Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

Even there your hand shall lead me

Later this summer I will be going on a 10-day canoe-camping trip on the French River. Last summer my friend and I did three nights and four days on a smaller portion of the French; this summer we want to challenge ourselves to do the whole, or at least most, of the river all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Because the challenge is greater, I felt I needed to take a First Aid Course in preparation, so I could be of some use to the company with whom I travel.

I learned some interesting facts about providing First Aid. Did you know that in all of Canada, except Quebec, you and I are not legally obligated to provide First Aid to anyone experiencing a medical emergency? In Quebec, however, we are legally bound to help someone who is in distress. It is, from Quebec’s point of view, a basic human right for any person to receive first aid in an emergency.

In class we discussed reasons why we may choose not to give First Aid: For fear of hurting them more, for fear of harming oneself, and of course for fear of legal repercussions. Our instructor countered this latter objection by reminding us of the “Good Samaritan Act” which governs any attempt in good faith to help someone in an emergency. So, legally, we were off the hook.

But we may still hesitate to take the risk and commit ourselves to helping someone. It would be easier to pretend we didn’t see it, get on with our busy day and avoid the added stress and responsibility.

Every time I read the wonderful story of the so-called “Walk to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35), something else piques my interest and causes me to reflect. I believe there is so much depth to this story while it provides a summary of what we believe as Christians. Particularly, this time, I wondered what Cleopas and his friend had to do with this incredible encounter with Jesus.

It seems they really had nothing to do with making this encounter happen, when Jesus appeared to them on the road that first Easter day. As far as we can tell, they weren’t expecting to meet Jesus let alone praying for it. And, ironically, when they do finally recognize the living Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread, Jesus disappears from their sight! Truly, this event happened to them.

But were they merely passive recipients of this encounter? There is one turning point in the story, where things could have gone one of two opposite directions. Up until that point, they had not yet consciously recognized the man walking with them as Jesus himself. After that point, the table was set — literally — for their full recognition of Jesus.

Had they not invited Jesus to stay with them, for the evening was nigh, they would have missed out on a wonderful conclusion to their day. “Abide with us, for it is evening,” they invited this still stranger to them into their home. They could have chosen to let the man on his way. They could have chosen not to pay attention to their burning hearts. They could have ignored the subtle yet real ‘promptings of the Spirit’ we may call it today, within them.

I learned some thought-provoking statistics on my First Aid course this week. There we were, some twenty-five of us stuffed into a tiny room above a car repair shop in Renfrew. We were from all walks of life. Local businesses paid for their employees to take this course; therefore, my class mates were prompt and motivated to learn their First Aid techniques, principles and procedures. Certificates were issued upon successful completion of two exam periods and practice with bandages, splints and manikins.

Then, our instructor posted these statistics after asking us: Presuming it was done properly, what was the success rate of providing only chest compressions (sets of thirty thrusts downward over the chest) to someone who was unconscious and not breathing? What was the success rate of doing just that? 1.2%.

Without the aid of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), adding ventilation to the chest compressions (pinching the nose and breathing in sets of two into the casualty’s mouth) raises the chance of recovery to only 5%.

I thought to myself: There is hope to humanity! Because it would be easy to just not bother! No wonder we may feel unwilling to commit to providing First Aid to an unconscious stranger on the street! What’s the point of doing that, let alone learning how to do it?! The chances of success are so slim!

And yet, there we were. These classes, I am told, are usually full. Businesses and organizations require their employees who engage with the public to know First Aid. They employ resources to make sure their employees have this training. All this effort for at best a 5% success rate.

But the ethics of it would argue: It is worth trying. Better to do something, than do nothing at all.

Sometimes I wonder whether being the church feels a bit like that. We expect the church to function at a 100% success rate; and when we fail the odd time, well — the church is no good, don’t bother. What is the worth of it all?

People are still bad. Failures in humans abound and seem to persist against all good intentions and efforts to be good. The message of the Gospel doesn’t always seem to make any positive difference in our lives. So, what’s the point?

Driving on Clyde Ave the other day, I noticed the sign outside the Reformed Church that reads: “Growth doesn’t come without change. Change doesn’t come without some risk.”

Following the example of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the only thing we can do, it seems, is learn to pay attention to those rare moments whenever our hearts are burning with love. And then, practice making the invitation in response to that nudging of our hearts and open our lives to those moments when we sense something shift within us. We may not be able to put our finger on it just yet, but respond nonetheless.

And then the rest is up to God. God is free. God enters our lives and walks with us whether we know it or not. God then ‘disappears’ from our awareness whenever God wants. But whether we feel God near or far, God is there. “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

The God of Easter is alive and present with us no matter where on earth we go. This is the good news of the resurrection. God is alive, and so we are called to rise up in renewal and joy. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).

It is worth it. Even though we fail time and time again. There is the hope. There is the promise. There is the opportunity. There is the constant presence of God.