, our bodies — our very lives — become “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).

The church is first and foremost people, in relationships characterized by the compassion of Christ. Jesus sets the tone for our ministry and vision-making; he is the perfecter of our faith. The Gospel stories suggest that Jesus’ initial motivation, attitude and stance toward others he meets was often, and simply, compassion. From the reading today: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd …” (Mark 6:34)

How does the church practice compassion?

As we worked side-by-side in the lunch club three days this past week in downtown Ottawa (St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Somerset St. West), we met and got to know a few regulars who depend on this vital ministry for their daily nutrition: a young, pregnant, 19-year old woman about whom the staff worry whenever she doesn’t show because of her ocassional plight into addiction; the well-dressed middle-aged man who arrives for the first time at the door to the soup kitchen, and who tells the staff with tears in his eyes that he doesn’t want to be there but that he just lost his job; the volunteer staff person, 85 years old, who celebrates while we’re there, her 21st anniversary of daily coming to help out in that soup kitchen.

These are but a small sampling of people with whom we related and what the confirmation youth from Good Shepherd Barrhaven and Faith Lutheran experienced as the church in mission. I knew what it meant to belong to a church without walls, without borders, in the people-ministry in which we were engaged. The church is people in compassionate mission for others.

We can be assured that the Lord Jesus meets us first with compassion. Not punishment. Not judgment. Not criticism. You’ll notice Jesus is seldom upset with sinners; if anything he is more often upset with those who don’t think they are sinners. Jesus primary stance towards those who are honest with others, is grace and compassion.

And then, Jesus invites us to follow in his way. Our relationship with the Lord then defines our relationship with others. The way God is with us, is the way we are called to be with others.

The big question is: Will we?  Should we have the courage to be, then cathedrals of all kinds will be built the world over for centuries to come. Solo Deo Gloria. Amen.

Herbert O’Driscoll “The Word Among Us” Year B Volume 3, p.56-57

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